New Browns CEO Joe Banner began working at the team’s headquarters Oct. 31 and attended its 25-15 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium. In an interview today with the Beacon Journal, Banner addressed a number of topics, including personnel decisions, his philosophies on running a franchise and stadium enhancements.
Here are some of the highlights from the discussion with Banner, the former president of the Philadelphia Eagles:
Q: Has the enormity of the challenge sunk in during your first week on the job?
A: “It’s both sides. There is a huge challenge here. I consider that kind of good news because that’s what I thrive on. But I’ve confirmed what I knew. I was at the game on Sunday. It’s the first game I’ve been at. The team is 2-6, gets off to a bad start and the crowd is still rabid and loud and positive. That’s everything you hear about it before you come here. I’ve gotten lots of e-mails from fans kind of greeting me. I’ve been involved on the edge of a few the events we’re doing just to see. People don’t realize a part of the fun of working for one of the teams is all the energy and passion from the outside coming toward the team. So you hear about it and you kind of know that’s the reputation. You can see some stats on attendance or something. But getting here and feeling it is a whole other experience. That’s been really fun. I just know that if we can do the right things to get the team on track it’s just gonna be an amazing ride for everybody. That’s the good part. And I do feel like there’s confirmation that the team has made good moves and is on the right track and I think everybody also realizes has a ways to go. But the beginning of a foundation to build off of is certainly here. So those are really the two most important things and, in my mind, they’re both positives. Day-to-day work there’s a lot to do here. Some of it is just different ways I approach things that I want to convert us to. It’s not like they were wrong and I’m right or anything. It’s just different. And some of the things I do think that we can do even better or have a bigger awareness of. So that parts a very big job.”
Q: You and owner Jimmy Haslam have said you’ll wait until the end of the season to evaluate coaching staff and front office and make personnel decisions. With the team’s record 2-7 at the bye, does that plan still stand?
A: “Yeah. I mean obviously we’re watching and our opinions are kind of moving forward in terms of having more knowledge to contribute to them. But we’re gonna sit down together at the end of the season and that’s when we’ll decide what we think we need to do to be who we want to be, frankly, down the road.”
Q: What will you ultimately weigh when facing those decisions?
A: “I think the question is fairly simple. I think the answer is hard. But I think the question is fairly simple. We want to put together an organization in every way that’s capable of working at a championship level. That doesn’t mean you win the championship every year. We know that’s not gonna happen. So evaluating who is here who can perform to that level – football-wise, non-football-wise, it could be charity-wise, it could be marketing-wise. But really evaluating as we look to the future. So we’re not evaluating the moment. We’re not stuck on exactly how many games we win between now and then. We’re wanting to see the qualities and the decision making at any level of the organization that we think says that person or that group two years from now as we implement our systems, our culture can function at a championship-caliber level. So that question we think is very easy, very clear to us. Now the answer and the evaluation, we’re luck to have some time, but it’s a relatively short time to make major, important decisions. It’s very hard. So hopefully we’ll get it right. We’re gonna try to be objective. We’re gonna be thorough. By having each other, we kind of have a sounding board to increase the chances that we’re not missing something, that we’re thinking about it the right way. But it’s gonna be hard. We’re not gonna get all of them – I’ll tell you that ahead of time. But hopefully we get the most important ones right and we have a decent batting average.”
Q: Most people assume coach Pat Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert will be gone after this season. Is that fair?
A: “I’m aware of the perception, and it’s not fair. We’re gonna make an objective evaluation. The outcome is not predetermined. I’m aware that the perception is out there. I can’t tell you that’s not a possible outcome. But anybody thinking that that’s a predetermined outcome is on the wrong track.”
Q: Wins and losses obviously matter, but how do you evaluate the big picture when it comes to Shurmur and Heckert?
A: “First of all, it’s two separate answers. So you have a sense of what is it in the most successful coaches currently and historically – what are the qualities about them? How do they lead? How do they think? How do they strategize? What kinds of players do they like? Do players grow under them? What’s the quality of their staff? So it’s a lot of things you can look at if you look at past successful coaches to see, ‘OK, in a head coach, this is generically, what am I looking for to find somebody who’s really good?’ And then as you watch somebody like Pat in the role, you make a determination in terms of those key qualities, so to speak, how is he? And it’s a separate set of characteristics, but you’ve got a similar thing with Tom. What are the characteristics you think you’ve seen in general managers who have contributed to building championship-caliber teams. And again, player evaluation is important, but it isn’t the only thing. So then you evaluate him on what you consider kind of those key criteria. And hopefully we have the right key criteria and then we evaluate them correctly as it relates to those criteria.”
Q: What do you consider the key criteria for a general manager?
A: “Well, I mean it’s things like I just mentioned in a head coach. Even a layman, if you looked at the really successful head coaches, you would say they were extremely strong leaders for example. You’d say they have hired very, very good staffs, and they’ve managed those staffs very well. They’re extremely hard workers themselves, not just the people are them. They tend to have strong conviction about their philosophies. Sometimes they get accused of being stubborn, but I actually welcome people that have thought it through and have strong convictions about what they do. Those are just some anecdotal examples, but it’s those kinds of things. They’re not deeply studied, frankly. Most fans who watch the NFL, if you say to them, name the three or four coaches over the last 10 years you think have been most successful and tell me what you think their characteristics are, they’d be similar to the things I just rattled off.”
Q: Are Shurmur and Heckert a package deal?
A: “No. There are things about them that you need to evaluate together. There are things about them that you need to evaluate together ‘cause none of us were in the room to know who was for or against what decisions. And then there are independent aspects of different qualities you’re looking for in the positions because they’re two different positions. In one, for example, leadership is a much more important element. Leadership matters in both positions, but in one position, it’s much more important than the other. So there are aspects of it in which they are linked, so to speak, and there are aspects in which you’ll do a very independent analysis.”
Q: There’s a perception that you were OK with Heckert leaving the Eagles to become general manager of the Browns and that your relationship with him wasn’t great. Can you address that?
A: “The second part is false. I’ve always had a very good relationship with Tom. I still have a very good relationship with Tom. I like him as a person. I respect him professionally. As far as I know, that’s mutual. Tom’s leaving the Eagles was a little bit similar to my leaving the Eagles. He reached a point where he was looking for something different. In his case, it was more authority. In my case, it was kind of a new challenge. The organization was lucky enough to have some very good people in place. So when he expressed that interest and had an opportunity, the organization, including myself, was fine supporting him leaving and taking that opportunity and felt the organization was still in good hands. When I had the same interest and the organization had, in that case, Howie Roseman and Don Smolenski to kind of split the job that I had and kind of take it over. The organization was supportive of my interest in pursuing something like this. So there was nothing negative in either my or Tom’s departure from the Eagles. It was more a reflection of our desires and the organization being well structured and having a lot of levels of quality people that left it OK for that kind of move. So in that sense, I was OK with it because it was what Tom wanted and we were in good shape in terms of replacing him. But I’ve always had a very good relationship with Tom and we like each other. That hasn’t been different and isn’t different here.”
Q: Can you outline your vision for your role in football and roster decisions and your philosophy for how the organization should make those types of decisions?
A: “Well, my philosophy is kind of simple. If you put a group of smart, knowledgeable people in a room -- and a number of them, not one or two, but in this kind of a case, probably four or five – you create an environment where everybody feels free and safe to express their point of view and if need be argue or debate opinions, you increase the chances of getting a higher percentage of the decisions right by having that quality of intelligence, that number of people and an open dialogue and debate to come to conclusion. You want to create consensus, which -- I’ve been in this league a long time -- you can do almost all the time. I know the public is skeptical of that, but that’s really the reality. Because then you have everybody pulling in the same direction and make sure it’s the right decision. My history is we rarely do things which we don’t have consensus. There are too many things that you can get consensus about to go do the thing that maybe half or you or for and half of you are against. So that’s what I’m used to doing. Whether it’s a business decision or a football decision, I think that’s how you make smart decisions. I don’t care, it could be politics, whatever it is, get a group of smart people together, get all the information, have a good, honest, open dialogue where everybody feels safe saying what they think and then making a decision about which there’s a consensus, so everybody’s motivated to make it work. That’s what I’m used to. That’s how we’ll make decisions here in all areas of running the Browns, and I think that will lead us to having a good batting average. That does not mean that we’ll get them all right. The best teams in the league in the draft are hitting 50 percent of the time. This is a business by it’s very nature in which you’re gonna have a fair number of mistakes for people to point at if they want to. But what you want to do is maximize your chance of getting it right. I think philosophically that’s what we’re gonna do here, and that’s what gives you your best chance.”
Q: Would you prefer the coach or the general manager to have final say on roster decisions or do you not have a preference?
A: “I think it relates to the people. I do think when you get to the 53-man roster, who’s dressing each week, who’s playing, you certainly want to give the coach an awful lot of freedom. Whatever he me contractually have, I think when you get down to that level, I think you really want to have the coach either deciding or having an overwhelming influence over it. But if you had somebody in personnel that was particularly strong and a coach was comfortable with that, you don’t have to etch that in stone. You can kind of wait and see people’s strengths and weaknesses, but I go in with a slight bias that the coach has to play a big role on those things.”
Q: Jason La Canfora of CBS reported the Browns are considering hiring NFL Network’s Mike Lombardi to help with personnel. Can you comment?
A: “Well, since I haven’t even decided whether the people that are here are staying or going, I think speculation that I’m actually deciding or have decided who I’d bring in if we made a chance is not right. And then getting into comments about who we would be looking at if we made a change when we haven’t made a decision whether to make a chance is not anything I’d engage in.”
Q: How do you view the roster?
A: “I think there’s a foundation in place to move forward. I think there’s some good, young players here. I do think there’s a ways to go in terms of starting to talk about winning the division, advancing through the playoffs, winning championships. There are young players we need to take time to see what they’re gonna be. We have a projection but you don’t know. But I’ve seen people take over a franchise in which you looked at the roster and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God. There’s nothing here to build on.’ This is not the case here. Exactly how many of those players we can build on, exactly how good some of the younger players are gonna be, some of that we have to project, some of that time will tell. But this is certainly not one of those situations where you look at the roster and you’re kind of like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m just starting from scratch here. Or what am I gonna do and how long is this gonna take?’ There’s clearly a foundation of players that you can start to add to and move forward from as opposed to needing to get to begin with.”
Q: You’ve said you needed to learn about the game experience at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Is there anything that stuck in your mind when you were there Sunday that made you say, “Wow, we should do this. We need to look at this.”
A: “Well, it’s more of the latter. I can’t get to the point that quickly with what we need to do. I don’t think I’m telling anybody anything they don’t know that there were longer lines at the concession stands than ideally we’d like to have there be. We’ll probably increase some of the varieties of food options. I think there’s some pedestrian and car traffic issues that we can enhance to help people get in and out of the building faster. I know we’re gonna do an evaluation of the number of gates and the opportunity there to maybe streamline lines. These are just headlines of things we’re gonna work on. I don’t want anybody that in a couple of games at the end of the season that a whole lots gonna happen. But you’re starting to make observations of things you want to assign people to study deeper or in the offseason, we’ll have to get into. So there are very basic experiential issues. Once you get past satisfying kind of the base issues -- clean bathrooms, reasonable food choices, reasonable length of line. It’s a football stadium. There’s gonna be a line. We want to try to mitigate it as much as we can. Then I think you just get into the on-field aspect of the fans’ experience. So is the scoreboard as interesting and compelling as it can be? Are we showing other game scores often enough? For people who play fantasy football often enough, are we putting that information up often enough. About our own game, down and distance and who made the tackle and how many yards has [Trent] Richardson run for so far in the game. Is that kind of information readily available? Is it a consistent place that people can get used to? Is the security staff well trained? Are the guest-services people friendly and knowledgeable enough to help people when they need it? I think there’s questions that we want to look at and figure out how can we get even better in every single one of those areas. I hope by the beginning of next season, people aren’t gonna walk in and have some radical [change in experience], but I hope at least people are at least feeling some change and attention to some details and some of he experiential things that enhance their experience. I didn’t have an experience that makes me feel to the contrary, but I want people to feel that the stadium is incredibly clean and comfortable to them. Some stadiums you go into and it just doesn’t have that kind of air about them. To me, it’s really important that people come, if people want to bring their kids that they feel like it’s a comfortable place to come, it’s a safe place to come, they can take them to the bathroom, they can get them something to eat. So those are the kind of things that we’re gonna look at to start and then make some improvements and then grow from there.”
Q: Haslam said architects would be brought in to evaluate the possibility of a retractable roof, changing the scoreboards and other potential stadium enhancements. Has that happened yet?
A: “No. We’ve started to have a few conversations with the architects about what we’re thinking and that we’d like to bring them in and have to find a free time kind of a thing. But we have not actually had meetings with anybody yet.”
Q: What are your thoughts on those possible enhancements like a retractable roof and scoreboards?
A: “It’s hard for me to evaluate any particular option. A scoreboard is a very complicated thing to evaluate and an extremely expensive option to look at the pros and cons and things that could justify that cost. I mean I’m kind of inherently, personally, an old-fashioned you know play-the-game-outdoors-and-deal-with-it person. But there may be some rationale, so we’re gonna have a full menu and frankly look at the thing from scratch on all aspects. Now clearly in the area of technology as it relates to scoreboards and sound systems, things have advanced so far from when these systems came from. I don’t want to prejudge anything, but it’s inconceivable we won’t be making some very dramatic changes there. But we’re gonna go into the thing with kind of a wide open menu of what kind of things could we do to make this better, enhance the experience, modernize it? I don’t mean that in kind of a look way. It’s more of a technology and sound when I say that.”
Q: The scoreboards that feature high-definition screens make quite a difference.
A: “Yeah, I think that if you’ve only experienced a game in a stadium that only has the older scoreboard and you haven’t seen this HD technology or the sound systems that come with them, you really can’t appreciate it. It’s like your TV at home. If you put the old TV next to the HD TV, then you go, ‘Wow, that’s a huge difference.’ If you just have the old TV and you’ve never seen HD, you don’t really appreciate how much the enhancements are. So those are the kinds of things that are kind of at the top of the list of things we’re likely to do.”
Q: What about the stadium’s lack of wireless Internet access? It’s a complaint among many fans.
A: “Yeah, same thing. It’s a complicated issue on how to fix it, not in the sense if you just wanted to do something better than we have at the moment. Easy to do. It’s just a matter of taking the time to do it and investing in it. What’s harder to do is where are things gonna be three, five and eight years from now so we actually create a Wi-Fi solution that has the ability to be long term? But, absolutely, we’re aware of it. I’m sure it’ll be part of our moving forward. You can’t run kind of a modern, full, in-person sports experience without those kinds of things being part of the building. We’ll have Wi-Fi in the building. Now will we have it by next year, meaning 2013? I hope so. It depends upon how it fits into the more comprehensive changes. But there’s no question that in the relatively near future – if you give me a little liberalization on that timing – we won’t go on without a Wi-Fi building for much longer. But those are the kinds of things I’m talking about when I talk about fan experience. In 2012, we should have a Wi-Fi building. But it may take a year to get there, or we may have it by next season.”
Q: Not only did you push to have a new stadium built for the Eagles, but you also drove the deal to get a new practice facility. What do you think of the Browns’ headquarters in Berea?
A: “I think it’s a good place. I think it’s like what I’m saying in general: As technology changes and philosophies about management and leadership change, if I was starting from scratch, there are some things I’d do differently. But what you really want is a building that’s conducive to people being able to work together, feel like they’re in it together, have an environment that supports the notion that we’re trying to be the best, have your players feel like whether it’s the training space, the weight room, the fields that you’re giving them the chance to grow to develop, to be the best they can be. In that sense, this place [the team’s headquarters] is outstanding. The stadium has more variation from if you were starting from scratch what you’d like to see than what you have, and trying to figure out what to do about that will be one of our big challenges and frankly, from a long-term perspective, is one of the most important issues the organization has to deal with. You want from a player, from a fan, from a business, from a community-relations perspective, to have a stadium that gives us the opportunity to do everything the best it can be and to do so going forward, not just in the moment. We’ll have to figure that out.”
Q: Is it fair to say you’re in the phase of determining which facets of the organization will change and how drastic those changes will be?
A: “My first evaluation is really just people. What’s the right organizational chart? Who are the people who that fit into it properly? I know the public’s focus is football, and it obviously includes football, but it really is the whole organization. Where do we have the right people to kind of plug there to be performing at the level we want to be in a year, two, three years? And where don’t we? Where do we have good people but we need more people? Are there people here that are not in the best department to take advantage of what we want to do and what their strengths are? That’s really almost all of my time the first couple of months. Other than just what absolutely has to be done day-to-day or answers or directions people need, that’s really what I’m spending all my time on.”