BEREA: As CEO Joe Banner guided reporters on a tour of the Browns’ renovated headquarters Aug. 19, assistant general manager Ray Farmer quietly told him another team wanted to know if they would be interested in a deal.
The scene subtly unfolded as media members shuffled out of the franchise’s draft room, where Banner had escorted them for a rare behind-the-scenes look and where Farmer and General Manager Mike Lombardi were watching film together.
Banner told Farmer to find out what the inquiring party would want in return, and the Browns traded defensive end Brian Sanford to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for guard John Moffitt hours later. The swap was ultimately voided because the Browns had concerns about Moffitt’s health after examining him.
But the point, for anyone who doesn’t know, is that Banner is running the show in Berea. He stresses the importance of collaborative decision making with the personnel chiefs and first-year head coach Rob Chudzinski. Still, the bottom line is that Banner’s fingerprints are on all aspects of the organization — football and business — as it heads into its 2013 regular-season opener against the Miami Dolphins at 1 p.m. today at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“I’m the CEO, so they do report to me,” Banner said Tuesday during an interview in his office with the Beacon Journal. “So I think that’s what you’re seeing. But what I’ve always done and what I believe in is collaboration. So I’ll never use the term that somebody ‘works for me.’ We work together. We work with each other. Chud and I work with each other. Me and Mike and Ray work with each other.
“I have no problem saying, ‘If there’s a criticism of the coach, I picked him, so if you want to criticize me, I have no problem being held accountable for that.’ I either help or pick the people that work in the personnel department. I pick the people at the top of the personnel department and then we work together. So if that area is not making good decisions whether I’m actually executing the final decision or not, I’m perfectly comfortable saying, ‘Hold me accountable.’ I also hope that if it goes well that somebody says, ‘Oh, he got that right, too.’ ”
The Browns haven’t gotten much right since their expansion era kicked off in 1999. Perpetual turnover in the front office and coaching ranks has resulted in just two winning seasons and one playoff appearance since the team’s rebirth. They finished last year with a record of 5-11, their fifth consecutive season with double-digit losses.
Now Banner is the leader of the latest regime vowing to spearhead a turnaround. While discussing the state of the team and the obstacles in its path, the former president of the Philadelphia Eagles acknowledged that his mission isn’t going to be easy.
Trouble at the top
Owner Jimmy Haslam seemingly infused optimism into a depressed fan base when he struck a deal in August 2012 to buy the Browns from Randy Lerner for about $1 billion. Haslam named Banner his CEO in October, and the two fired ex-Browns coach Pat Shurmur and former Browns General Manager Tom Heckert the day after last season ended. Banner took heat from the public for hiring Lombardi, a sidekick of coach Bill Belichick during his days with the Browns, though bringing in Chudzinski, offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive coordinator Ray Horton received rave reviews for the most part.
However, the energy produced by Haslam’s arrival dissipated when the FBI and Internal Revenue Service raided the headquarters of his family’s truck-stop empire, Pilot Flying J, in April as part of an ongoing criminal probe into a fuel rebate fraud scheme. Seven former employees have since pleaded guilty to federal charges. Meanwhile, Haslam, the CEO of Pilot Flying J who has repeatedly denied prior knowledge of the fraud, is facing several civil lawsuits.
The threats of an indictment and drained finances create concern about the stability of Haslam’s ownership. Last month, SportsBusiness Journal reported that if Haslam eventually relinquishes control as owner, his father, Jim Haslam II, would take over the team.
Banner declined to comment specifically on the report. Instead, he addressed the topic by referring to a statement Haslam made July 25 when training camp opened.
“Jimmy’s been really public in saying that his family’s going to own this team for a very long time,” Banner said. “And I think people should trust that.”
In the meantime, Banner insisted that it’s still business as usual for the Browns.
“The organization is completely unaffected by this other than we know [Haslam] and his family and we care about them, and it’s a tough thing for him to go through,” Banner said. “And we have the appropriate emotional feelings about somebody you care about going through something that’s difficult.”
Most vital position
Regardless of Haslam’s legal woes, the Browns won’t achieve their goal of building a consistent winner until they find a franchise quarterback. After earning the right to retain the starting job, Brandon Weeden hopes to prove he can be the long-term solution.
The previous regime drafted Weeden 22nd overall last year. The Browns traded picks this year in the fourth and fifth rounds for selections in the third and fourth rounds next year, so they’ll have ammo to maneuver and nab a quarterback if they deem it necessary.
In other words, all signs point to Weeden entering a make-or-break, one-year trial, though Banner resisted the label.
“It’s unfair to say that directly because it creates an unfair pressure,” Banner said. “Every player who’s in his first, second or third year needs to be improving and making progress in order for the organization to continue to kind of stick with them as opposed to try to see if they’re good enough to get to where the team wants them to go. Brandon’s got that same type of inherent pressure that everybody does who’s still early in their career.
“I don’t want to overstate and it wouldn’t be fair to understate it. It would just be kind of not being honest if I claimed there wasn’t a degree of pressure. But I don’t want to make it seem completely black and white, either. You could do well and make progress and continue to go forward. You don’t have to go out and have the highest quarterback rating in the league in year two of his career. But you do want to see progress from all of your players. In their first, second, through their third year, you do look for that.”
Weeden, however, is not a typical second-year pro because he’ll turn 30 on Oct. 14. He spent five seasons in minor-league baseball before starring as a quarterback at Oklahoma State University.
“If he’s good, he’s probably playing for four, five, six more years, and the worst problem we could have is he’s good and he’s old,” Banner said. “We can live with that. I’m not sure at this point at 30 you call a quarterback old. There’s some positions where at 30, you may want to say they’re old, but I don’t think that fits a quarterback. So I don’t think we’re worried about the age element of this. That will take care of itself. He’s going to have plenty of years left to play, even at that age, at that position.”
Banner insisted the new regime has Weeden’s back heading into this season.
“He came in here through the spring and worked hard,” Banner said. “He was really determined to earn the job. He did everything you could ask him to do. There’s no question he’s improved. Now we’re going to play real games, but the progress and the work and his standing up and competing and the burning drive to win the job has everybody behind him and excited about him.”
Banner described the hiring of Chudzinski, Turner, Horton and the rest of the new coaching staff as “the most important and the proudest thing we’ve done so far.”
But do the coaches have the roster they need to succeed?
“It takes some time, in our opinion, based on where we were at when we got here to finish completing a roster of strong starters at every position,” Banner said. “You don’t have to have a difference maker at every position, but you can’t have any weaknesses.
“And then frankly to build up the rest of the depth of the roster is something that takes a little bit of time. So, in the meantime, we have some holes. You do have some depth concerns because as your building the team, the last thing, frankly, you get done, is building up the depth.”
In their first draft with Banner and Co., the Browns picked only five players after trading choices in the fourth and fifth rounds. None of them, including outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, the sixth overall selection, is an immediate starter.
“I think it’s going to end up proving to be good both in terms of who we picked and the strategy of pushing some of those picks forward,” Banner said. “So in terms of the plans we have to build the team, I think it went very well. I understand that we didn’t add as many players as we could’ve in the short term, and there’s a valid argument whether that was good or bad. I don’t think that’s an invalid debate or if some people have it as criticism. It’s not black or white. Time may prove we did the right thing or not. But I think in terms of the plan we have, it was a good thing to do and will prove both what ended up coming out of this year’s draft and what we’ll be able to do by doing what we did to fit the plan and help us.”
Banner also defended the choice to dump veterans with starting experience, including wide receiver David Nelson, tight end Kellen Davis and running back Brandon Jackson, and stockpile undrafted rookies during roster cuts last weekend. The Browns have eight undrafted rookies on their 53-man roster.
“Winning teams develop players,” Banner said. “They just don’t pick guys in the first round. You get one pick a year in the first round. You have to develop other players. So if some of those players come through, it will really help accelerate the building of whether it’s depth or if we’re lucky enough to find any starters out of a category like that.”
No one knows exactly how all of the decisions will translate to wins and losses this season, but Banner believes progress will be evident.
“I do feel confident that the level of talent has increased and [that fans are] going to see a style of play and just an organized team, an effort, a physical [style] that will feel to people, ‘OK, you know what? This is what we want to see to feel good about where we’re headed,’” Banner said.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.