BEREA: As he left the field on the last day of mandatory minicamp for Browns’ veterans, defensive lineman Billy Winn let loose with a couple bars of Leaving on a Jet Plane.
Winn may not have been the only one singing a happy tune as he departed. The atmosphere was upbeat, the mood optimistic. There has been much to like about the 2013 Browns this spring.
Starting quarterback Brandon Weeden threw darts and seemed to be grasping the new offense, although first-year coach Rob Chudzinski said he hasn’t been perfect. Top draft pick Barkevious Mingo looked relentless batting down passes. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard’s transition to outside linebacker appeared virtually seamless. Fourth-year cornerback Joe Haden made plays on a daily basis like a Pro Bowler, which everyone thought he would be long ago. The tempo picked up offensively; even the two-minute drill felt faster.
Players who thought former coach Eric Mangini was a detail fanatic have seen this regime go him one better. Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson pointed out the equipment he was wearing — wires visible underneath his white jersey — that measures how much he’s running.
“It measures everything,” Jackson said. “You feel like the organization is backing you as a player because they want a better brand of football. They’ll get it, as hard as we’re working so far.”
But there was still an elephant in the fieldhouse. That is the federal investigation into possible rebate fraud by Pilot Flying J, the family-owned truck stop business headed by Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.
While the NFL begins its quiet time until training camps open, with the Browns holding their first full-squad practice on July 25, there might be little news. But the specter of possible Pilot Flying J indictments loom, even though the government might not move quickly as it builds its case.
Haslam did not attend practice Thursday, but he and his father, Jim, were on the field for Wednesday’s drills, held in brilliant sunshine.
Wearing a pale orange dress shirt and gray slacks, Jimmy Haslam’s recent weight loss was not as evident as the day in May he showed up for organized team activities in tight jeans. That afternoon, the strain on Haslam seemed noticeable.
When his trim physique came up at the press conference announcing Jim Brown’s return to the Browns, Haslam said his wife, Dee, had him on a strict diet and exercise routine. But Haslam was disciplined about working out before the federal raid on his corporate headquarters in Knoxville.
At his press conference, Brown was asked how he felt about rejoining the Browns when the Pilot Flying J investigation was hanging over the organization. The change in Haslam’s body language was visible, as if he hated the subject encroaching on Brown’s big day.
But to Browns players, Haslam’s problems might not feel like a black cloud.
“If it wasn’t the Cleveland Browns I would say no,” Jackson said. “I tell you what, there’s always something lingering somewhere.
“It’s so far over our heads right now, we’re so focused on what we’re doing and trying to get used to new coaches and building rapport with new players, we’ve got our own work cut out.”
Those who might be most affected are the coaches, especially Chudzinski. He could fear that if Haslam is indicted, NFL owners could force Haslam to sell the team, putting Chudzinski’s tenure in jeopardy if there is more change at the top. He could wonder if he will be able to finish what he’s starting.
“You know what solves that? Winning,” Jackson said.
Jackson is correct on that point. If the Browns succeed and Chudzinski proves he’s a capable coach after four seasons and five games as an NFL offensive coordinator, he’ll have a future. Jackson said he’s seen no evidence of anything worrying Chudzinski, whom he knows from the coach’s first stint with the Browns in 2007-08.
Players headed to the airport excited about their coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive coordinator Ray Horton, whom Jackson called “a head coach in waiting.” At the moment, Haslam’s legal woes don’t seem to be putting a damper on the atmosphere in Berea.
“We have a pretty good staff, better than most teams out here,” Jackson said. “You see it on the field, you see it in the style of coaching, how practice is being run, having fun in meetings. There’s a different vibe. I know I say it every year, but you feel like it’s a solid staff because you feel like no one’s going to be out of here next year, it’s going to be intact for a while. And we’ve got a good, solid group of guys to build a base from and just add pieces to the puzzle.”
Playing for his fourth coach in eight seasons, Jackson yearns for stability. With Chudzinski, Turner and Horton, it feels as if the Browns are finally catching up with the rest of the league. So it’s no wonder Jackson hopes the Browns’ charismatic owner can weather this crisis. On the field, the vibe is too intoxicating to ignore.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.