As Jimmy Haslam kicked back in a chair at the swank Arizona Biltmore hotel last week during the NFL owners meeting, he oozed confidence while declaring the Browns have successfully executed their offseason plans thus far.
But he also remained realistic and brutally honest about his new team. He warned a group of local reporters that the organization’s work is far from done.
“We’ve won 23 games in the last five years, won 14 games in the last three, so we’re not going to go 13-3 next year,” said Haslam, who struck a deal last summer to buy the Browns from Randy Lerner for about $1 billion. “I think what I’ve stated back to Aug. 3 [during my introductory news conference] is we’re going to do this the right way. We didn’t spend all our money in free agency this year.
“We’re going to be very disciplined and fill gaps as they’re needed. Hopefully, we’ll have a good draft, and now that free agency is almost over — it’s not completely over — we can look at the draft and what we can do there. We have six picks, so that’s a little bit of negative, but we have to do the best we can.”
The Browns, who went 5-11 last season, entered free agency with about $47.5 million in salary-cap space, most in the league. They have landed six players since the signing period began March 12: outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves, defensive end Desmond Bryant, cornerback Chris Owens and tight ends Kellen Davis and Gary Barnidge. They also re-signed reserve running back Chris Ogbonnaya.
As Haslam promised before the Super Bowl, the team didn’t really make any “splashy moves,” though several areas of need were addressed. The front seven of new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4 multifront scheme received the most attention.
“We set out early strategically to build both lines,” Haslam said. “I think we inherited a good offensive line, and I think we’ve put in place the makings of potentially a very good defensive line in terms of quantity and quality. I think it’s all about protecting the passer and putting pressure on the passer. I think between Ray’s basic modus operandi and how he attacks and the people we put in place, I think we’ll have an exciting fun-to-watch defense that will hopefully get after people.”
The Browns aren’t done exploring the market, either. Free-agent outside linebacker Victor Butler, who spent the past four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, is scheduled to visit Cleveland today and Monday, a league source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the Browns don’t publicize such visits beforehand. Free-agent cornerback Brent Grimes, who spent the past six seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, visited the Browns on March 16 and remains a possibility.
Reports have linked the Browns to free-agent quarterback Jason Campbell, a backup for the Chicago Bears last season. Before the Super Bowl, Haslam made headlines when he said the organization would hold a quarterback competition. However, it has yet to add someone to challenge incumbent starter Brandon Weeden.
The Browns have the sixth overall pick in next month’s draft and will conduct a private workout with West Virginia University’s Geno Smith, the top-rated quarterback in this year’s class. Still, CEO Joe Banner reiterated last week that picking a quarterback early “isn’t a focus of what our plan will be.”
When asked about the quarterback situation, Haslam said, “I think you can have internal competition and you can have external competition.”
He also believes the coaches would be fine with Weeden if he holds onto the starting job.
“I think they think the offense they’ll run fits our quarterback’s skill set and there’s potential there,” Haslam said. “They’re optimistic we can put points on the board.”
Although the new regime has never committed to Weeden, Browns coach Rob Chudzinski believes Weeden improved throughout the 2012 season. Chudzinski said he hopes Weeden, the 22nd overall pick in last year’s draft, will benefit from working with former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke this offseason, and he is eager to see Weeden when the team’s offseason conditioning program begins April 1.
“[I’ve] studied him on tape significantly for a while,” Chudzinski said of Weeden. “I’m excited about the tools he brings. He can throw the ball. He’s got good feel and presence in the pocket and really it’s just going to be about getting him into this system, into the meetings, getting a chance to coach him and seeing what he can do once we get out there on the field.”
Haslam said he has remained heavily involved with the Browns despite returning to his role as CEO of his family’s truck-stop empire, Pilot Flying J, last month. However, he won’t attend Smith’s private workout like Chudzinski and other key members of the organization.
“I’m not going to watch tape and go to Morgantown, W.Va., and watch Geno try out or go to Los Angeles and watch [University of Southern California quarterback Matt] Barkley try out,” Haslam said. “That’s what [General Manager] Mike [Lombardi] and his guys are going to do. … Where I’m involved is in strategy.
“So I’m going to be involved on a macro level, but I would be shocked if I ever watch any tape because I don’t have that technical skill. My job is to hire the right people, give them an environment to be successful in ... and then hold them accountable. That’s what we’ll try to do.”
So what are Haslam’s expectations for next season?
“I think only to improve,” he said. “What’s the definition of improve? I think we’ll all know. I think it’s a little dangerous to [set a goal for] wins and losses because injuries, breaks happen. But I think by Dec. 30 or 31 we’ll all know if we’re a better football team. We’ll probably know long before then. I expect us to be better, but this is a process, and it’s going to take a little bit of time.”
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.