BEREA: Coach Rob Chudzinski is gone, unfairly fired after one year because the Browns were not improving as the season imploded.
Now CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi are on the hot seat.
Owner Jimmy Haslam put them there Monday when he called the next eight months “THE crucial offseason for the Cleveland Browns.”
The Haslams aren’t going anywhere. Even if the FBI investigation into rebate fraud at Pilot Flying J results in Haslam’s indictment, someone in his family would likely take over the Browns.
But when Chudzinski was relieved of his duties 363 days after the Browns dumped his predecessor Pat Shurmur, they left themselves with a monumental to-do list before the 2014 season begins.
They must find the right coach, which they failed to do a year ago.
They must bring in the quarterback of the future.
They must hit on their 10 draft picks, which include two selections in the first round (one No. 4 overall) and seven in the first four rounds.
They must upgrade the roster, which might include signing free-agent center Alex Mack and strong safety T.J. Ward. They are better prepared than most, armed with $46 million under the 2014 salary cap, according to CBSSports.com.
After all that, if Haslam is back in a year or two discussing the firing of another coach, Banner and Lombardi will also pay with their jobs.
That would mean the end of the “Three Stooges,” which a Channel 19 newsman called Haslam, Banner and Lombardi on Monday. “Can you reassure fans you don’t have the Three Stooges running this operation?” he said, a moment of levity during 30 minutes of unconvincing responses despite the question’s unprofessional nature.
Haslam didn’t mention Lombardi and said he didn’t find it odd to hold such a news conference without the general manager.
“I’ve never really thought about it, to be honest,” Haslam said.
Haslam said he and Banner would accept the responsibility of “THE crucial offseason.”
“If we get that right, we’ll have a lot of really positive press conferences,” Haslam said in reference to the coach, the draft and free agency. “If we get that wrong, [the] responsibility is on us. We understand, we feel a lot of pressure to get this right — for the franchise, for the city of Cleveland, for our fans. We understand how important it is.”
Haslam-Banner was a match made in NFL headquarters. Haslam didn’t know the 19-year Philadelphia Eagles executive before he and his father, Jim, were introduced to him. Nor had Haslam met Lombardi, whose 22 years in the league included two seasons with Banner in Philadelphia.
Haslam has no loyalties to either man. Haslam surrounded himself with a small core of executives at Pilot Flying J that had been with him for years, but he showed by firing Chudzinski he’s not afraid to correct a hiring mistake.
“If you look at how we run our business, it’s not one where we make personnel decisions frequently and we understand the importance of continuity,” Haslam said.
If Haslam has reservations about those who are evaluating and signing personnel, he seems prepared to give them at least one more year, much to the fans’ and my dismay.
“I feel really confident that we have the right people to take this organization where we need to,” Haslam said before launching into a “best fans in the world” soliloquy as a diversionary tactic.
Haslam didn’t seem to mind that no one in the personnel department has been held accountable for the trade that brought in receiver Davone Bess, who finished second in the league in dropped passes with 14 this season, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
When he worked for NFL Network in February 2011, Lombardi said the Browns’ and Baltimore Ravens’ outside receivers were the slowest in the league. Yet after former Browns GM Tom Heckert selected Josh Gordon in the 2012 supplemental draft, Lombardi found no one ready to pair opposite Gordon.
Ted Ginn Jr. was a free agent last March and might have loved to return to his hometown of Cleveland, where father Ted Ginn Sr. is battling pancreatic cancer. Ginn, a seven-year veteran, signed with the Carolina Panthers, where he caught 36 passes for 556 yards and five touchdowns as the Panthers went 12-4 and won the NFC South. Former New York Giant Domenik Hixon, a University of Akron product, also signed with the Panthers, where he languished for 14 weeks until catching perhaps the biggest touchdown of the season, a diving 14-yarder in a victory over New Orleans.
Because he’s failed only once, Haslam might not realize the organizational structure he’s set up won’t allow him to get the kind of coach he wants. Banner and Lombardi wield all the power in personnel decisions, which likely scared off Chip Kelly a year ago.
Banner said he would consider giving the next coach more personnel input, but it’s hard to believe that would be the case unless the Browns try to lure a big-name candidate like Kelly, Jon Gruden and Nick Saban a year ago.
“I think we’re open to whatever structure we need to have to get the right person,” Banner said. “But we work very closely with the coaching staff, mostly through Chud. They were intimately involved in all the decisions we made and had input. That doesn’t mean we agreed on every evaluation, didn’t have some discussions, but our philosophy has been to have a very collaborative approach.”
That sounds good in theory. But unless the Browns make such organizational changes, they will end up with another unheralded assistant like Chudzinski. And that could spell the end for two of the “Three Stooges.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read 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.