BEREA: Ray Farmer sat at a corner booth in the Perkins restaurant in Middleburg Heights with an order of French fries, a Coke and thick binders containing countless reports scouts had written about NFL Draft prospects.
He highlighted pertinent information about players and tried to memorize it. The next day, he would watch video of those players so he could form his own opinions.
The routine started shortly after the Browns named Farmer their assistant general manager March 5. His wife, Vernet, and their two children had yet to relocate from the Kansas City area to Strongsville, so after a long day of work at the team’s headquarters, Farmer would go back to his temporary home at the Residence Inn and then walk over to the Perkins virtually every night to further cram for the draft in late April.
“I was more than married to the job,” Farmer told the Beacon Journal Sept. 3 in his first interview since joining the Browns. “My family wasn’t here. I had nowhere to go. I had nothing to do other than to watch tape, study players and prepare myself as best as I could for an upcoming draft. It was a different process. It was an informative process, and I think through that, we’ve learned some things about each other as well as how we want to structure things differently moving forward.”
The Browns traded fourth- and fifth-round choices for third- and fourth-round selections next year and picked only five players. Backup outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, the sixth overall pick and the headliner of the organization’s rookie class, is expected to contribute in a major way this season, but the initial draft orchestrated by the team of CEO Joe Banner, General Manager Mike Lombardi, coach Rob Chudzinski and Farmer did not produce any immediate starters.
“You look at the information that you’re presented, and you make the best decisions with what’s available,” Farmer said while reflecting on the draft. “There will be guys that pan out that people say, ‘Oh, they got that right.’ There’ll be guys that pan out that no one else thought about that we got right, and those will be accepted. And the ones that flame out will be the ones we hear about most. But there’s never an exact science.
“You can give 10 guys the same opportunity and get 10 different results. Some guys will take the bull by the horns and run with it and extend themselves into being a leader and take it further than anyone thought they could. Some will just kind of coast along and manage it. Others will flame out. You just don’t know. So there’s uniqueness to the individual, and I think that’s probably the greatest lesson learned for me being this close to it now. A lot of it has to do with selecting the right people. The talent is the talent. But the right people is what allows the talent to reach its goal.”
Path to personnel
Farmer, 39, knows a thing or two about NFL players because he was one. Drafted in the fourth round by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1996, when Banner oversaw the day-to-day operations of the franchise, Farmer played three seasons in the league before a knee injury ended his career. “Arrogantly, I thought I would play for 10, 15 years, go to the hall of fame and retire and life would be great,” Farmer said. “And physically, as my body didn’t hold up, then it became more obvious to me that the only way to really stay around the game and be in it was to jump the fence and sit in as a personnel guy.”
But it took Farmer a couple of years after he retired as a player to reach that conclusion. First, he went back to his alma mater, Duke University, and served as the athletic department’s academic coordinator for football. Eventually he decided to pursue a career as an NFL personnel executive and asked Angelo Wright, his agent at the time, to put the word out. When Les Snead, who oversaw the Atlanta Falcons’ pro scouting operations at the time and is now the general manager of the St. Louis Rams, heard about Farmer’s desire, he decided to give him a shot as a pro scout for the Falcons.
Farmer spent four seasons with the Falcons before the Kansas City Chiefs hired him as their director of pro personnel. He worked under the direction of former Chiefs general managers Carl Peterson and Scott Pioli, completing the transformation from an NFL linebacker to a self-proclaimed nerd.
“There’s the notion that jocks and football players are considered meatheads, somehow we don’t have the same cognitive resources as those that actually went to school to learn something,” said Farmer, who earned a sociology degree from Duke in 1996. “So as a former player, the nerd side of me is definitely attached to the academics. It’s attached to the books and the studies and understanding analytics and priding myself on competing academically and intellectually over competing athletically.”
Welcome to Cleveland
After the Chiefs fired Pioli and hired coach Andy Reid on Jan. 4, Chairman and CEO Clark Hunt interviewed Farmer for the team’s general manager position. About a day later, Hunt called Farmer and told him Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and Banner also wanted to interview him for their GM vacancy after they fired Tom Heckert on Dec. 31.
The Chiefs ultimately hired former Green Bay Packers personnel man John Dorsey as their GM on Jan. 13. Five days later, the Browns announced Lombardi was their choice.
“I came [to Cleveland], I interviewed, I went back [to Kansas City],” Farmer said with a laugh. “And then ironically, we had multiple conversations, and Joe [Banner] called me and said he that inevitably he chose Mike [Lombardi]. I said, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ So I was just kind of thinking it’s back to business as normal, and then things kind of evolved.”
Despite hiring Lombardi, Banner continued to pursue Farmer.
“The only person I really wanted to talk to at that point was Mike,” Farmer said. “I wanted to figure out, ‘OK, if he’s the GM, I need to know how our relationship is going to be before I take a leap of faith.’ I didn’t know Mike. I knew a lot of people that knew Mike. I think there was some hesitation from a lot of people on who they thought Mike was from days gone by. So I had kind of polled some people that I knew that knew him, and some were positive, some were negative.
“So I asked him about that directly and he took it head on. He just said some things in the past he’s probably not proud of just like everybody else, but it is what it is [and] moving forward we’re going to work together, we’re going to work hard. And the way he kind of worded the vision for what the plan was here, it was interesting when you talk about trying to reinvent a football team and get things right.
“So I took a leap of faith and left a comfort zone because I was fine in Kansas City. Even though there was going to be change, I was fine. But I just took a leap of faith and trusted the fact that I was going to be working with some really creative, intelligent and hard-working guys.”
Banner said he continued to go after Farmer because “he’s one of the up-and-coming stars in the NFL.” And at the NFL owners meeting in March, Haslam said, “I’ll be surprised if Ray’s not a GM in the next few years, which will be good and bad news for us.”
So why didn’t the new regime hire Farmer as its top personnel chief instead of Lombardi?
“That’s hard to answer because I know everybody thinks [Lombardi’s hiring] was all preordained, but I went back and forth,” Banner said. “Jimmy met both of them and went back and forth, and we discussed it and debated it. I think that Ray would tell you there were still elements around the thought process around kind of building a team and kind of the macro strategy stuff that he’s good at, but still learning that I probably felt like Mike was just a bit ahead on.”
Farmer believes the fact that he had never run a draft “put some hesitation into people’s minds” about whether he was prepared to do so. He also dealt primarily with pro scouting and not much on the college side during his last few years with the Chiefs, “so to that tune, I wasn’t as quote, unquote well rounded as I think some would have liked.”
But now Farmer is working hand in hand with Lombardi on virtually everything related to player acquisition.
The Browns denied the Beacon Journal’s request to interview Lombardi for this story. A team spokesman said Lombardi won’t do any interviews for the rest of this year.
Farmer gained some national attention recently when Sports Illustrated’s Peter King reported that he scouted Alabama’s 49-42 win over Texas A&M on Saturday.
His new job seems like a perfect stepping-stone.
“I’m where I want to be to some degree,” Farmer said. “Do I want to be a general manager? Yes. But the question for me really is what’s the right opportunity and when will that take form? I’m not in a hurry. The one thing my mom and dad always told me was don’t rush it.’”
Eight NFL head coaching jobs and seven general manager positions were filled in the offseason, but no minorities were chosen for those top roles, including Farmer, an African-American. NFL executive vice president of human resources Robert Gulliver released a statement in January explaining that teams complied with the Rooney Rule, which requires them to interview minority candidates, but he also said “the hiring results this year have been unexpected and reflect a disappointing lack of diversity.”
Farmer was asked if he feels pressure to succeed not only to elevate his own career, but also to further open the window of opportunity for minorities in NFL front offices.
“I don’t feel any pressure at all to carry the torch,” Farmer said. “I recognize the color of my skin. I recognize the people that came before me and laid a pathway. But at the same time, everybody’s journey is unique, and I think ownership makes decisions based upon who they feel are the right people for the jobs at that time. You can only choose from the pool that’s available, and for whatever reason, the right person didn’t meet the right owner to make that right decision. I firmly believe, that given the opportunity, they generally try to make the best decision possible.”
Fitting into plan
The Browns believe Farmer is destined to win a top job of his own sooner than later. Until then, they’re hoping he’ll help them revive their franchise.
“When we interviewed him, I just saw somebody that was an outstanding talent evaluator, had the work ethic and the insight to really find good players,” Banner said. “[He] wasn’t just looking for the guy that could hit in the first round, wanted to also find this undrafted guy, wanted to prove he was the guy that was smart enough to see that player and project something in him that everybody else was overlooking. He understood by every position what kind of things mattered the most.”
Farmer said the Browns have identified three or four skills for each position “that really make the player the pop.” In addition to those positional breakdowns, there are four qualities to which they assign scores for all players. If the sum of those four scores meets a requirement set by the team, the player receives a Browns tag.
“Anybody that has one of those we should be genuinely interested in,” Farmer said.
The Falcons and Chiefs used analytics while Farmer worked for them similarly to the way the Browns use it now.
“It may give you a name that you probably would have generally skipped over,” Farmer said.
“But I think inevitably in my job, Mike’s job, Joe’s job, it comes down to watching the film, seeing how the guy actually performed and does that performance meet the standard that we’re looking for?”
Farmer, Lombardi and Chudzinski report to Banner, but Banner stresses that they’re all part of a collaborative decision-making process.
“Joe is the best fifth-grade math teacher you’ve ever seen,” Farmer said. “Do all your work but show your work.
“He wants to know that we took the time to do it the right way, the evaluation steps, the report aspects, the grading of position specifics and then inevitably showing evidence via tape of why you believe what you believe. So the attention to detail is paramount in this building, and it’s hard to answer a question here without evidence.”
The Browns gave Chuck Klosterman of Grantland.com access to their draft room in April. Klosterman wrote: “Lombardi talks the most. Chudzinski talks the least. Banner runs the room. Farmer is the equilibrium (he rarely speaks first but provides the most balanced insights).”
Farmer leaned back in his chair after the excerpt describing him was read aloud.
“That’s interesting because most people here would probably say I’m the antithesis of that comment, that behind close doors I’m more of a troublemaker than I am a voice of reason,” Farmer said.
“I do play devil’s advocate a lot, and I think intellectually I like to be stimulated, motivated or prompted. So there’s a time to kind of cause trouble and ask questions, and there’s a time to try to add insight. I would like to think that I’m able to manage and work both ends of the coin. But, yeah, I would say that’s a fair assessment at a certain point in time, and the rest of the time I’m completely different from that.”
The Browns can’t afford to leave any stone unturned because after five consecutive seasons marred by double-digit losses, they have a long way to go in their quest for a turnaround.
“There are good players here, and the challenge is to identify those good players, keep those good players and then to build from that,” Farmer said.
“Inevitably you’ve got to find a way to figure out who’s not pulling their weight and try to improve those players. And if we can do that, then we’ve got a chance.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.