Disastrous Cleveland Browns Season Was Set Up to Fail From the Start

click to enlarge Disastrous Cleveland Browns Season Was Set Up to Fail From the Start
Justin Gilbert/ Wikipedia
One year ago, Mike Pettine puffed a fat cigar outside the tunnel of the Georgia Dome dressed in a sharp suit and an orange tie. 

Red-faced with elation following the last-second win, team owner Jimmy Haslam greeted his first-year head coach with a warm embrace and his booming southern accent. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and starting quarterback Brian Hoyer soon followed, both worker-bees with team-issued tablets in their hands. Pettine smiled.

The Browns had just beaten the Atlanta Falcons 26-24 to improve to 7-4 and the mood on the team plane ride back was giddy. Whispers of the playoffs were traveling up and down the aisles.

One year later, the walls are crumbling inside the team facility for the 2-8 Browns as an exhausted head coach and an unfit general manager stumble their way through the wreckage. The increasingly likely trip to the guillotine for the duo can be traced in part to the roles played by two ticking time bombs that have sabotaged the season and created a domino effect for the dying regime in Cleveland. And there’s a strong chance that the two players in question — both of the Cleveland Browns’ first round draft picks from 2014 — will not be with the team come 2016 either, no matter who is in charge of personnel decisions.

Demoted to third-string quarterback last week, Johnny Manziel repeatedly shamed the organization with his apparent uncontrollable urge to party in the public eye, so, in a final straw situation, the team shamed him back. Pettine had endured enough questioning about his problem child quarterback. “You lose trust in buckets and regain it in drops,” the coach told the media following the decision, intimating that there was hope for Manziel to rebound in the future. But it’s easy enough to read between the lines and know that the trust will never be completely earned back.

So the floundering Browns will start 36-year-old Josh McCown on Monday Night Football against the Baltimore Ravens, publicly signaling they’ve reached the conclusion that Manziel’s mental makeup is not that of an NFL quarterback. After months and hours of boardroom deliberations upstairs on the plush second floor of the Berea facility, Browns decision makers are finally on the same page, slowly scratching their heads, realizing they’ve been conned by Manziel all along.

It was known that Pettine and Shanahan didn’t see as much in Manziel as some of the others in the organization. After watching a young Mark Sanchez repeatedly shoot the Jets in the foot during New York’s glory run in 2009 and 2010, Pettine wouldn’t allow himself to make the same mistake twice with another hotshot college quarterback. The pair of clever coaches liked controlling their quarterbacks on the field with a systematic offense. Playing off the cuff was despised. Manziel was to be shelved for as long as possible and his shenanigans off the field proved to be a sticking point in internal debate. Meanwhile, phones rang off the hook on the sales side of the building.

While Manziel's fall from grace is grabbing the headlines, he's been a veritable angel inside the facility compared to his first-round counterpart and teammate, Justin Gilbert, who should be the bigger story.

The Browns barely knew who Gilbert was before they selected the cornerback with the eighth overall pick in the 2014 draft and their missteps in the jumbled mess of a process has resulted in quite possibly one of the biggest NFL draft busts of the decade.

Sources say key members of the organization — people who might’ve been able to red flag him — did not physically meet Gilbert until after he was drafted. And those that did file scouting reports on Gilbert’s work ethic extolling his passion for football were completely wrong on their detailed research. If you remember correctly, this was also during the offseason when Farmer mocked the pro day process by skipping nearly all of them. Some of his other methodologies were equally as unorthodox and led to the team hiring Farmer’s mentor, veteran NFL executive Bill Kuharich, 12 days after the 2014 draft.

The Browns being coy about their draft intentions is nothing new in the NFL. But what’s troubling about the matter is that Gilbert’s personality problems are apparent to anyone who's been around him for longer than a day. He's withdrawn and carries a distinct false sense of entitlement that shows itself when he acts downright aloof to how his negative behavior rubs people the wrong way.

Browns community and marketing staffers rarely bother asking him to participate in activities with fans — usually a must for recent draft picks.

Two prominent Browns defensive players recently read a transcript of Gilbert's graceless and unprofessional interview with reporters this fall about his promotion to kick returner and complained directly to me.

“He just doesn’t get what the NFL is about. At all,” said one veteran. “How could they miss this badly?” said another about the front office.

All NFL teams miss on draft picks, even the Patriots. The problem for the Browns? The first trait Pettine and Farmer look for in upcoming draft picks is whether or not they love football.

“Does this guy love what football does for him or does he truly love the game and is passionate about it?” Pettine told the team’s website at the NFL’s scouting combine in February. "That's something that you can really find out. You'd be surprised how much you can find out in a short period of time. That's the biggest reason why we're here.”

There might not be anybody in the NFL who cares less about football than Gilbert.

Gilbert’s healthy scratch against the Steelers on Nov. 15 was a result of a string of “piss poor” practices and inconsistent habits in the meeting room, where he clearly hasn’t been memorizing tweaks to the defensive playbook. Remember, this comes days after playing 23 relatively positive snaps against the Bengals on Thursday Night Football, where he could’ve finally escaped the bench.

Unlike Manziel, who loves football and abused the stardom that comes with it, Gilbert seems like he wants nothing to do with the sport. And while Manziel’s path of destruction has been aired out in public eye, Gilbert’s has played out behind the scenes. The clues were there from the beginning though.

He was a high school track star in Texas and loved playing wide receiver where he could score touchdowns. He also excelled as a kick returner at Oklahoma State, setting the Big 12 record for return touchdowns. Gilbert used his speed and little else to be an effective cornerback in college. The Browns became infatuated with his length and physical abilities, and not about who he was as a person. Gilbert even had a wildly inconsistent junior season in college that the Browns seemingly ignored. Cleveland thought that with the right coaching they could turn him into an Antonio Cromartie type who could play on an island.

At a celebratory dinner in downtown Cleveland shortly after the 2014 draft, a source said Farmer and Pettine were openly glowing about how Gilbert would quickly blossom into one of the elite cornerbacks in the NFL. The Browns thought they might have nabbed the steal of the draft.

In Pettine’s mentally taxing defensive scheme and in the macho world of the NFL, however, Gilbert’s speed and athleticism meant nothing. Soon, it became clear that Cleveland put a premium on drafting a position on the field instead of a football player. Players lacking physical attributes like Jim Leonhard thrived in Pettine’s scheme because they were cerebral. Gilbert just doesn’t get joy out of breaking down the Xs and Os. Flashy plays get him going, not the nitty-gritty details that define professional football.

To give the embattled defensive coaching staff credit, they haven’t complained about Gilbert nearly as much as they should have. They took him on as a project and had genuine hopes they could turn him around like the Texans did with Kareem Jackson, like the Ravens did with Jimmy Smith. And though Johnson Bademosi has struggled, the coaches aren't going to throw Gilbert out there instead simply because he makes more money. They've stayed true to their philosophy of competition and rewarding veterans who do the right things.

Gilbert is on an island in a way, just not the way the organization wanted. While other Browns players generally make an effort to get to know each other in the locker room and cafeteria, Gilbert is usually by himself, sometimes even leaving the facility during the free hour period before practice. Team good guy Joe Haden attempted to mentor Gilbert this offseason by working out with him in Miami, but Gilbert continued to push away veterans looking to help guide him in Cleveland. He’s isolated himself from the team.

Healthy scratches are the norm for Gilbert. The team realized they had reached the point of no return during a game in the middle of last season. The cornerback missed the mandatory team bus at 10:30 a.m. and had to be frantically located by the Browns security team. Gilbert showed up shortly after noon. One teammate nearly had to be restrained, his anger bubbling as Gilbert stood there smiling, eating candy.

Nine months later, in joint training camp practices against the Bills that featured 180 total players, nobody was worse than Justin Gilbert. When he aggravated a hip flexor, teammates privately told me they were thankful — his play was embarrassing all of them. In two short afternoons he was exposed for what he is: an athletic specimen, not an NFL cornerback.

Why bemoan just two players? Because the lack of impact from early draft choices has directly tied into the team’s 2-13 record over their last 15 games. Fringe veterans are playing out of necessity. And while Pettine is mightily respected by his players for benching anyone not with the program, the shortcomings of several Farmer draft picks dominates locker room discussions of whether the team is headed in the right direction. Manziel and Gilbert have largely become the story of this otherwise hardworking team and there are players who loathe that fact. It would be one thing if both could hold their own on the football field. But they can’t.

To make up for the mess they made with Manziel and Gilbert, Farmer and Pettine together signed veteran quarterback Josh McCown and cornerback Tramon Williams — each of whom have been among Cleveland’s best players all season. But Cleveland’s roster is full of proven veteran players in the twilights of their careers — Karlos Dansby, Donte Whitner, Brian Hartline, Randy Starks. And winning teams can’t sustain success by shuffling in veteran free agents to mask misses in the draft. (They did it again in 2015, with linemen Danny Shelton and Cameron Erving. Both have been better than Manziel and Gilbert, but neither of the rookies have been organizational-changing players.)

The question becomes: Can you let Farmer and Pettine screw up another draft?