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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Infighting Defined the Cleveland Browns Last Season and Looms as Concern With New Power Structure

Posted By on Thu, Jan 7, 2016 at 4:07 PM

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I can admit I’m curious about the Browns’ attempt to rocket-launch themselves out of the black hole that has swallowed the football existence of the city of Cleveland.

I can also say that bringing in Paul DePodesta from the Mets and elevating Sashi Brown and placing them at the top of the Browns’ organizational chart and involving them in strategic football decisions and talent evaluation, while interesting, presents a culture clash scenario. It’s easy to see how their philosophies would be met with resistance from traditional general managers and NFL coaches, who walk and operate with a bravado that makes them who they are. I'd also say I'm ready to call owner Jimmy Haslam gullible and the new executives naive if they think the resistance won't be strong.

Those disagreements already played out before sweeping changes were made in Berea.

According to a top level Browns source, the in-fighting last season was much more Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine vs. Sashi Brown and Alec Scheiner than it was Farmer vs. Pettine, though those two certainly had their problems that boiled over to the field. (“The perpetual in-fighting was definitely a big reason for all the losing,” one assistant coach texted me recently.) 

The source said Farmer and Pettine were rarely willing to admit defeat when Brown and Scheiner had data proving some of their decisions were either off base or inconsistent.

Haslam became enamored with Brown’s intellect in these clashes, so in turn, he handed the 39-year-old the keys to his football franchise and in doing so, may have already clipped the wings of whoever will be the newly appointed head coach and general manager.

The question isn’t how much the Browns will employ analytics – undoubtedly it’ll be the crux of their operation. The real question is how the new power structure can balance running the show while not alienating whatever coach and GM end up beneath them.

What I learned from my time working for the Browns in Berea was this: Football coaches are fiercely protective organisms who do not function well when people in suits tell them how to do their job. They’re grinders who work from 6 a.m. to midnight. They dissect film like science and they want to be left alone, locked away in their meeting rooms to dictate the identity of their football team. Call the coaching community stubborn and backward-thinking all you want; this is just how they behave.

And when they’re pissed off about something going on with personnel or some soon-to-come mathematical theory that tells them how they should operate, they’ll wear it hard on their sleeve – or worse, they’ll leak things to the media. Imagine, for instance, how football-lifer running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery might react. He, like others, might see how analytics would be of use, but might also see how the front office is undercutting his skill set.

Or take current Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, a head coaching candidate around the league, who had this to say about analytics in November: “I trust my eyes. I trust my eyes, OK? I watch the tape. I watch a lot of tape and I trust what my eyes tell me. So I don’t need a freaking piece of paper with a bunch of numbers on there to tell me something my eyes can see. I mean, not to get pissed off, but that whole thing of looking at a piece of paper and telling you how to call a football game is a freaking joke in my opinion. That’s why I watch tape. Half the stuff on that paper, you can sort those stats out any way you want to. But I’m sticking by eyes. It’s worked OK for me so far.”

Of course, the coming head coach and GM hires might be made based on who will be onboard with DePodesta and Brown’s philosophy. It has worked in baseball with the Chicago Cubs, for instance, where manager Joe Maddon has taken a back seat to President of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein, but both were already established names with world championships attached to their resumes. It’s just hard to imagine this untried Browns brass unearthing the next fearless leader like Mike Tomlin or John Harbaugh, coaches who were instantly successful when implementing their own style. Are the Browns truly searching for a candidate like that, or more for someone who would be willing to uproot their football belief system and take a leap of faith? Or someone with an inkling already who wants to fully jump in?

Brown’s a smooth operator, and people inside the facility adore his demeanor and likability. In his dealings with Pettine and Farmer he rightfully scolded the pair for their defensive scheme and signing over-the-hill free agents. That may sound good, but it remains to be seen how the 53-man roster will look under his supervision. At the very least, there’s no way he can be a worse talent evaluator than Farmer.

The good news is that Brown and DePodesta will transform the roster. There’s no way their approach will allow Josh McCown to remain the starting quarterback and the pair will have enough sense between them to cut bait with both Billy Manziel and Sleepy Gilbert. And while it would sting to see them go, future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas and Karlos Dansby will be probably viewed as depreciating assets. They might even ask Joe Haden to restructure his contract.

The important thing for this approach to work is for everyone to sing in harmony. But instead of simplifying their football operation after a year of cancerous in-fighting, the Browns have added additional layers of power, which will categorically make it trickier for everyone to get on the same page, and as is always the case in Berea, get along. Some teams might get the benefit of the doubt in this situation. The last decade-plus for the Browns gives us no such reason to believe.

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