Now that the 2015 season is officially over for the NFL (congrats to the Denver Broncos on winning the Super Bowl), it is time to switch gears and focus on 2016 for the Cleveland Browns.
Many of us have admittedly been looking to the future from the moment Jimmy Haslam relieved Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine of their duties—okay let’s be honest, you probably started much earlier than that. However, now that the Browns have a new leading man for their organization in Hue Jackson and a new coaching staff, we here at Cleveland Sports Zone are officially ready to slam the door shut on the 2015 season.
With all of this in mind, in order to properly identify what is going on with this organization and how to make it better, we have decided to start a series called the “2016 State of the Cleveland Browns.” Over the course of the next few weeks, CSZ will do a position by position breakdown for our fans leading up to the beginning of the new league year on March 9th.
What we hope to accomplish in these articles is to give our readers a look back at 2015 for each position, provide a better understanding of the current contract situation of key players at the position, look at players who could potentially be cut in order to create roster space and identify a few free agents/NFL Draft prospects who could be nice fits.
As always, we may miss a player or two in free agency/the NFL Draft who could be a good fit for this team—especially given all of the changes in the coaching staff. As a fan and reader, if you have your eye on a certain player that we did not mention, feel free to let us know in the comments section!
Instead of starting with a specific position, we figured the best way to start CSZ’s 2016 State of the Cleveland Browns is by taking a look at changes in the front office and to the coaching staff.
Front Office Overhaul
The fate of the Cleveland Browns front office may have been tied to the team’s performance last season to some, however, it seems like Farmer’s fate was directly tied to early failures of his first two first-round selections. With two picks in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Farmer and the Browns front office had the opportunity to do something the exalted front office before him couldn’t—find franchise changing players in the first round.
In a way, Farmer’s two first-round picks did change the franchise—in a negative way. He traded down from No. 4 (a spot where Farmer could have landed game changers like Sammy Watkins, Khalil Mack and Mike Evans) to No. 9 and then back up to No. 8 for Justin Gilbert—a player who many have labeled as not caring about the game (which has shown in his performance). Later in the first round owning pick No. 26, Farmer targeted a quarterback to change his franchise—so he traded up to No. 22 to draft the polarizing Johnny Manziel.
For all of Gilbert’s shortcomings and inability to find the field over players drafted in the middle rounds or not drafted at all, the scarlet letter on Farmer’s tenure with the Browns will always be Manziel. He came to Cleveland with a boatload of reported issues from his time in college, and though he vowed to “wreck this league” with the Browns organization, the only thing Manziel really did in two years with this team was to contribute to “wrecking this organization.”
Now, we could obviously get into all of the glaring missteps of Farmer, but you all know the story. For those reasons, Haslam and the Browns brain-trust removed Farmer and many more from the front office—opting to change the reporting and management of football operations altogether. But more on that later.
Coaching Staff Carousel Continues
Including interim coaches (Terry Robiskie coached six games in 2004 once Butch Davis was fired), the Cleveland Browns organization has had eight different leading men for this organization since 1999. Once Jackson walks on the field in 2016, he will be the ninth.
Prior to the firing of Pettine and removal of his staff, the Browns coaching carousel was already in motion. After just one season, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan reportedly put together a presentation as to why the Browns organization should let him go. Once they agreed, he landed with the Atlanta Falcons as their offensive coordinator, paving the way for first-year OC John DeFilippo to take over for the Browns in 2015.
Despite seeing growth in some areas on offense, the Browns as a whole were much worse in 2015—falling from a 7-9 record to 3-13. This directly led to the axing of Pettine and the majority of his coaching staff, though somehow Special Teams Coordinator Chris Tabor has more lives than a cat and is back again in 2016.
New Era in the Front Office
After years of a “traditional” setup of sorts in the Browns front office, the team has decided to head in a different direction to hopefully usher in major change both culturally and with the actual football product. This all started right after Farmer was fired and Sashi Brown was elevated to Executive Vice President, Football Operations—to the surprise of many.
When rumors began to swirl of Farmer’s eventual firing, the common thought around the league was that the Browns needed to land a big-time “football guy” to revamp their personnel and scouting departments. Instead, they went a complete different direction with the promotion of Brown—an extremely intelligent professional who has been on the rise during his time in the NFL and previously served as the Browns Executive VP/general counsel.
Haslam stated after the promotion of Brown, “Sashi, I believe, is the right person to do this for the Cleveland Browns. He’s been in the NFL for 10-plus years, has been involved in the cap and has been heavily involved in our football administration and operations for the last year or two. He’s very smart, very organized, good at systems and processes and an outstanding team player. He’s also very strategic so we will use those skill and working for him will be a GM whose primary job will be talent acquisition.”
While those were excellent words from Haslam right after the promotion, something stuck out to this writer—the part about a GM whose primary job will be talent acquisition. The reason this stuck out is the expectation now shifted from a “football guy” to be in Brown’s role to a “football guy” being hired as the GM. Essentially, many expected Brown to be in control of the finances and the new GM to be in control of the roster—however, that was not the case.
Instead, the Browns sent a shock through two sports with their next hire, hiring one of the men known for “Moneyball” in baseball away from the New York Mets. Stealing Paul DePodesta away from Major League Baseball and bringing his innovative way of thinking to the NFL was a bold move. For the Cleveland Browns, of all organizations, to do it was an absolute shocker for many, as the team named DePodesta Chief Strategy Officer of their organization. While I could go in-depth on what exactly that means, I suggest you read this article from The Monday Morning Quarterback of Sports Illustrated instead.
Alright, so at this point the Browns went a complete different direction than most when it came to hiring their front office staff. They would continue this trend by hiring their new head coach, Jackson, before even thinking about hiring a GM. Following his hire, it came out the team would in fact not being hiring a GM—even though that is what Haslam said they would do early in the process. Instead, they would look for a person to fill the role of Vice President of Player Personnel.
After interviewing a number of candidates prior to and during the Senior Bowl, the team tabbed 28-year old Harvard graduate, Andrew Berry, as their man. Adding Berry to Brown and DePodesta gives the Browns a “Crimson Trio” of sorts in their front office—causing some Browns fans to joke that they finally will be the “smartest men in the room” (a phrase used toward Farmer’s pervious ineptitude).
So, what do we know about Berry? Well, he was with the Colts for four years as their Pro Scouting Coordinator, one year before that as a scout and two as a scouting assistant. During his time at Harvard, he was an All-America cornerback twice and a four-year starter on their football team. Is he a “football guy” in every sense of the phrase, probably not in the way most fans would have wanted. But, the Browns new head coach had some nice things to say about him.
“In spending time with Andrew, it is evident that he has a very strong understanding of the game,” Jackson said. “His substance and depth in his analysis of how to build a successful team and how he looks at individual players will be a great benefit to us moving forward. It is critical to not just rely on one individual but to have a leader in place that can bring together a comprehensive array of information from our talented and hard-working group of scouts and raise the strategic level and success of our approach.”
Browns Finally Land Their Man
Speaking of Jackson, after consecutive coaching searches where the Browns organization provided a “who” factor after their hire, the team landed their No. 1 choice and arguably the top candidate on the market. In a surprise turn of events, the offensive coordinator of one of the top offenses in the league chose Cleveland—a team without a quarterback or an offensive identity—over what were perceived to be more attractive openings around the league. Maybe it was the challenge, maybe it was knowledge of the division or maybe it was the number of zeroes he got to write on the blank check Haslam put in front of him—whatever the reason, the Browns are lucky to have landed Jackson.
You all know the story from Cincinnati and his work with Andy Dalton, but his one year as the Raiders coach prior to an absolute blowup of their front office is truly remarkable. He led an offense without one legitimate playmaker to an 8-8 record AFTER losing their starting quarterback (Jason Campbell) to an injury. Somehow, he was able to get something out of Carson Palmer—no, not the Palmer you see now in Arizona. This version of Palmer was threatening retirement in Cincinnati, had not played football for quite some time and was acquired via trade in October of that season.
Despite all of these limitations, not only did the team finish with an 8-8 record, but they were No. 9 in the NFL in total offense! Did I mention they had no playmakers on this offense? If you do not believe me, take a look at their stats from that season. To put it short, Michael Bush was their best player after Darren McFadden went down with an injury. Bush hasn’t been active in the NFL since 2013.
Aside from the excitement about Jackson, there should be more people getting excited about the rest of his coaching staff. Back at defensive coordinator is Ray Horton, who spent one year as the Browns DC in 2013—you know, the last time the Browns defense was any good (No. 9 in total defense). This could bode well if the Browns are interested in getting anything out of Barkevious Mingo in the final year of his contract (had five sacks as a rookie with Horton), or hope to retain Tashaun Gipson—who was probably the most excited person on Twitter when rumors of Horton back to Cleveland came out.
Along with Horton, Jackson has assembled quite the staff. Veterans Pep Hamilton and Al Saunders will be working with Jackson to run the offense, Kirby Wilson asked to leave Minnesota to come to Cleveland as the run game coordinator and Hal Hunter will run the offensive line. On the defensive side of the ball, Louie Cioffi is back with Horton to coach the DBs, Robert Nunn will coach the Defensive Line, Johnny Holland is here to coach the inside linebackers and Ryan Slowik will coach the outside linebackers.
Outlook for 2016
As with every season, there is always a natural hope of sorts for Browns fans. However, it seems different this time around with the composure of the organization from top to bottom. In the past, it seemed like the team was relying solely on whoever was in charge of drafting players to turn this thing around. Now, there is an organizational approach from top to bottom in place—which will hopefully yield different results.
In regard to who will be drafting players, at first the idea of not having a real general manager was difficult to deal with. But, after examining the team that is put together and realizing Jackson will have a lot of input in the process as well—it honestly makes sense. One of the biggest issues between Farmer and Pettine—from the outside looking in—seemed to be a disagreement on the players selected. It seemed as if, especially with Manziel, that there was a major gap between the two philosophies at play—which directly led to their removal from the organization.
This time around, Jackson will be able to tell Brown and the front office the type of players he needs to make his system work. And for the time being, it seems like that is exactly how this marriage between the “Crimson Trio” and Jackson will work. Obviously things are subject to change based on performance at a later time, but it seems as if Jackson will put his stamp on the Browns organization not only as a coach, but with the players he brings into this organization as well.
I do not know about you, but as someone who has spent a long time watching, researching and studying the game, the Browns new approach makes sense on paper. Now let’s see if it translates to results on the field, and the end of the suffering we have all been experiencing since 1999.