Winds of change blowing through Brownstown
On Friday, Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner issued a statement, 96 words in total, that could drastically change the course of the No. 1 franchise in town:
“In connection with current rumors and press inquiries, I can report that I’ve been approached by Mr. Jimmy Haslam, who is interested in making an investment in the Cleveland Browns. We are currently in negotiations and both sides have agreed to keep that dialogue and its details private. Given that any transaction would require League approval, care has been taken so that this process will not be disruptive to the organization, in particular the football team, as it prepares for the upcoming season. We will share further details or make an announcement if it becomes necessary.”
And with that, it appears we have entered the beginning of the end of the Lerner family’s involvement with the Browns.
According to Forbes.com, Lerner could be looking to pocket $920 million by selling controlling interest in the team to James Haslam, president and CEO of Tennessee-based Pilot Flying J, a national chain of truck stops with a reported $18 billion in sales. Not a bad day for a team that Lerner’s father, Al, bought for $530 million in 1998.
The sale could be every bit as profitable for Haslam as, according to Forbes, the Browns have one of the highest radio rights fees in the NFL (which are not split among league members the way the national TV rights are) and the team controls Cleveland Browns Stadium, along with a large portion of revenues from premium seats and advertising.
There will be plenty of time to discuss what kind of owner Haslam will be once the sale goes through sometime this fall, and more than enough time for wild speculation (he owns a minority stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers, after all; that clearly means he plans to put a logo on one side of the Browns helmets and change the team colors to a new interpretation of black and gold). But this quote from Mike Edwards, president of the Knoxville, Tenn., Chamber of Commerce, paints a clear distinction between Haslam and Lerner.
“He has an ‘A Team’ throughout the organization. He has the best of the best, but he doesn’t turn it over to them. He is very engaged and very focused and goal-oriented and he drives himself hard. He’s very competitive. He doesn’t micro-manage them, but he certainly manages them.”
That quote will go a long way to answering one of the biggest criticisms (other than the won-loss record) of Lerner from far too many Browns fans: that he “didn’t care” about the Browns. Because Lerner did not sit behind a desk every day at team headquarters in Berea, because he dared to have outside interests, most notably Aston Villa of the English Premier League, Lerner became an easy punching bag for disappointed and angry Browns fans.
Being a “hands-on” owner does not correlate to on-field success, however, a fact lost on many fans. You just have to look at the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins for proof of that. Jerry Jones (Dallas) and Dan Snyder (Washington) are two of the most involved owners in all of professional sports. But what do they have to show for it? Since 1999, when Cleveland returned to the NFL as an expansion team, the Cowboys have exactly one more playoff win than the Browns. Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999 and since then Washington has two playoff wins.
Perhaps Jones and Snyder should find something else to do with their time.
This doesn’t take Lerner off the hook, however. It’s probably safe to say he never intended to become the owner of the Browns, only taking over after his father passed away. And no one pays $119 million for a soccer team, like Lerner did for Aston Villa in 2006, just for fun. He wanted Villa, but he was responsible for the Browns.
Lerner’s biggest asset as an owner is that he hires people and then lets them do their job. But in a lot of ways that is also his biggest failing as he has continually made the wrong choice, leading to the team’s continual need to reboot the direction of the franchise.
Butch Davis seemed to have the team on track after making the playoffs in 2002, but a salary cap purge of some key veterans and injuries quickly derailed his tenure. Romeo Crennel rode the hot arm of Derek Anderson to the brink of the playoffs in 2007, only to see injuries prior to the 2008 season derail any momentum the squad may have carried into the season. Then came Eric Mangini, hired just nine days after being fired by the New York Jets after going 23-25 in three years with the team – and without a general manager in place. Two years and only 10 wins later, the movers were back in Berea as Mangini was out and current coach Pat Shurmur was in.
Each change brought about another shift in philosophy, another cleaning of the roster to acquire players to fit the new system and more spinning of the wheels come Sundays.
Some of those problems were obviously out of Lerner’s control – no one could have predicted Davis would quit because of “panic attacks” – but there were also a lot of missteps that could have been avoided.
College coaches don’t succeed on the NFL level – that has been clearly established over the past 20-plus years – and the Browns would have been better off avoiding Davis all together. As much as 2007 feels like a fluke season, the injuries that hit the team in 2008 mean that we will never know for sure. While general manager Phil Savage was clearly in over his head and needed to go in 2008 (especially after his profanity-filled text message to a fan and handling of Kellen Winslow’s legitimate complaints about the team’s medical care), pairing Crennel with a strong general manager that could provide him with players to fit his system may have been a wiser choice. And hiring Mangini so quickly after he was let go in New York – with absolutely no one else in the NFL interested in him - meant that Mangini would not have the time needed to reflect on what went wrong in New York and what needed to be changed.
Those kinds of decisions are not unique to the Browns, either, as Lerner has made similar mistakes with Aston Villa – most notably in the hiring of Alex McLeish last season. McLeish was coming off a season where he managed Birmingham City to relegation (shades of the Mangini hiring) and the move didn’t sit well with Villa fans (and McLeish only lasted one season).
“It was naive of Lerner to believe the fans would ever accept a man who had taken Birmingham to relegation just a few months previously,” ESPN analyst Ian Darke told The Plain Dealer. “Worryingly, it raised the question of how much or little Lerner understood of the Villa culture. … From the outside looking in, it seemed to be that Randy Lerner’s commitment and passion for the Villa project rather waned last season.”
Judged solely by wins and losses, Lerner’s ownership of the Browns has been more than disappointing. But it seemed like his heart was always in the right place, even if his decisions were not.
Cleveland is a weird place where fans obsess constantly about ownership like seemingly no other town. The Dolans are criticized constantly for not having pockets deep enough to sustain a payroll in excess of $100 million for the Indians (despite having the highest payrolls in team history), and for selling the naming rights to Progressive Field (even though the original name, Jacobs Field, came about through the sale of naming rights). Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is alternately praised for “doing what it takes” to build a winner while also being criticized for his role in the coddling of LeBron James. As the owner of what is unquestionably the No. 1 franchise in town, Lerner’s every move is dissected and criticized on pretty much a daily basis.
Change is coming to Cleveland’s sports landscape and it looks like it is coming in a major way. In a few months we may have a new ownership group to obsess over.
Only time will tell if this is the kind of change we can all believe in.