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In Cleveland, hope dies last

Is the prevailing media narrative fair to Jimmy Haslam?

jimmy haslam media perceptionsA little more than two-and-a-half years ago a major shift in the fortunes of the Cleveland Browns took place when it was announced that Jimmy Haslam was buying the team from Randy Lerner.

The move was met with applause from a rabid fan base that was tired of seeing Cleveland’s undisputed No. 1 team being run by Lerner, who was always more of a caretaker of the franchise as opposed to an actual owner. No longer would fans have to concern themselves with Lerner living in New York City or flying to Birmingham, England, on the weekend to watch his other team, Aston Villa in the Premier League.

Now the Browns were going to run by a “hands-on” owner, one who had a minority stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers and had learned the “Steeler way” from the great and all-knowing Rooney family.

Fast forward 31 months and the narrative has definitely changed on Haslam as we can’t seemingly go a week without another media story painting the Browns as dysfunctional, toxic, a dumpster fire and everything in between — including the ridiculous notion that Haslam would trade his ownership of the Browns to take over the Tennessee Titans.

Haslam has been transformed from a savior to an “interfering owner,” one who is always on the prowl to make a “splashy” move that garners big, 72-point headlines, and someone with an “itchy trigger finger” who just can’t wait to fire his next head coach.

A large portion of the fan base has jumped on board that train, turning on the one-time savior of the franchise in the process.

At the top we asked if the media-created narrative is fair to Haslam, but that may not be the right question. After all, life isn’t fair, a truth that many people witness and experience on a daily basis.

“Let’s face it, it hasn’t been the smoothest start in the world. But we accept the responsibility to win. All organizations feel like they’re picked on, but there’s no sense spending time. They’re going to write what they want. The best thing we can do is win, then you build up some equity and capital. Until we win and win consistently, we don’t have that.” – Browns owner Jimmy Haslam

Perhaps the question we are really trying to answer is if the portrait being painted of Haslam is accurate. Is there really any truth to what people say?

Let’s take a look at some of the major things that Haslam has done since taking over the team:

  • At the end of his first season as owner, Haslam fired head coach Pat Shurmur, who had compiled a record of 9-23 in his two seasons in Cleveland. That was a move that many Browns fans were solidly behind.
  • At the end of his second season as owner Haslam fired head coach Rob Chudzinski, who went 4-12 in his one season in Cleveland. Firing your head coach after just one year is not a good look, but it led to the team hiring Mike Pettine, which puts the team in a better place.
  • That same off-season, Haslam reversed the biggest mistake he made my firing both Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi. If Haslam walked away that day and never set foot in Cleveland or Ohio ever again, he would still probably deserve a statue for righting that wrong.
  • Invested money — reportedly more than $100 million in new scoreboards and upgrades to the stadium. OK, not all of that is his money he’s investing, but that is the norm in sports.
  • Set the Browns on the path to a redesigned uniform set. Not our most favorite idea, but not the end of the world, either.
  • Watched offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who can’t function unless he is under the protection of his daddy, walk away at the end of this past season. Pettine summed up that situation perfectly with this quote: “The bottom line is essentially that Kyle didn’t want to be part of the organization. You can use the word quit. Those are the facts.”
  • Seen general manager Ray Farmer investigated for texting coaches during games last season. In the grand scheme of things — like allowing players to remain in the game after clearly taking a shot to the head — not a big offense, but still against league rules.
  • May or may not have played a role in drafting quarterback Johnny Manziel in the first round of last year’s NFL Draft.
  • Seen his family’s company, Pilot Flying J, come under federal investigation. That’s not the Browns, so we’re honestly not worried about it.

Now lets look at some of the major things that Haslam has not done since taking over the team:

  • In his 31 months as owner, he has not turned the Browns into a winner. Of course, the team spent the prior 12 years before he bought them building that losing culture.
  • In his 31 months as owner, has not seen the team find a quarterback, a problem that more than a few NFL teams are struggling with. Of course, the Browns have been looking for a quarterback since Nov. 7, 1993.
  • Haslam has not made it an emphasis for the Browns to “win” the off-season; no $60 million-guaranteed contracts to Ndamukong Suh, or no mortgaging the future to draft a quarterback who flamed out after his rookie year.
  • There are also no on-field or after-game press conferences where he openly second guesses the coaches to a sideline reporter, or reaction shots (at least this past season) of him in the owner’s suite during a game.
  • Allow the Browns to be featured this season on Hard Knocks.

Don’t you think if Haslam was an ego-fueled owner who wanted to “make a splash,” the captain of a highly dysfunctional franchise, that those are the type of moves he would be making on a regular basis?

Is this to suggest that Haslam is perfect? Of course not. But the truth is that there really isn’t anything resembling a perfect owner in sports — although Robert Kraft in New England and Peter Holt in San Antonio probably comes the closest.

Sometimes, though, you fall into some luck (or make your own luck) as an owner. Was Dan Gilbert a worse owner during the four years that LeBron James spent in Miami? How about the Dolans, who simply don’t have enough money to compete with the big payroll teams of Major League Baseball, but are a trendy pick this season?

Haslam had his growing pains in the first year-and-a-half or so of owning the team, but over the past year he has settled into the background. There’s little doubt he makes his opinions known — he was the one who cut the check to Lerner after all – but it’s clear that Farmer and Pettine are the faces of the franchise now.

The changes in Haslam over the past year seem like someone who, if not humbled, at least realizes that he still has a lot to learn about running a professional sports team. He’s not the first owner to learn that lesson and he certainly won’t be the last.

Haslam hard a relatively short honeymoon period with fans and the media, and much of that falls on him. But what he has (or has not) done in the past year should probably start to outweigh what happened in 2012 and 2013.

No matter how far Haslam retreats from the football side of the Browns, there are people who are going to continually push a narrative that he is looming over every decision and influencing every more that the franchise makes. And the only thing that will really quiet those people is when the Browns start to win consistently.

Until then, Haslam and the team are going to continue to take a pounding.

Which means it is probably time for people start working harder to separate fact from fiction.

After all, that’s only fair.

(Photo courtesy of The Associated Press)

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