It’s no secret that, since returning to the league in 1999, the Cleveland Browns haven’t exactly been the NFL’s model franchise in terms of on-field success. The team has had only two winning seasons and one playoff appearance since its restoration, a true testament to just how dismal the on-field performance of the team has been. Players, coaches, and entire front office staffs have come and gone, but the results on the field have remained consistently underwhelming year after year.
2012 marked the start of the Jimmy Haslam era and the end of the Lerner family era. The change in ownership signaled a somewhat new beginning for Browns fans, as many felt that it was time for change to come at the very top of the organization. Haslam wasted no time in making changes, hiring former Philadelphia Eagles executive Joe Banner as the Browns’ new CEO. Haslam was also instrumental in ending the Mike Holmgren experiment, which officially ended in November.
Following an up-and-down 2012 season in which the Browns finished with yet another losing record (5-11), Haslam and Banner fired head coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert. Shortly thereafter, Haslam made a questionable move in the eyes of many Browns fans by hiring Mike Lombardi as Heckert’s replacement.
Despite the negative reaction of the Lombardi signing, Haslam had already made it clear that he had purchased the Browns with the full intention of being actively involved with the organization on a day-to-day basis – something that Randy Lerner had been routinely criticized for not doing enough of while serving as owner of the Browns from 2002-2012.
The ongoing fiasco with the Jimmy Haslam-owned Pilot Flying J company has taken a heavy toll on Browns fans’ confidence in Haslam, prompting some to believe that he may soon be on his way out of Cleveland, despite the words of reassurance from Haslam himself that he has no intention of selling the team. Regardless of his issues with Pilot Flying J, it is hard to deny the fact that Haslam has been working diligently to transform the negative atmosphere that has surrounded the Cleveland Browns organization since 1999 into a winning atmosphere by focusing on improvement in three key areas: management, player personnel, and the game day experience.
The overhaul of the front office has produced mixed reactions from fans, but the changes made within the coaching staff have been received relatively well. The hiring of former Browns offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski as the team’s head coach came as a bit of a surprise, given his lack of head coaching experience. Chudzinksi’s solid reputation as an offensive coordinator, as well as his Ohio roots, contributed to an overall sense of approval from most Browns fans, though. Chudzinski will be accomadated by the well-traveled Norv Turner on offense and the highly-regarded Ray Horton on defense. The Browns missed out on hiring any of the big name coaches on the market (ala Chip Kelly), but being able to land both Horton and Turner as coordinators should prove to be two of the more underrated coaching moves of the offseason.
Some shakeups also took place within the roster itself, as the Browns spent big money during free agency to improve the defense and ease the transition from a 4-3 defense to the 3-4 defense that has been implemented by Ray Horton. The Browns brought in linebacker Paul Kruger, who was a key contributor for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, as well as defensive tackle Desmond Bryant, to shore up the defensive front seven. These two alone will account for nearly $75 million over the next five years, proving to fans that this new regime is more than willing to open its checkbook to improve the team.
The culture of game day in Cleveland will also be quite different this season, as the team has been working to improve upon the game day experience at the newly-named FirstEnergy Stadium. Cheerleaders still will not be a part of that experience, but some more unique components of fanfare will be, such as wiener dog races and an all-female drum line.
The stadium itself will be undergoing major renovations in two phases, with the first phase coming after the 2013 season and the second coming in 2014. Continuing with the organization’s modernization efforts, Haslam has already come out and said that plans for uniform changes are in the works, as well, although the changes would not be coming until 2015.
As evidenced by the Cleveland Browns’ lack of success since 1999, the hiring and firing of coaching staffs can only go so far in the NFL. Granted, expensive linebackers and wiener dog races can only go so far, also; but the Browns appear to be on the right path of reversing the losing culture into something positive. Expectations for the team’s 2013 season are much higher than they have been in previous seasons, and rightfully so. Jimmy Haslam, even with all his recent issues, appears to be doing something right.