It began with Chris Palmer. He was the first coach hired for the new Cleveland Browns. It’s hard now to remember just how much hope there was for the new Browns. For three years, Cleveland had been without football, and it was miserable. Now, there was a beautiful new stadium -- which the city had paid for by selling bonds. There was the Browns’ old name and the old uniforms waiting. It was like a do-over. A new beginning.
And: Chris Palmer. Yeah. He had been the offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He seemed a decent guy, though nobody seemed entirely sure why owner Al Lerner* and GM Dwight Clark thought he would be a good head coach. There seemed nothing especially interesting about him.
*Then again, nobody seemed entire sure why Al Lerner, who played a pivotal role in moving the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore in the first place, owned the team. At Palmer’s hiring, there was a lot of talk about some of the things he said in his interview, stuff about discipline and developing players. It must have been quite a talk because the Browns management was mightily impressed. Pat Shurmur, as far as I know, never said any of these interesting things publicly.
“The head coach of the Cleveland Browns is a builder, as opposed to a fixer,” Lerner told the media.
That, of course, would change very quickly. With Dwight Clark as general manager and Palmer as coach, the Browns made the lamentable choice of Tim Couch with the first pick in the 1999 draft -- ahead of Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper -- and they promptly went 2-14. With the first pick int he 2000 draft, the Browns took the equally lamentable Courtney Brown rather than, say, Brian Urlacher or John Abraham, and went 3-13. That when the Browns canned Palmer. The job now required a fixer.
And they hired the ultimate fixer: Butch Davis. Everyone understood why the Browns paid $3 million a year to get him. Davis was the winning coach of the University of Miami, a Jimmy Johnson disciple. He was one of the hottest coaches in America. Fixer? He had turned around the Hurricanes program in the years after Sports Illustrated recommended shutting the whole thing down. Al Lerner, that judge of character, was again blown away by the interview.
“When you meet him and spend time with him and get a sense of what he’s about, it’s irresistible,” he said.
Yes. Irresistible. Davis made the Browns respectable in his first year and squeezed them into the playoffs his second. But under CEO Carmen Policy, the team kept having horrendous drafts. From 1999-2002 the Browns did not draft a player who made even a single Pro Bowl. Tim Couch had proven to Davis’ satisfaction that he was not an NFL starting quarterback and so Davis tried Kelly Holcomb there for a while and then 34-year-old Jeff Garcia. That went as you would expect. Insiders said Davis became more and more difficult to deal with as the team lost more and more games -- apparently, none of this was really his fault -- and the team became more and more of a mess. Halfway through the 2004 season the Browns booted Davis.
He went to North Carolina where he built a winning team and was fired after a wide-ranging academic misconduct scandal.
Next: Romeo Crennel. He was 57-years-old and, it was pointed out, the first non-interim African-American coach of the Cleveland Browns. Randy Lerner, son of Al and the new owner, was impressed by the way Crennel interviewed. “He was compelling from the start,” Lerner gushed. Of course, everyone loved Crennel. Players swore by him. Bill Belichick, who knows more about defense than perhaps any man alive, trusted him to run the Patriots defense in their Super Bowl years. Crennel had never been a head coach. Everyone seemed to agree that it was long overdue.
In his second year, Crennel led the Browns to a 10-6 record. A tall Oregon State quarterback named Derek Anderson came more or less out of nowhere and, with veteran running back Jamal Lewis pounding the ball, the Browns were eighth in the league in scoring. They won five games by a touchdown or less, two of them in overtime. There was a sense that, this time, finally, things were going right.
No. It was all an illusion. The Browns had taken quarterback Brady Quinn, an Ohio kid who grew up loving the Browns and had starred at Notre Dame. There was an infatuation with him. Anderson was benched for Quinn. Then Quinn was benched for Anderson. Jamaal Lewis expired, as aging running backs do. The Browns offense instantly became one of the worst in the NFL (under offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who will return to our story in a moment). Crennel was fired after the Browns went 4-12 in 2008.
In came ... Eric Mangini. He had just been fired by the Jets after leading that team into a Brett Favre decorated nightmare -- and I mean he was JUST fired by New York. Apparently Randy Lerner did not even know Mangini had been fired until reporters told him. “His eyes lit up at the news and he almost immediately made arrangements to meet with Mangini the next day,” the Plain Dealer wrote. When your eyes light up because of the unexpected possibility of hiring Eric Mangini, well, you can write your own punchline there.
I once wrote that Eric Mangini was possibly the worst coaching hire in the last 25 years. In retrospect, that was probably unfair. Mangini made a few early missteps that I suspect were overblown (by me and others) because they reflected the disastrous organization. Mangini just happened to be the most public (and dourest) face of that disaster. His two years as Browns coach were certainly awful in just about every way, but when you look at the big picture you realize that it really couldn’t have gone any other way. When you have terrible drafts every year, when you have an owner who barely seems to be paying attention, when you keep hiring and firing everybody, there’s really nothing any coach can do.
Mangini did have a unique ability of alienating people -- fans, media, players -- which didn’t serve him well. It’s funny, though, when Mangini got fired and went to work for ESPN he suddenly became engaging and interesting and even, dare I say it, charismatic. Escaping the Cleveland Browns can do that for a person.
Anyway, I’m not convinced that Mangini was a worse hire than the guy who replaced him.
The Browns, in another of a long string of desperate efforts, brought in Mike Holmgren to be the team’s football czar. Holmgren is a good football man, of course, but by the time the Browns hired him he was in his 60s and he seemed a little quirky. He supposedly offered every Browns draft pick in 2012 for Andrew Luck. Before that, in 2011, he hired Pat Shurmur to be head coach. Nobody had any idea why. Shurmur had never been a head coach at any point, and his only coordinator’s job was in St. Louis where his Rams had the worst offense in the NFL in 2009 and one of the worst in 2010. But Shurmur was viewed by some as a quarterbacks guru, having worked through the years with Donovan McNabb and Sam Bradford.
Holmgren, like the Lerners before him, just LOVED the interview process.
“I came away from our interview very impressed with him as a person, his extensive knowledge of the game and his track record of success as an assistant coach in this league,” he said.
Man, people must love interviewing in Cleveland. Shurmur was hired, and he had no chance. The Browns at this point seemed convinced that Colt McCoy was their franchise quarterback, which was one of only a million miscalculations through the years. Then, Randy Lerner sold the team to Jimmy Haslam, who is a whole other kind of fiasco. Mike Holmgren was shoved out the door. The Browns drafted Trent Richardson who they disliked so much they would trade him a year later. So, no, there really wasn’t much Shurmur could do. When you are the circus barker, you are only as good as the circus acts.
That said, Shumur did have a special aptitude for looking out of his depth. His Browns teams lost 23 of 32 games, and the losses were spattered with clock mismanagement, bizarre turnovers and general confusion.
So, let’s see here. The Browns GM at this point was, um, I guess Michael Lombardi; it’s never entirely clear who is making decisions in Cleveland. They hired Rob Chudzinski, who had been offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers, which hardly seemed a ringing endorsement. Even the Browns did not seem excited about him. They had gone after a couple of big name college coaches, whiffed on those, and Chud seemed as good a Plan D as any. He grew up in Ohio as a Cleveland Browns fan. Of course, so did I.
I really have no idea what kind of job Chud did this year. The team was terrible, but, you know, they more or less punted the season by trading Richardson after Week 2 (at which point they won three games in a row in classic Cleveland style). It’s hard to say that a team with Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden at quarterback and 32-year-old Willis McGahee as the top running back and a defensive line that did not have a single player with even four sacks underachieved. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that a team with five Pro Bowlers -- the utterly remarkable Josh Gordon as one of them -- and four victories overachieved. This team is like Global Warming. It’s possible that Chud was doing some good things with wind power or something. Who can even tell?
Anyway, the Browns fired him too after just one year. This is what incompetent organizations do.
“This organization is a joke,” a Cleveland player told NFL.com, and it’s a shame the player didn’t let them use his name because truer words have rarely been spoken. The Browns are indeed a joke. They are, at the moment, the worst organization in American sports.
Cleveland doesn’t deserve that. This coming year will mark 50 since Cleveland’s last championship in any sport. The Browns have provided more pain than any of the other teams. I remember the awfulness of the Browns final home game in 1995 -- the last game in Cleveland before the Browns moved to Baltimore. There was so much anger, so much disgust, so little hope.
And then, in 1996, 1997 and 1998 there was no football in Cleveland. When I would come back in the winters, there was a bleakness that overwhelmed everything. The wind. The snow. The slush. The grayness. The potholes. All of it seemed tolerable as long as the Browns played on Sundays. With them gone, well, it was rough.
But you know what? With these Browns -- with this owner, with this braintrust, with the never ending parade of quarterbacks, with the perpetual hiring and firing of coaches -- I have to say: Those three years without the Browns almost seem charming in memory.