Many Browns fans are already shouting for Holmgren, Heckert and Shurmer to go. But will another new regime turn are fortunes around. An examination of pro football history tells us the answer is no. It also demonstrates why it is likely to have the opposite effect and lead the Browns to four or five more years of dismal seasons.
Looking at the franchise history of the most productive NFL franchise, and the Browns historical rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers we begin to see the underlying problem of another regime change in Cleveland. The Steelers have had consistency in ownership and front office since their founding with the Rooney family. However, when looking at Head Coach we see a lack of consistency that hurt them during their early “Decades of Futility” that resulted in the nickname of the “Same Old Steelers”. From 1933 to 1969 the Steelers had 13 Head Coaches. That is an average of a new Head Coach every 2.8 years. They were one of the worst, if not the worst, team in the NFL with a record of 177-293-20 over that 36 year period. During that period they didn’t have their first winning season until 1942 and only made it to the Playoffs once in 1947 and a “doesn’t count” in 1962. This is a Playoff appearance rate of once every 18 years.
Things began to turn around in the mid1960’s as Art Rooney, II began to take more control of the front office. He had a plan of building through the draft and establishing consistency at the Head Coach position. The result was that in 1969 they hired rookie head coach Chuck Noll and began drafting first for defense and then subsequently for offense. This led to one of the most talented teams in the NFL. However, things didn’t turn around instantly for Coach Noll and the “new” Steelers. They went just 1-13 in 1969, 5-9 in 1970, and 6-8 in 1971. The Steelers didn’t have their first winning season until 1972, year four of the new regime, when they went 11-3 going to the Playoffs but losing in the first round. They repeated this performance in 1973 with a 10-4 record and a 1st round Playoff appearance and loss. In 1974 the Steelers finally made it past the first round of the Playoffs going on to win Super Bowl IX.
For the 43 years from 1969 to the present they have had just three Head Coaches or one every 14.3 years on average. The front office and the coaching staff during this time have been extremely stable. Forty-three years of consistency in coaching and management has resulted in 20 Division Championships, 27 Playoff appearances, 8 Conference Championships and 6 Super Bowl wins. This is a Playoff appearance rate of one every 1.6 years and a NFL Super Bowl Championship rate of one every 7.2 years.
The Steelers went from worst to best but it took time devoted to a plan of building through the draft and stability in coaching and front office. We need to keep in mind though that they had a 4 year Playoff drought from 1985 to 1988 under Noll and a three year Playoff drought from 1998 to 2000 under Cowher. Neither of these Head Coaches were fired and subsequently went on to have productive seasons.
The support for not firing Holmgren, Heckert and Shurmer becomes even more evident when we look at the second most productive team in NFL history, the Dallas Cowboys. They have been through 4 owners since they became an expansion franchise in 1960 with rabid changes in ownership and front office directly impacting performance on the field in the late 1980s. They started in 1960 under Head Coach Tom Landry and with a plan of building through the draft. That year the Cowboys went 0-11-1. Coach Landry and Cowboys went 4-9-1 in 1961, 5-8-1 in 1962, 4-10 in 1963, and 5-8-1 in 1964. Note the regression in year 4 Browns fans, but remember that Landry kept his job.
In 1965 the Cowboys and Coach Landry finally had a winning season of 7-7 and made it to the Playoffs, losing in the 1st round. In 1966 they were 10-3-1 and again went to the Playoffs making it to the NFL Championship Game which they lost to Green Bay (who went on to win Super Bowl I against Kansas City). Landry and the Cowboys finally made it to Super Bowl V in 1970 but lost to the Baltimore Colts in the first year of the AAFC/NFL merger. The next year they went on to win Super Bowl VI, eleven years after the start of the franchise. In total during the 28 years during which Landry coached the Cowboys they had a 250-162-6 record with 13 Division Championships, 18 Playoff appearances, 7 Conference Championships, and 2 Super Bowls (VI & XII). This is a Playoff appearance rate of one every 1.6 years and a NFL Super Bowl Championship rate of one every 14 years.
Over the next nine years they went through 2 Head Coaches with an average of one every 4.5 years. During this period they had 6 Playoff appearances, 5 Division Championships, 3 Conference Championships, and 3 Super Bowls (XXVII, XXVIII & XXX). This is a Playoff appearance rate of one every 1.5 years and a NFL Super Bowl Championship rate of one every 3 years. However, this was the beginning of the end of their NFL dominance with Switzer stepping down and starting the Cowboys revolving door at Head Coach after their losing record in 1997. In the last 14 years they have had 5 coaches with an average turnover every 2.8 years. In this time they had only 3 Division Championships, 6 Playoff appearances, no Conference Championships and no Super Bowls. This is a Playoff appearance rate of one every 2.3 years. The Cowboys have clearly suffered from the lack of consistency in recent decades.
Now let’s have a Brown’s history lesson from their years in the AAFC (1940-49) and the NFL (1950 to the present). From 1942-1970 the Browns had 2 Head Coaches. During this period our record was 270-82-10. We dominated the AAFC with 4 Division Championships, 4 Playoff appearances, and 4 Conference Championships. After joining the NFL in 1950 to 1970 we had 3 NFL Division Championships, 13 Playoff appearances, 11 Conference Championships, and 4 NFL Championships. This is a Playoff appearance rate of one every 1.6 years and an AAFC or NFL Championship rate of one every 3.5 years. We were one of the best teams in professional football for 28 years.
From 1971 to 1995 we went to mediocre. During that time we had 8 Head Coaches or an average of a new Head Coach every 3 years and about the same front office changes. This resulted in 6 Division Championships, 9 Playoff appearances, no Conference Championships, and no Super Bowl appearances. This is a Playoff appearance rate of one every 4 years. From 1999 to the present we have had 6 new Head Coaches and about 8 change-ups in the front office, a change up every other year on average. This has resulted in 2, count them 2, Playoff appearances and nothing else. This is a Playoff appearance rate of one every 6 years.
The solution to the Browns dismal record and our continual “Waiting For Next Year” can be found in history. History clearly demonstrates that a team is built through consistency, stability, progressive building through the draft and patience, not through constant change. I don’t expect a winning season this year or even better then mediocre at best next. What I do expect to see this year and next is that our level of play has improved with maybe an increase in the W-L ratio. But I won’t be surprised in regression this year and only increase in wins next. Keep in mind that during the time the Steelers and Cowboys were building they didn’t face a lockout in year 2 of their plan nor did they face the third toughest schedule in the league in year 3. What I do expect to see is some stability in Cleveland and dedication to a plan that will pay off in year 5 (2014) and on. What I don’t want to see is an entirely new regime that will require 5 more years (2017) to start paying dividends in terms of wins.
I’m not saying that change isn’t necessary and if after five years we haven’t seen the promised improvement then we will need to consider it. I also know many of you know or can find examples of teams that made a dramatic change and had a meteoric rise in the next two seasons. But how many of those teams have gone on to become dominating franchises decade after decade as the modern Steelers are and the Cowboys of the 1960s through the 90s were. As Edmund Burke wrote, and later paraphrased by George Santayana and numerous others, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” It is time for Browns fans to know the history of what made great football teams great and what has led to disaster for so many others. Clearly long term winning teams aren’t built by starting over every 2 to 3 years. This fan would like to see the Browns to be a dominate team for decades to come like we were in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.