The silver lining to taking over as president of a sports organization is that you're able to shape the shifting sands of organizational change to whatever image is desired. For the Browns organization in the fall of 2012, even the design and style of the stadium and uniforms was on the table as something that could be analyzed and re-engineered.
Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner made it clear that they were going to design the Browns organization in their own image, claiming a bold new direction and an aggressive team on all fronts. Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner made an aggressive pitch for Chip Kelly, but moved on quickly to ensure they were not left without options for the head coaching vacancy. At first glance that is a smart business decision but the head scratching came later as they hired a coach who was not drawing heavy interest from anywhere else in the league. Browns fans were content with the hire of Rob Chudzinski because he brought talented coordinators with NFL experience, and had been successful in his role as OC everywhere he had landed previously. It was management’s handpicked choice, and for the first time in over a decade, every facet of the team would be on the same page.
The cracks and dysfunction in the organization reared its head quickly, and came in the form of a “concerning step backward” for the football team. The real concern for the fans should be that it only took months for an internal power struggle to doom the coaching staff, not with what happened on the field. Despite a 4-12 record, the Browns appeared to be headed in the right direction. The season truly ended on two dates; October 3rd when the only capable quarterback on the roster tore his ACL attempting the worst slide in franchise history, and November 17th, when the Browns defense discovered that it was incapable of willing a poor offensive product to wins. Players began to lash out, and the “accountability” talk reached a fever pitch. The rest of the Browns season was destined for evaluating talent and making sure that the roster holes that would require patching in the offseason were identified without a doubt. The second half of this year should have been an evaluation year, as Mike Krupka opined, and for some reason that isn't how the front office perceived it.
Unfortunately for Chudzinski, the Browns front office didn’t share this view, and demanded a greater result in the win-loss column. It’s tremendously difficult for any coach to win games with the worst quarterbacks in football, and having a new system on both offense and defense requires time to be absorbed. (H/t to Blaine Gabbert, who's incredible shortcomings at the position makes this statement only mostly true)The product showed flashes of competency early in the season, but in critical game moments where players are expected to be at their best, it failed nearly every week as players tightened up. Management later (allegedly) wanted Chudzinski to bench starters to send a message, but at the same time demanded wins with sub-par replacements that were the only players available.
"We're disappointed with the run game, but we expect more from UDFA mid-season running back pickups and a sub-bar run blocking line. Do more." - Hypothetical Browns Front Office Executive.
I truly cannot begin to comprehend how Chudzinski would have been capable of succeeding in this season with the tools at his disposal and the expectations that were leveled on him by the front office. What I saw on the field this season was frustrating but not disconcerting, as the offensive game plan left receivers open downfield and the defense shored up problems (like stopping the run) that have never been addressed by previous regimes. Nearly all of the players Chud acquired failed him on offense, from quarterbacks throwing back breaking picks, missing wide open targets, and checking down all game to receivers dropping touchdowns that hit them in the hands. I felt that his game management and decision making was remarkably sound for a first year head coach, and I was left without the confusion of late game punts and horribly conservative play calling. Chud used the tools he was provided to the best of his ability, and was canned for failing to toe the party line.
The sad and inevitable fallout from this situation is what will follow in the next few weeks. Front office executives that had developed a reputation for being cold and ruthless (Banner) as well as power hungry and contentious (Lombardi) have added another data point to their legacies, and have shown perspective head coaches that they must win now or they will be let go with startling suddenness. The Browns may attempt to foister current assistants on this new head coach (which is unlikely to work out) and they will certainly push agendas regarding playing time and development. Despite having a phenomenal cap situation and a bounty of picks in the 2014 draft, talent must be willing to come to Cleveland under the worst of job conditions and with an axe hanging over their heads. Operating a business like that is a recipe for failure in the best of career fields, and will scare the ideal candidates away from Cleveland. The Browns locker room is incensed about the firing, and a new coach will have to implement his own schemes at the same time that he is managing 61 disgruntled employees who are confused about the team vision and angry with management.
The Browns knew that the decision to fire Chudzinski would incite fan anger and unrest, but I can’t help but feel like they are being blasé about the impact it has on their ability to woo player and coaching talent to the city. They face a tall task in the weeks ahead calming the rocking ship, and fan apathy is already reaching a fevered pitch. Thousands of empty orange seats litter the broadcast screens every Sunday, and that translates directly into revenue streams. The pendulum is swinging in the wrong direction for 2014, and the year has yet to begin. Buckle up, Dawgs By Nature readers and Browns faithful. It could be a very bumpy ride.