It all started Sunday afternoon, not long before the Cleveland Browns were set to kickoff their final game of the 2013 season against the bitter division rival Pittsburgh Steelers. With the Browns sitting at 4-11, there was little left to do but play spoiler in attempt to dash the Steelers' playoff hopes and end on a high note.
That's when the real story began to trickle down. Tony Grossi of ESPN Cleveland reported that there were "bad vibes" surrounding the uncertainty of head coach Rob Chudzinski's future with the team.
A common reaction among fans was dismay and disbelief.
"What?! After just one year? This had to be merely a rumor... right?" I'm afraid not.
A number of national reporters soon followed, explaining the front office's growing problems with Chud's regime throughout the second half of the season, including an apparent lack of accountability and decisiveness.
It quickly escalated from speculation that Chud may have to coach for his job in the season closer to full-blown "self destruct mode" after just an hour into the game.
What was worse for the Cleveland faithful, having to sift through the reports detailing the impending collapse of the less-than-a-year-old coaching staff before the season was even over or actually watching the ongoing struggle on the field as the listless Browns were slowly but surely pummeled into submission at the hands of their most despised rival?
It didn't take much longer following that embarrassing finish for owner Jimmy Haslam and then president Joe Banner to effectively finalize their decision. About an hour after the game, ESPN's Chris Mortensen confirmed that Chudzinski would be fired, citing league sources.
Black Monday came early for Cleveland.
All signs pointed toward nothing but dark days ahead. And that was merely the beginning. The offseason from hell was just getting started.
Should we have seen this coming?
Like most of these stories, we have to go back to find where things began to go wrong.
There were already any number of reasons to be weary of Banner, but his hiring of Mike Lombardi as vice president of player personnel the year before the bomb was dropped was the first red flag. Strictly judging the guy on his own merits as a previous GM in the NFL and his own words as a member of the media, fans had every right to be skeptical.
However, early returns on Banner's first major investment seemed acceptable. They bolstered the pass rush in free agency by signing Paul Kruger, Quinton Groves, and Desmond Bryant, then continued by adding Barkevious Mingo in the first round of the draft.
They even had the foresight to trade into the much deeper draft in the year to come, which included the brilliant complete and utter fleecing of the Indianapolis Colts, unloading Trent Richardson for a 2014 first-round pick.
Prior to those acquisitions, in early March 2013, Banner and Lombardi made what we didn't know at the time may have just been their most crucial move throughout their entire time with the Browns by hiring a young, up-and-coming pro scout from the Kansas City Chiefs named Ray Farmer.
With league rules barring lateral moves, Farmer was given the position of assistant GM and Lombardi's title changed to general manager. It was widely-regarded as a great hire, but flew mostly under the radar as Banner maintained the same level of power and influence within the organization.
The Banner-Lombardi regime's earliest results were largely deemed positive, at least on the surface, so we flash forward.
The Strangest Head Coaching Search of All Time
Regardless of how head-scratching it was to fire the entire coaching staff less than 12 months into the job, the ensuing search for their replacements was unlike anything we'd ever seen before, which is saying an awful lot for this fanbase.
The truth is, the first big warning signs didn't rear their ugly heads until the day the news of Chud's demise came down. One name kept reappearing from the very beginning and almost to the very end. A name we'd all heard before and were justifiably concerned about: Josh McDaniels.
At this time he was back to being offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots after what first looked to be a flash in the pan but eventually turned into a total dismantling of the Denver Broncos during his two-year tenure as their head coach. It was a mess, which included not only spending a first-round pick on Tim Tebow, but a spygate-like scandal as well. It was a mess that John Elway, John Fox, and Peyton Manning were later left to clean up.
The McDaniels connection to Lombardi seemed fairly strong right from the initial onset of the search. They're both close disciples of Bill Belichick, the current do-it-all football patriarch and mastermind behind the Patriots' modern dynasty. Although, McDaniels and Lombardi were yet to work together in major positions on the same team at the same time, he still seemed like the early front-runner to land the Browns gig.
That lasted for about a week and a half. McDaniels interviewed for the job on the weekend after that final loss to Pittsburgh. One report even described it as an "awesome" meeting. By the following Wednesday, McDaniels withdrew his own name from consideration.
Finally, there was some good news. McDaniels' withdrawal largely came as a delight to the vast majority of Browns fans that considered his candidacy perhaps the worst possible consequence of Chud's firing. Disaster averted, right?
If that was case, initially it appeared then to have occurred despite the front office's best effort. According to numerous reports, McDaniels was the guy they wanted. For the second straight year, it looked like they failed to close the deal and bring in their first choice.
We've seen this movie before...
Or so it seemed.
As you may recall, the offseason from a year ago went through some of the same steps we thought we were seeing play out again: Fail to hire Plan A. Plans B and C end up elsewhere. Hire Plan D, or E, or F, at that point it was hard to tell. Of course, we know how that ended: Fire Plan D/E/F and go back to Step 1.
It wasn't until after the smoke settled a month later that we found out the truth of what was really going on behind the scenes was even stranger than we thought. And it was just the tip of the iceberg.
First, we hear that McDaniels wasn't yet interested in moving on from the Patriots because he wanted to maintain stability for his family, after jumping around from Denver to St. Louis, and back to New England.
We didn't know it at the time, but reportedly within about 24 hours of publicly pulling his own hat out of the ring, McDaniels called the Browns to get back in. It was either that or someone within the organization was desperate to change his mind.
In either case, McDaniels and the Browns kept talking up to a day before the actual final head coach hire was announced.
Apparently, McDaniels never actually left the race for the job, despite mixed feelings with the Browns organization. The core of the dysfunction may have began at that time and centered around disagreement on McDaniel's legitimacy as a candidate.
Meanwhile, as the McDaniels folly within the front office was ongoing, just about every other candidate for the gig is saying, "Thanks, but no thanks." And they weren't as desperate to immediately call back.
Like a House of Cards
Collapse was inevitable.
Over the course of the wildest offseason in over 15 years that the last seven months have been, we learned more revelations about the origins of how it came together, well before it all came tumbling down.
Flashing back again, let's have a closer reexamination of those beginnings:
The foundation upon which the previous front office sat was non-existent. The joining of new team owner Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner was something Sports Illustrated's Peter King described as a "shotgun marriage from the start." And despite Haslam's adamant claims to the contrary, rumors continued to arise suggesting that the league pressured him to take on Banner, a lot of which wouldn't truly come to light until after he was gone.
Still, when Banner was first hired, it raised a lot of eyebrows because of his reputation and the name he was quickly rumored to be attached to, the same name that would ultimately lead to his eventual downfall.
Fans were worried because of what it would likely mean for the status of Tom Heckert as GM at the time, who had previously bolted from Banner's Eagles to take a bigger role helping Mike Holmgren rebuild the Browns. Although he was far from perfect, most of the emerging young talents in Cleveland were Heckert picks. The bright core of that roster was the house that Heckert built, much of which remains to this day.
The worry was warranted. Within days of the announcement that Holmgren would be leaving at the end of the 2012 season as Banner continued to consolidate his power in the organization, Heckert saw the writing on the wall and began making phone calls to friends around the league. He'd soon be looking for a new job.
Heckert's replacement? Mike Lombardi.
The man with one of the worst list of draftees in NFL history, whose most notable move as Browns GM was picking fullback "Touchdown" Tommy Vardell at No. 9 overall in 1992. If a first round fullback wasn't crazy enough, he later went on to draft kicker Sebastian Janikowski at No. 17 overall in 2000 while working under Raiders owner Al Davis. Davis would become a convenient excuse for that abhorrent draft record in his prior stint as a player personnel executive.
As far as recent history with the Browns was concerned, Lombardi's record as an analyst wasn't any better. He ripped Joe Haden a month after he was drafted for being "too slow." He called the first-round selection of Brandon Weeden, who would go on to win the starting job during Lombardi's short tenure, a "panicked disaster." Lombardi considered Josh Gordon a "waste" of a second-round pick, used to take him in the 2012 supplemental draft.
Al Davis wasn't the only convenient excuse. Apparently, the "media" just does things differently, as if it were some sort of license for Lombardi not to be held accountable for the ridiculous things he said during that time.
Jim Nantz, who called Belichick and Lombardi "above the rest," seemed to back him up on that point. Questioning Lombardi's expertise as a personnel executive based on the overwhelming evidence suggesting he doesn't have much... "that’s a fan question."
Of course, Lombardi was so sheltered from the media, questions of any variety, fan or otherwise, were very rare.
If only Haslam had the foresight to ask Banner and Lombardi more "fan questions" in their first interviews, perhaps the Browns may have avoided the impending disaster that was about to go down like the Hindenburg.
The craziest was still yet to come...
Now flashing forward one last time to when the Browns 2014 head coaching search was nearing its end, the strangest of news had yet to even break.
Remember, this was a time when the common narrative nationally painted the Browns organization as "radioactive" and "dysfunctional." Attitudes about "those in charge" even reportedly got to the point of "disparaging to downright nasty." It was a narrative that then assistant GM Ray Farmer and Joe Banner felt the need to try to dispel through an interview with Cleveland.com.
Truth be told, Farmer's comments and excitement about the Browns potential to "redefine the history books'' did a fine job of hiding what was simmering beneath the surface. There's a chance he wasn't even aware of it himself yet.
Farmer did, however, turn down what would have been big promotion to be the GM of the Miami Dolphins just a few days before. Did Haslam tip him on what was coming? A week after the Cleveland.com interview, the best news of the entire wacky ordeal would materialize.
But before any of that would go down, the strangest head coaching search of all time had to reach its peak.
For a long time, that peak was considered to be when Greg Schiano's name appeared on the list interviewees.
Apparently, Belichick was calling Haslam to advise him on candidates.
Belichick, the Darth Vader of the NFL, is a tactical genius in this league. Actually, he's more like Vader and the Emperor combined. In what may have been his most wickedly clever attempt at competitive sabotage, Belichick recommenced Schiano, perhaps the only coach who's more of a tyrannical bully than Belichick himself.
Not even Joe Banner liked that one.
It couldn't possibly get any wilder than that, right? Wrong again.
The craziest news of all was the last to come down.
The Browns nearly pulled off a trade with the San Francisco 49ers for the rights to head coach Jim Harbaugh. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk first broke the story in late February, a month after the actual final hire. The Browns have never denied the report.
According to Daryl Ruiter and Joe Lull, a source told 92.3 The Fan that Harbaugh expressed interest while the gig was still available. At that time there were also rumors of tension between Harbaugh and Niners GM Trent Baalke.
Although 49ers CEO Jed York denied all those reports in a clear attempt at damage control, ESPN's Chris Mortensen confirmed that the Harbaugh trade talks between the two teams reached a "serious stage."
Whether the price became too much for the Browns or Harbaugh got cold feet about the move, no deal was reached. And if Lombardi really orchestrated the pursuit as Nantz plainly suggested, his failure to deliver may have been his undoing.
‣ Part 1 - Like a House of Cards
• Part 2 - The Light at the End of the Tunnel
• Part 3 - A New Hope begins with Free Agency
• Part 4 - Worth the Wait: Ray Farmer wins the Draft