The Light at the End of the Tunnel
The Browns still had a head coach to hire.
It was back to the drawing board, time for Plan P.
And alas, the strangest head coaching search of all time came to a close.
On January 23, dark horse candidate Mike Pettine was hired as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, the eighth in the 15 years since expansion in 1999 and the 18th in franchise history.
A man who started his coaching career at the high school level, he jumped to the NFL suddenly. Pettine joined the Ravens staff in 2001 and moved up the ranks quickly under Rex Ryan, despite a big difference in personality. As defensive coordinator of the Jets from 2009 to 2012, he is considered to have contributed greatly to the strength of their defense.
When his contract with New York expired, he took the DC job with the Buffalo Bills, where he only spent a year before accepting the Browns' offer at head coach.
He didn't deny the fact that he wasn't the front office's first choice. Or second, or third for that matter. But he was determined to prove he was the right choice. And while he did benefit somewhat from the ugly friend effect – the fact that he's not Josh McDaniels or Greg Schiano was an inherent positive – his gritty determination reaffirmed fans' approval.
Perception is largely irrelevant to Pettine, which is an excellent quality to have as a head coach in Cleveland.
Lack of security?
"I’ll always bet on myself," Pettine said in response. He's not backing away from this challenge.
And although they were understandably dismayed by the firing of a head coach after just one year a few weeks prior, with consideration to the alternatives and what was an insane process, most Browns fans were just as happy to bet on Pettine too.
Unsurprisingly, that insane process didn't end completely with the hiring of Pettine. But it did seem the results began to come out better and better.
Following Pettine, the next major piece to the Browns' coaching staff puzzle was at offensive coordinator. The early favorite, Kyle Shanahan, was among the most qualified of those available. And the hiring came with just the right amount of drama to fit in perfectly.
According to both ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi and NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Shanahan's interview didn't go well at all. Grossi's report indicated that Shanahan openly criticized the front office for how they handled Chudzinski's firing. Rapoport said Shanahan was "very blunt and honest" in the interview and it turned the Browns off.
The day after those reports, they hired him. Like much of the team's offseason up that point, the conflicting details remain up in the air, but the proof is in the pudding. This time the Browns got their man. Pettine's coaching staff was shaping up and it inspired more confidence.
It may have all been worth it...
It couldn't inspire even half as much confidence as what was about to transpire, news that would leave at least one pundit's mind blown, but had Browns fans everywhere leaping for joy.
It was the cherry on top of the incredibly messy, yet no less delicious, sundae that made up this era's most absurd offseason any team has ever had in a two month period.
Mike Lombardi was fired.
Joe Banner was being "phased out."
Ray Farmer was promoted to GM.
No one can change the past. Mistakes were made. Whether it was an arranged marriage or just one big slip up by Haslam, Joe Banner's tenure as CEO led the Browns down a strange and tumultuous path with no good end in sight. His most damning move, in more ways than one, was hiring Lombardi.
It was almost too poetic, like a Shakespearean tragedy, they may just be their own worst enemies.
If we're to believe one version of events, pieced together from various independent reports, plausible rumors that fit the mold, taken from those close to the cast of characters at play, and a dash of extrapolation based on all of the evidence contained within the aforementioned:
In mid-to-late 2012, Banner, the league's version of a ball and chain for new owner Haslam, cleans house in the front office and coaching staff, priming the shiny new GM gig for his good friend Lombardi. The trio would later be infamously donned the Three Stooges. When the Stooges' extensive efforts to reel in Chip Kelly had failed in spectacular fashion, they were left grasping for straws and hired what was at best their third or fourth choice, Chudzinski.
Having grown up as a Browns fan, Chud's childhood dream was over before it began. He was brought into an untenable situation and was demanded to do the impossible: win under those circumstances.
The front office thought he wasn't cutting the right players, not starting the right quarterbacks, three of which would end up injured, didn't agree with the major trades, and apparently didn't "shake up" the locker room before they gave up on him. The Stooges decided to fire him before he even coached his final game.
But Lombardi had a plan. He would have to oust Chud to pull off his ultimate coup. To convince Haslam to sign off on firing a first-year head coach, the move that would go on to earn them the Stooge moniker, Lombardi would have to promise someone big. It wasn't Josh McDaniels. Not yet. Lombardi thought he could move mountains and rock the league to its very core by delivering his friend Jim Harbaugh to Cleveland.
We don't know exactly what was promised, but not without reservations, Haslam went along. There was no turning back at that point. At some stage in the process, the Harbaugh trade fell through, and McDaniels became a favorite. It may have been something Haslam and Lombardi finally saw eye-to-eye on.
But it left Banner as the odd man out on that. A rift formed. How deep it went and how long prior it had been festering isn't entirely certain. When your NFL colleagues go as far to refer to your organizational dysfunction as "radioactive," a widely-held belief that has a real impact on your ongoing coaching search, you have a massive problem that goes deeper than words and perception.
Banner thought he still had time to amend his biggest mistake and cutout the front office cancer that he had so casually welcomed aboard the year before.
Lombardi wasn't totally clueless to it. With his own job on the line, ought to attempt the same by forcing out the man who had originally opened the door to let him in. And now he had ammo. If not Harbaugh, it could be McDaniels, and what of those candidates that wouldn't even consider sitting down for an interview because of Banner?
The Third Stooge
The only one with the real final say, Jimmy Haslam saw this happening from both sides. The narrative he consistently fought to disprove was realized first-hand, it was all unfolding just before his eyes. It was everything the media had hounding him for during the post-Chud firing press conference, the same presser that seemed more like a trip to the gallows for Haslam and Banner, while Lombardi was still conveniently missing.
The thing about Shakespeare, spoiler alert: Everybody dies at the end.
Haslam fell on the sword in the only way he still could, by in effect admitting his own worst mistake, forced on him or not, and completely cutting ties with both of Banner and Lombardi. It was a move neither was expecting, but both should have seen coming.
Left to sort through the rubble was the young, up-and-coming pro scout turned assistant GM. He was officially Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer now. No six words could have sounded any sweeter on that cold February morning.
Yes, it was another huge upheaval in the front office, but luckily for the Browns, the damage to the roster was minimal.
Transitions like this: a new owner, three GMs, three head coaches, three team presidents, all in the span of just over two years. While such is almost entirely unprecedented in the NFL, big front office changes can often leave a roster in ruins, a mess the next staff has to take the time to clean up.
Farmer's dealing with not only less of a mess, he has also shown every indication that he's the most qualified one for the task at hand.
• 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