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The Cleveland Browns Conundrum - Harmony vs Continuity

Last week I was invited to the NFL Pro Bowl's Corporate Sponsorship Kick Off Luncheon in downtown Honolulu where Hall of Famers Michael Irvin and Jesse Sapolu (11 Pro Bowls and 7 Super Bowls between them) spoke to the crowd. They addressed various topics including their experiences in Super Bowls; turning around their respective franchises; and some of their fondest Pro Bowl memories. They also fielded questions from the audience and so I took full advantage of the opportunity to ask about the Browns organization and about Johnny Manziel.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, the Cleveland Browns announced Johnny Manziel would be their starter for the rest of the season. Today, following an incident over the weekend where he was videoed at a nightclub in Texas with a bottle of champagne in hand, the team announced he will no longer be starting and will be relegated to 3rd string vs. Baltimore. While we're all united in our disgust of our team's record, Browns fans are divided about the handling of Manziel.

1) One camp blames the coaches, specifically Mike Pettine for holding Manziel accountable to "unrealistic" standards.

Many here feel the team should be more concerned with his performance on the field and how / if it can help us win. They argue that the organization and fans need to see what he can do, regardless of how much champagne he can juggle after rehab. Those in this camp are quick to point out the progress Manziel has made on the field as a reason for hope and the reason he needs to be under center no matter what for the last six games.

And they'd be right regarding his progress - he's a completely different QB now than he was last year or even at the beginning of this season. But that growth has been under the tutelage of Coach Flip and Coach O’Connell as well as Coach Pettine. There's no doubt Manziel has made tremendous strides yet some fans are mad that our coaches are holding him accountable to their standards? Somehow others believe Pettine doesn’t like playing rookies or young players. And some claim that since they believe other players haven’t earned spots on the team, and since we're 2-8, why not just play Manziel? But the fact remains that all of this is speculation at very best, and at worst, most of it would only help perpetuate a losing culture that this organization is desperately trying to shed.

I'd argue that while our coaches deserve scrutiny for losing, especially on the defensive side of the ball, the offensive coaches deserve recognition for the work they put into helping Manziel progress on the field. Ultimately, it’s on the player to control his actions off the field and it's on the player to apply himself and act like a professional QB at all times. Ultimately, it's on the player to do the right things to prove himself to his teammates and EARN his position as a starter in the NFL.

2) The other camp is "my side" and is the side that tends to acknowledge the facts and trends regarding Manziel and his past struggles with partying and decision making and supports the team's strict stance.

Many in this camp believe the blame for losing his starting role falls squarely on his own shoulders and that he alone has squandered a golden opportunity to be a starter in the NFL. Many in this camp feel Manziel has gone through enough both on and off the field to know what's expected of him from his team and his teammates. I want to be transparent that I really liked him coming out of Texas A&M but always questioned his ability to lead an NFL locker room.

I'd argue that those on the inside of the team stand to know substantially more than those on the outside of it. They see the day to day, week to week behavior and attitude towards the team and it's preparation. And those inside have been hesitant turning the keys over to Johnny for a reason. Certainly it's not to lose on purpose or to punish a player just because. A far more logical explanation is that the very people inside Berea who have supported and helped Johnny begin to "right the ship" and improve on the field / show promise as a starter, know more than those looking on from the outside. They know more about him not just regarding the incident this weekend but they know more about Johnny's complete body of work both inside and outside the facility.

I'd also argue that we’re not talking about some Joe-college-kid anymore. We’re not talking about just another 22 year old who didn’t do anything illegal or "wrong" by going out and drinking with his friends. We’re talking about a 1st round draft pick and a quarterback who is supposed to be the leader of men. We're talking about somebody who is supposed to be a changed man following his extensive stint in rehab last summer. Regardless of what he went to rehab for, I'm of the opinion that if you cant give up partying or going out with "friends" for 4 months while in-season, then you have a serious problem. Your teammates and winning should come before just about everything else in-season. Hanging out in the DJ booth may be the "cool" thing to do in college but studying game film, studying the playbook, and prepping for Baltimore is the course of leadership the Browns were hoping Johnny would take.

Yes, having a beer with friends certainly isn't a big deal for me or for many of you. But for Johnny, following very public incidents with swans, being late for meetings / missing meetings, domestic police reports (which he was absolved of), rehab, and now several reports of him drinking again during the season - everything matters. Especially after he promised coach Pettine and the team he would stay out of trouble and not do anything to embarrass the organization during the bye week. Yet here we are again.

My buddy was able to record Michael Irvin's response when I asked him about Johnny Manziel last week:

I'd agree that Johnny Manziel has brought the spotlight to Cleveland. It has potential to be a HUGE thing for us. But right now that spotlight exists for all the wrong reasons.  Instead of capitalizing on the progress he made vs. the Steelers and doing what he told his coaches he would do - Manziel did the exact opposite.

Harmony from the top down

I truly believe this is a pivotal moment for this franchise and for Jimmy Haslam.

Regardless of what camp you're in at the moment, I urge you to step back, take a deep breathe, and try to see the big picture. Given the years of continuous losing and ineptitude, I know this is hard to do. And I know our record is hard to accept at the moment, and I'm not asking you to do that either. What I am asking is that you try to see the bigger picture.

The most important part of this entire equation isn’t the Browns record this year. It isn’t that Manziel won’t be starting on Monday Night Football vs. a Baltimore Ravens team we all dislike. It’s not about ticket sales for 2016 or the remaining attendance for 2015. It's not about coach Pettine or what fans think or feel about his decision to bench Manziel. The most important piece of this entire equation is whether or not this Cleveland Browns organization is in complete lock-step from the top down regarding their decisions, standards, expectations, processes, and remediation plans moving forward for the football side of the business. Everyone needs to be on the same page about what's working and what needs to change and then those changes, whatever they decide, need to be executed.

So why the hell do I keep using the word harmony?

Michael Irvin was drafted in 1988 and helped the Dallas Cowboys to victories in all 3 Super Bowls he appeared in before many of his off the field issues began to pop up in 1996. So by no means has he been a model of good behavior. However, he is a tremendous speaker and has many keen insights into the game. And so thanks to some of the Q&A sessions with the audience, Irvin went into detail about what it was like to go from winning his whole life, to losing in his first few seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. He talked about turning things around and what it takes to do so within an organization. I thought many of these stories and situations were pivotal for the Cowboys and I think we're in the same type of situation in Cleveland right now.

"After I was drafted, I scored my first touchdown in my first game on the first drive of that game, and I found myself in the end zone thinking 'Hey, this NFL stuff is easy' …. Then the Steelers scored again, and again and again. We lost that game, and we went 1 – 15 that year. Lots of vets came up to me after games that season, you know, when my head was down and I was literally crying (because I was never used to losing in my life) and they would say 'It’s the NFL man, don’t worry, just go cash that check on Tuesday and have fun'

After the season, coach Landry was gone and coach Johnson came in and took over. I made a decision and I went against "bro code" that year. I went against the grain and I went with my own personal code of winning because I couldn’t stand losing that year. It drove me crazy. So I went home after I learned Coach Johnson was taking over and wrote out a Santa-Claus-sized list and turned it into coach and told him: ‘These are all the guys we don’t need on this team, get rid of them all. This is a list of every single player that came up to me last year and told me that losing was OK and to just cash a check and have fun’

Four years later, sitting in the locker room before the super bowl, I looked around and saw NONE of those guys were on the team. Everyone in that locker room was about winning and about the team. Those men were interested in doing anything and everything to win.

Coach Johnson and Jerry were in harmony and on the same page from day 1, and had they not been, had they not supported me, had they kept some of those players on the team, I knew our team wouldn't have made it to that locker room during that first super bowl"

"Coach Johnson used to look around the locker room and tell us: "you want to be a famous celebrity; You want money; You want your girlfriend to see you on TV; you want to be the best RB of all time . . . and we can all have what we want when we decide to do whatever it takes to win. WE is greater than ME. And if WE win, WE all win and we all get what we want."

"You have to have the talent to compete in the NFL but you have to have great coaching that puts that talent in position to make plays and win. If you have the talent, but coaches don’t put them in the right position, then talent is never recognized. You see the teams that win pick at the end of the draft for a reason, because their coaching has helped their talent be successful and those organizations have HARMONY from the top down."

I'm not saying that Haslam and Pettine need to take measures as drastic as leveraging a hand written letter as a baseline for roster decisions, but what I am saying is that I hope we have an owner and a coach in place that aren't willing to accept or foster any facet of a losing culture. While winning is ultimately all that matters, it doesn't always happen overnight. If the right culture is in place to win, you keep it and maintain continuity. But if the organization is not in harmony, then you have to adjust it accordingly.

So where do the real issues start and end in Cleveland?

These next few months will go a long way in answering that for us. If the entire organization is on board with the decision to bench Manziel, it should reflect in how Haslam operates this off-season. There are a few different ways this can play out for the Browns this off season:

  • Haslam can truly be on board with Pettine's standards and expectations for his players, regardless of their record, and elect to keep him. Perhaps O'Neil is fired. But this would mean Haslam believes winning is close behind the changes in culture he believes are transpiring internally - this would include supporting a decision to either keep or get rid of Manziel this off season
  • Haslam can clean house but keep Manziel, essentially showing us that he wanted Manziel all along and he wasn't happy with Pettine's handling of him / not playing him regardless of the off the field hoopla. However, this option seems short sited because centering a new coaching / GM search around Manziel is a risky proposition since most coaches and GM's want their guy. This becomes especially important if we're picking in the top 5 with a chance at Paxton Lynch.
  • Haslam can clean house and jettison Manziel, essentially admitting he and the organization were wrong about Manziel and that he made a poor decision in hiring Pettine and that he's prepared to re-boot. Essentially admitting everything is a complete mess and needs to be fixed. Clearly the team record and product on the field are not acceptable. I won't argue differently. But I don't want to re-boot the thing if everyone from the top down is in harmony and truly believe a turn around is closer than our record indicates.

Michael Irvin shared in his talk that:

"You know your organizational culture has been transformed when a superstar comes to your team and has to change his behaviors to match and fit in with what your team and your locker-room hold each-other accountable to.

If it works the other way around, and a super star forces the team to adhere to his rules and standards, then you have a problem. There’s not harmony and your culture is in jeopardy"

So there you go. It all starts at the top.

It all starts with harmony.