There are so, so, so many ways to build a professional sports franchise. You know, teams buy players in free agency, they sign developing players before their peak at a discount, they trade for “system fit” players whom they believe will excel within their scheme, and then they draft them. In football, building through the NFL’s rookie draft isn’t just a strategy, it’s an ethos.
But doing it successfully is seldom easy, takes sometimes as much luck as player evaluation and process skills, and it’s rarely a quick path to success. That’s why the Sashi Brown-led teardown of the Cleveland Browns was received with so many mixed feelings over the last two seasons. Two seasons, by the way, where the Browns set records for shattering an already battered fan base’s emotional stability.
Browns owner Dee Haslam empathized and said she understands that pain and suffering in a recent interview with CrainsCleveland.com.
She also warned future teams about even thinking about mimicking their approach. (Spoiler Mrs. Haslam, I have a feeling they won’t.)
“We can never do that again,” Haslam said, per Kevin Kelps. “I wouldn’t recommend that to any sports team, that that’s the way to do it.
“The ultimate outcome is really great, but living through it is really hard.”
Right, it was excruciatingly difficult, but at a certain point its absurdity made it a little more bearable. One win in two seasons? At that point it’s pretty hard not to laugh.
But Haslam had a good point, that I think many people acknowledge. Before former Browns executive Sashi Brown tore the team down to its bare bones, the Cleveland Browns just were not a very good or even functionally competitive football team.
To break the chains of mediocrity—that’s putting it incredibly nicely—the Browns needed an exhaustive overhaul. Haslam acknowledged that need to transform, but said the team probably could have gone about it in a better, less painful way.
“You have to transform and you have to constantly innovate. But sometimes it’s better to transform and innovate in a slower way. But we knew from the very beginning that we didn’t want to be a mediocre team, and we could tell the way we were doing things, we’d be mediocre forever. The fans may have been OK with that. We weren’t. We want to be a great team. And I think these fans want to be a great team, too, and deserve it.”
With the end goal starting to come into focus, and fueled by John Dorsey’s first draft and free agent signings, the team is, as Haslam says in the interview, in a great position financially. They have cap flexibility and a solid young core of players whom they feel are going to be centerpieces of their future.
Did the ends justify the means? It was awful, painful, and maybe unnecessary. But, did it work?
“Let’s look at it this way: Every part of our story leads us to here,” Haslam said. “We made every mistake in the book and you learn from that, and the people that were part of that contributed to where we are today. You have to give credit to where credit’s due along the way.”
She was referencing Sashi Brown. His plan was driven by the idea of sustained long-term success, but it crossed a line that sports franchises should never cross. No locker room of competitors, no organization, and no city’s fan base should have to endure that kind of impotence.
There was no way the organization could keep going down that path without taking corrective action. They did. They fired Brown and hired Dorsey. The trajectory has seemingly changed. The rebuild isn’t over, but Brown’s scorched-earth approach that netted one win in two seasons is over, hopefully never to be seen again.
Sashi may have “sacrificed himself so that the Browns could live,” but maybe everyone could have lived.
It was awful. It sucked. Everyone is so very glad that it’s over.