In the end, Butch Davis was the only pillar left to knock over.
After all, he'd already wiped out the rest.
The only surprise with Davis' firing Tuesday as head coach of the Cleveland Browns – don't buy this garbage about it being a resignation – is that it comes with five games left on the schedule. Then again, maybe even that isn't a surprise anymore. Davis' relationship with the entire Browns organization from owner Randy Lerner down to the players (and maybe even a janitor or two) incinerated with the velocity of a falling meteorite.
In the coming days, we'll hear about pieces and parts of all the failures, but probably never know the full scope of the damage Davis' ego did to himself and his team. Already, the truth seems too charred to recognize.
Even Davis' dismissal has a certain element of disfigurement to it. The front office insists he resigned. Sources close to Davis deny that. When asked why the Browns would pay a coach who just quit, team president John Collins awkwardly tried to make it seem like Davis was getting his nice parting gift (believed to be a significant portion of roughly $12 million in remaining salary) because the owner was a nice guy.
"It was part of Randy (Lerner) being Randy," Collins said, after pausing for a moment and seeming to measure his words. "Being a really caring individual, a friend, as well as an owner."
Whatever happened Monday night and Tuesday morning between Davis, Collins, Lerner and Davis' agent, Marvin Demoff, the outcome had long been clear.
After going 21-28 in his first three seasons (including a playoff loss) and starting 3-8 this year, Davis was going to be fired at the end of the season. Despite taking over a pitiful squad in 2001 – mostly ashes from Chris Palmer's 5-27 two-season debacle – Davis failed to make significant progress with the team after a 9-7 season in 2002 and a playoff berth. The Browns consistently regressed after that, going 8-19 through this week. Now, first-year offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie will handle the interim head coaching duties.
As for Davis, the plentiful signs of his demise had begun to surface long ago. There were signs of it internally, when Davis was told he was being stripped of a large portion of his decision-making power of personnel, a move that threatened an autocracy Davis had created by firing or ignoring various coaches and front-office personnel. And there were signs externally, when the club publicly stated Davis was going to be judged after the season on his entire tenure, and not just how the Browns finished in 2004.
Moreover, Davis had gained a reputation with a handful of players as self-serving. While one player said Tuesday that reports of overwhelming mistrust were blown out of proportion, he conceded there were a handful of players who felt they couldn't count on him. When he held a meeting with players last week to discuss the flurry of speculation about his job, some thought Davis was trying to cut a sympathetic figure now that his job was in jeopardy.
Said a Browns player who spoke to Yahoo! Sports after the meeting, "I can't say I saw any (eyes rolling) but I wouldn't be surprised. It was a little like he was saying, 'Don't worry about my job,' like that was something to do with wins and losses. It seemed sideways, I suppose. I think mostly it was just taken for whatever. But I know some guys were pissed, like, 'Is he kidding?' "
Though Davis' distance from his players – and purported disconnect from Cleveland fans – never played too prominently in the media, his fallout with quarterback Jeff Garcia did. Davis openly called Garica "skittish" and did plenty to lay the season's blame at his feet. Ultimately, all it did was separate Davis from another person he was responsible for bringing in.
His penchant for dealing blame to players (Garcia and Tim Couch) was one of the easily documented problems with Davis. Another reason for his demise: firing his coaches, as he did with defensive coordinator Foge Fazio in 2002 and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians after last season. Those moves irked at least a few players who had turned away from Davis' hard-line mentality.
But perhaps nothing raised more eyebrows behind NFL doors than the cold shoulder he gave to former Packers general manager Ron Wolf, who was hired to advise Davis on talent. Though there was never any consensus why he failed to bring Wolf into the fold (Wolf ultimately left a few months after joining the Browns), there has always been speculation Davis didn't want any outside help, even from someone as universally respected as Wolf.
Davis walled himself off in every direction. He didn't have a unified locker room behind him, he had lost the full confidence of the owner and he had already brought the hammer down on major positions on his coaching staff in consecutive years. Those familiar with the team say his lone sounding board became vice president of player personnel Pete Garcia, with whom Davis had been with while coaching the University of Miami. Garcia remained with the team Tuesday, but is likely to be fired when a new general manager is brought aboard.
That's where the new quest starts for the Browns. Any speculation about possible head coaches is premature, since the organization wants the general manager to have a central role in hiring the next coach. This time around, the Browns will follow the traditional front-office model, rather than surrendering power to one man.
It's better to have a few pillars in place if one has to be knocked over again.
- Butch Davis
- Randy Lerner