For all those Cleveland Browns fans concerned about the team's future amid news of owner Randy Lerner selling controlling interest of the franchise to Jimmy Haslam, take a deep breath, calm down and realize one thing:
You may finally have an owner who makes a difference in a positive way.
With all due respect to Lerner, whose father, Al, brought the NFL back to the city in 1999 after the Art Modell fiasco, the possible sale of the team to Haslam may be the best thing fans could hope for. Though there is a natural fear of the team being moved, Haslam has conveyed to Lerner and the NFL that he has no intention of relocating the Browns, according to two league sources.
Haslam, whose father has a practice field at the University of Tennessee named after him, values tradition and sees the Browns' brand as important not only to the city but to the league itself. At least that’s the impression that people around the NFL have of Haslam, a minority stakeholder in the Steelers.
“I know fans, particularly in Cleveland, are going to worry about the Browns being in the mix for Los Angeles,” one league source said. “It’s the once bitten, twice shy thing. We all get that, but I don’t see that. Maybe [Haslam] is fooling all of us, but I just don’t get that feeling at all.”
More important, Haslam’s possible takeover may infuse more passion into the organization. It certainly can’t get worse. Fact is, Lerner has been a giant disappointment – not only in Cleveland but throughout the league. His passion for owning and running the team has been only a tiny fraction of what his father brought and what many around the league were expecting. Since purchasing Aston Villa of England’s Premier League in 2006, Lerner has spent more time concerned with the soccer club, which has apparently annoyed fellow NFL owners.
Lerner’s run with the Browns has been just as ineffective as Modell’s, although for far different reasons. Where Modell was a meddler, Lerner is an absentee. His hiring of Mike Holmgren, while wise in many ways, was the final proof to other owners of his total disconnect from the process.
“If you were going to hire somebody to run the team, [Holmgren] was the right guy to hire,” one owner said. “But the point is, why aren’t you running it yourself? Randy doesn’t want to be bothered with the day-to-day details of running a team. OK, that’s fine in some regards. You don’t have to meddle, but you have to be aware.”
Lerner's uninformed decision-making was apparent the last time he directly hired a head coach.
In 2009, Lerner tabbed Eric Mangini as the replacement for Romeo Crennel, hiring Mangini nine days after he had been fired by the New York Jets. The problems with that decision were so obvious it was like a case study in how not to run a team.
Mangini hadn’t taken time to learn from his mistakes with the Jets, where his heavy-handed style and unfriendly manner with the media made him unpopular inside and outside the organization. Worse, Lerner barely held a search process before tabbing Mangini. Finally, Lerner had little or no knowledge about the right questions to ask.
“Hiring a coach isn’t easy. Most [owners] don’t really know enough about the game to ask philosophy questions about how the team is built," the owner said. "But you learn a lot of that as time goes on. The biggest way you learn is by talking to people. You hear what other coaches think and you figure out what you think works. But you have to talk to a lot of people.
“When Randy hired Mangini after essentially talking to only Mangini, it was obvious that he had no desire to learn the business. That’s why the next time around he just hired [Holmgren].”
[Around the league: Jerry Rice thinks it’s time for Alex Smith’s diaper to come off]
While there is promise this season of improvement for the Browns after the team drafted quarterback Brandon Weeden, running back Trent Richardson and wide receiver Josh Gordon, that momentum hit a standstill Friday with the news of a pending sale. But if fans are patient, this move may pay off more than any of those player acquisitions.
There is an old saying that NFL teams are only as good as the owner. If the situation plays out the way most expect, Cleveland may have just gotten a lot better.
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