You know how Bill Simmons once wrote that every team can have one combustible guy, but not too many, because otherwise, they’ll all end up hanging out together and causing drama?
Well, it’s clear Cleveland Browns general manager John Dorsey has never heard that unofficial rule. Or perhaps he has, and he simply doesn’t think it remotely applies to football.
As is, the Browns have thrown caution to the wind this offseason when it comes to adding players with shaky histories. Dorsey signed Kareem Hunt, the NFL’s leading rusher in 2017 who was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs last season after a video surfaced of him shoving and kicking a woman in a Cleveland hotel. A few days ago, he signed Sheldon Richardson, who has apparently grown up some since he wore out his welcome with the Jets two years ago due to attitude issues.
And on Tuesday night, the Browns acquired mercurial receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from the New York Giants. From a pure football perspective, it’s a great trade. A first-round and third-round draft pick, and safety Jabrill Peppers for one of the three best receivers in football — who is only 26 years old, by the way — is fantastic value. The CPU on “Madden” would have turned that down had Dorsey offered it to the Giants in franchise mode.
But in real life, when you trade for OBJ you’re not just getting the one-hand-catching, big-play-making, route-running machine. You’re also trading for the bombastic competitor, a wild card prone to sideline blowups, outspoken interviews and occasional TMZ headlines (as he had last summer when a video emerged of him in a room with a woman who appeared to be holding a credit card next to a powdery white substance).
All that presumably contributed to the Giants’ decision to trade one of the NFL’s most notable players, one just entering his prime. And while I don’t mention Hunt and Beckham in the same sentence to cast judgment about their issues — they’re different people, battling different problems — I do bring them up to caution: If both players’ pasts flare up again this season, Dorsey is setting his team up to deal with the same dreaded “distractions” that stunted Pittsburgh’s season in 2018.
Again, maybe Dorsey doesn’t care, preferring to risk it all in the name of guiding Cleveland to its first winning season since 2007. Dorsey’s willingness to acquire both players — as well other former problematic talents like former Florida receiver Antonio Callaway (a fourth-round pick a year ago) — is rooted in his belief in his ability to gauge people. But these latest acquisitions were also done because of his faith in new head coach Freddie Kitchens.
And in the end, the latter — a first-time head coach at any level — is the man who will be charged with making this potentially combustible mix of personalities work. It won’t be easy; even his quarterback, Baker Mayfield, has been known to stir things up with his mix of charm, swagger and competitive prickliness.
Even Jimmy Johnson, whose early-90s Cowboys would not have thrived had social media been around back then, has to be somewhere cackling. In Cleveland, Dorsey could soon reach the point where he has built something at least in the ballpark of those teams (especially if he keeps betting on his ability to judge character), which means Kitchens will need to be Jimmy-ish, not only in terms of X’s and O’s, but in his ability to reach players and get the most out of them.
Internally, the Browns believe Kitchens can handle it. He got the top job after his midseason promotion to offensive coordinator because of his excellent relationship with Mayfield and the respect and passion he commanded from his players. And as it relates to Beckham, he appears to be well-insulated, as he now gets to team up with his buddy and teammate from LSU, receiver Jarvis Landry, and their former receivers coach at LSU as well in Adam Henry.
What’s more: Beckham now has a confident quarterback in Mayfield with enough chutzpah to possibly command his respect (and that of all the other big personalities in this locker room) and get him the ball deep, something he complained about with his former quarterback, Eli Manning.
If Kitchens isn’t up to the task, the Browns could still avoid internal combustion by winning, which is probably a necessity anyway because in the NFL, when teams start losing, even guys in the best locker rooms start whining. A strong team culture can quell an outspoken locker room, though the drama that unfolded over the past year in Pittsburgh — easily one of the NFL’s best franchises over the last 50 years — suggests that might be overrated, too.
Unfortunately for the Browns, they have neither a history of winning, nor instilling a strong team culture. That could change starting as soon as this year because the Browns are young and loaded on both sides of the ball, and Kitchens is internally regarded as part of the reason the team started playing much harder when Hue Jackson got fired.
But if the 44-year-old Kitchens isn’t up to the task of leading this group, it could all come crashing down in a heap of drama and back-stabbing, not unlike what we’ve seen come out of Cleveland since Jimmy Haslam bought the Browns in 2012.
For the sake of their fans, who have suffered long enough, I hope it doesn’t play out that way. I hope Mayfield throws lots of touchdowns, Kitchens establishes himself as an alpha and Dorsey, who was fired in Kansas City for management and communication issues, gets vindicated.
No matter how it plays out, the Browns have suddenly become the NFL’s most interesting team, a must-watch spectacle that Dorsey’s most recent acquisition will surely be right at the heart of. In the end, for one of the NFL’s worst franchises, that makes the risk worth the reward.
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