CLEVELAND -- Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.
When Randy Lerner took over as principle owner of the Cleveland Browns following the passing of his father, Al, on October 23, 2002, he was unwilling to be the public face of the organization, and spent time away from Berea working on other ventures, including the purchase of Aston Villa Football Club of the English Premier League.
The absence of a physical presence led plenty of people, fans and media members alike, to talk incessantly about Lerner’s need to sell the team, and that he did in July of 2012, when an agreement was reached with the Haslam family of Knoxville, Tennessee.
The sale was approved in October of 2012, and in the five years since being the principle owners, the Haslams have hired three different front-office regimes, as well as a trio of head coaches with little success and even less consistency, and the trouble started right from the first day of the regime.
Shortly after being approved as owner in Chicago, Jimmy Haslam named Joe Banner the Browns’ CEO. Following the 5-11 season in 2012, Haslam and his new front office fired coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert, and then, quickly tabbed Michael Lombardi as the new GM.
A career businessman in the Philadelphia Eagles’ front office, Banner wanted total control of the organization and Lombardi had not been in NFL war room for six years, but they entrusted with the future of the club and elected to make key changes, including the hiring of head coach Rob Chudzinski.
Chudzinski and much of his coaching staff did not have much time to work with the players.
On the job for just 11 months, Chudzinski was dismissed in the hours following a season-ending loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on December 29, 2013. Despite having fourth-quarter leads in many of their 12 losses, the Browns felt things were going in the wrong direction and made a change.
After missing on several of their top coaching candidates, the Browns flew down to Mobile, Alabama, to interview, and later, hire former Buffalo Bills/New York Jets/Baltimore Ravens assistant Mike Pettine in late January.
Three weeks after Pettine was hired, Banner and Lombardi were dismissed and replaced by up-and-coming front-office executive Ray Farmer.
Farmer made plenty of deals to bolster their draft classes, but four first-round picks yielded little results.
With the No. 8 overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Browns selected cornerback Justin Gilbert out of Oklahoma State, with the idea being he could help on both special teams and defense.
During his two seasons with the Browns, Gilbert played in just 23 games with three starts. He registered 33 tackles, nine passes defended and one interception, which he returned for a touchdown in a 25-24 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on December 7, 2014.
Gilbert was sent to the Pittsburgh Steelers in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on September 3, 2016, and currently, is out of the NFL.
The following year, the Browns selected defensive lineman Danny Shelton (No. 12) and offensive lineman Cameron Erving (No. 19) in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Shelton has been a contributor for all three of his defensive coordinators, but Erving never caught on with the Browns, and was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs prior to the start of the 2017 regular season.
A first-round pick of the Browns in 2014, quarterback Johnny Manziel had a dramatic and tumultuous tenure in Cleveland, one filled with off-the-field partying that was well documented on social media, and more recently, domestic issues that could result in criminal charges.
In 2014, Manziel started two games and played in three total before a hamstring injury in the second quarter of a loss at Carolina ended his season prematurely. In those three games, Manziel completed 18 of his 35 pass attempts for 175 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions and ran for a score in the fourth quarter of a loss at Buffalo.
During the 2015 season, Manziel made a promise to the coaches that he would not to embarrass or be a distraction over the bye week, but his weekend partying at Texas A&M was documented in a profanity-laced video that surfaced on social media. Pettine benched Manziel for the Monday Night Football game against the Baltimore Ravens just seven days after naming the second-year signal-caller the starter for the remainder of the season.
However, the trail of trouble for Manziel started long before the bye-week trip to Texas.
In mid-October 2015, the Browns were basking in the glory of a victory over the Ravens, their first in Baltimore since the 10-6 season of 2007, but while his teammates were enjoying a day off, Manziel was being pulled over by police in Avon.
Eye-witness calls to the police from fellow travelers along Interstate 90 detailed Manziel, who admitted to having a couple drinks downtown before heading home, as driving erratically on the highway and in a physical argument with his then-girlfriend, Colleen Crowley, who was heard on the police video saying “he hurt me several times,” and also, “I’m in fear for my life.”
In two years with the Browns, Manziel completed 147 of his 258 throws for 1,675 yards and seven touchdowns against five interceptions in 14 games for the Browns, but did not only miss a Sunday morning appointment as part of the NFL Concussion Protocol, but also, exercised an option to skip the 28-12 season-ending loss to the Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium on January 3, 2016.
Following his release from the Browns eight weeks later, Manziel spent the better part of nine months battling and domestic violence charges, which required him to meet certain requirements, including anger management education and entering the NFL’s substance-abuse program.
Currently, Manziel is working on resuming his football career, with the possibility of joining the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League for the 2018 season.
In the hours following the conclusion of the 2015 season, the Browns dismissed Pettine and Farmer, who combined to post a 10-22 record and won just three of their last 21 games after a 7-4 start and first-place standing in the AFC North Division in late November of 2014.
In the same press conference confirming the firings, Haslam announced the promotion of former general counsel Sashi Brown to the position executive vice president of football operations, and in the days following the move, they brought in a career baseball executive, Paul DePodesta, as the chief strategy officer and leader of the analytics department.
“Sashi, I believe, is the right person to do this for the Cleveland Browns,” Haslam said at the time. “He’s been in the NFL 10-plus years. He’s been involved in the cap, has been heavily involved in our football administration and operations for the last year or two.
“He’s very smart, very organized, good at systems and processes, and is an outstanding team player. He’s also very strategic, so we will use those skills and working for him will be a GM whose primary job will be talent acquisition.”
STRUGGLES OUT OF THE GATE
Under Brown, the Browns hired Hue Jackson as their new head coach, but at the beginning of free agency two months later, he missed on the opportunity to retain key starters.
The Browns went 0-for-4 in retaining their own unrestricted free agents, and instead of reaching an agreement with a starting player, they let four walk out the door and elected not to release Manziel when permitted by league rules.
Center Alex Mack was the first domino to fall, as the three-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman reached a five-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons.
Later, they missed on opportunities to retain wide receiver Travis Benjamin, safety Tashaun Gipson and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who had a deal taken off the table when the Browns refused to negotiate, and instead, give just one offer and walk away from another starter.
With a 27-24 overtime loss at the Steelers in the final game of the 2016 season, the Browns’ 1-15 record was the worst in franchise history.
During the most unsuccessful year since their inception in 1946 and their return to the NFL in 1999, the Browns lost the first 14 games on the schedule, which set one record for futility and extended their consecutive losses streak to 17.
Despite the lack of success, Haslam stuck with Brown and Jackson, but the struggles have continued through the first half of the 2017 season.
Since Brown took over control of the 53-man roster, the Browns have gone 1-23 with a 14-game losing streak to start the 2016 season, and an 0-8 run through the first half of 2017 after a 33-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings at Twickenham Stadium in London last Sunday.
Brown and Co. have turned over the roster by more than 80 percent since taking office, and built a team with 46 of the 53 players having three or less years of NFL experience.
With last Sunday’s loss to the Vikings, the Browns are 0-8 for the second consecutive season.
Over the last three years, the Browns have gone 4-36.
In five seasons under Haslam’s majority ownership, the Browns have posted an NFL-worst 15-57 record. Factoring in the remaining games of the 2012 season after the sale was approved at an NFL Owners Meeting in Chicago, the Browns have gone 19-62.
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