Browns owner Jimmy Haslam wants the team to play meaningful football late in the regular season.
CANTON, Ohio -- Last season, the Cleveland Browns entered their annual bye week at 4-5 after a win over the Baltimore Ravens, and headed to Cincinnati two weeks later with a chance to pull to within a half-game of the Bengals for first place in the AFC North Division standings.
Despite a fast start, which included two Joe Haden interceptions -- one of which he returned for a touchdown -- the Browns fell to the Bengals, 41-20, and went on to lose all seven of their post bye-week games and finish the season at 4-12.
After making changes to the coaching staff and front office, owner Jimmy Haslam has the expectation to play meaningful games late in the season.
"Let's face it, we all take it personally that we have only one four o'clock game and one Thursday night game, and the Thursday night game is not part of the CBS portion," Haslam told the Pro Football Hall of Fame Luncheon Club Monday. "When I was with that other team 100 miles down the road (Pittsburgh), we played most of our games at four o'clock, or on Sunday night or on Monday night.
"That's our fault. It's a direct reflection of how you play. When you're 4-12, you don't get the good games. We've got to fix that. We've got to be better, and if we're better, we'll play at a different time. Hopefully, Johnny (Manziel) being a quarterback will help us do that."
Playing meaningful football at the end of the season is not just the goal of Haslam. It is also the mission of the players, specifically seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, who has played through six straight double-digit loss seasons after being a part of the 10-6 team of 2007 as a rookie.
And it is that shared vision that motivates Haslam, the Browns' front office, coaching staff and players to come to work every day.
"As a team, we've got to get better," Haslam said. "You can't complain when you're 4-12. We need to get better and nobody wants that more than us, so that we're playing in the prime times, Sunday night, Monday night games. There's nothing I would relish more than a game in late December here at four o'clock in the afternoon that ends at seven or 7:30, and it's dark and it's snowing, and it's a crucial game that (impacts) the playoffs.
"That's what Joe Thomas told me at the end of last year when we told him we were going to make a coaching change. He said, 'That's my goal. I want these December games to be meaningful. I want them to be cold. I want the stands to be packed, and I want to win a game that puts us in the playoffs.' Joe Thomas is not a guy who says a lot, but when he says something like that, you listen. I think that's how we all feel and that's what we're striving for."
Getting to the point of playing meaningful football will not be an easy task, as the other three teams within the AFC North Division, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ravens and Bengals, have made the playoffs within the last three seasons.
Two of those teams, the Steelers and Ravens, have played in the Super Bowl in the last four years, and Baltimore earned the league championship with a one-score victory over San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans on Feb. 3, 2013.
"You want to be competitive in our division because if you're competitive in our division, you're probably going to have a good team," Haslam said. "We have not been competitive for quite some time, so hopefully, we can achieve that. Secondly, we want to improve on our record. Then, three, become the kind of football team that Coach (Mike) Pettine wants, which is tough, hard-nosed, disciplined, good on defense, run the ball, pass when necessary.
"If you look at the teams in our division, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, what we admire about them is that they've had good teams for a long period of time. They're not one-year wonders. That's the kind of team we want to put on the field for the Cleveland Browns, but mostly, for you all. Our product that we've put on the field has not matched our fan support. Our fan support has got to be the best in the country."
According to Haslam, competing within the division will require a physical style of play, one that general manager Ray Farmer and Pettine have focused on developing within the free-agency and draft acquisitions, in addition to the up-tempo pace of practice during the offseason workouts.
"You want to win, but you have to be realistic," Haslam said. "We're in Cleveland, Ohio. We play Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati. Our stadium's located on the lake. We play half our games in November and December. The type of team that Coach Pettine and Ray are putting together is a good defensive (team) that can run the ball, pass when necessary. I think it fits the mindset of the people here. It fits the climate, and this is a tough division that we play in. The AFC North is tough, so you've got to have a tough team.
"We understand the Browns' performance the last few years has not been acceptable. It's not worthy of the fan base that we have. I can't promise we'll turn it around, but I promise you no one will work any harder to bring a winning tradition back to the Browns than our team will and you've got my commitment on that."
With their team having two first-round picks in the 2014 NFL Draft, Browns fans showed up and tuned in, in record numbers, for ESPN's live coverage of the NFL's annual selection meeting. Cleveland was the top-rated market in the country for first-round coverage, something Haslam wants to reward with on-field success.
"That speaks to the love of football up here, and that's one of the reasons why we were so excited when we had the opportunity to buy the Cleveland Browns," Haslam said. "That's why Coach Pettine was so excited to come here. That's why Ray Farmer stayed here.
"We all get the excitement and love of football. We don't talk about if we turn it around. We talk about when we're going to turn it around, and how excited a place this is going to be to live and watch football."