Inside the NFL  

 

New owner Jimmy Haslam wants to model Browns after Steelers

In his robust Inside The NFL Notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):

» Four things he's looking forward to in Week 7.
» One team about to roll off an eight-game winning streak.
» Why Jason Garrett's job as Dallas coach isn't in jeopardy.
» And much more, beginning with the NFL's newest owner and his game plan to rebuild the Browns ...

Freshly minted Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam spoke with strength and conviction after his new peers accepted him into their exclusive club Tuesday, sounding every bit like the football-driven boss that his recently acquired, dilapidated, once-proud franchise needs.

But just a couple hours later, as he headed back to Northeast Ohio from the league's Fall Meeting in Chicago, Haslam pointed forward. And admitted that, in fact, he doesn't have all the answers. So his job now is to try and find them.

"It's a little awkward where we came in, getting announced as new owner at the start of camp, getting voted in right in the middle of the season," Haslam said, his enthusiasm jumping through the cell phone. "But for now, it's going to be no different than what we've done. We announced the transition with Mike (Holmgren) and Joe (Banner). And I'm going to listen, learn and ask questions."

As has been expected for a while, Holmgren is on his way out as team president, Banner is coming in as a chief executive, and more changes surely are on the way.

That shouldn't come as any surprise. It's not like the Browns don't have elements that need fixing. This incarnation of the club has made the playoffs once since it entered the NFL in 1999, while suffering through a jarring 10 seasons of double-digit losses.

As the saying goes, Haslam is just trying to know what he doesn't know. But it's also not as if the new owner doesn't have a rough idea for how he wants to do business. That's because he's been preparing for this for quite some time.

"Probably like a lot of other individuals, I loved football starting at an early age," Haslam said. "The last five or six years, we got more serious. We had the chance to observe it first-hand as a limited partner with the (Pittsburgh) Steelers, and then we let the Steelers know we'd be interested if the chance to buy a team was out there. I can't think of a better opportunity than the one that came up."

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Haslam acknowledged that, indeed, his model for building the Browns, at least initially, will be based largely on what he learned over the past three years working with the Rooney family while holding a 12.5 percent stake in Cleveland's AFC North rival.

From a common-sense standpoint, that means current coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert face an uphill battle when it comes to keeping their jobs.

Here's why: Haslam, like Dan and Art Rooney, believes in long-term stability and continuity. As he evaluates the club, anyone he chooses to keep will be kept with more than the immediate future in mind. So guys like Shurmur and Heckert, aside from just winning, will have to show the new boss how they fit into the franchise's vision for the next decade.

Haslam is quick to note, too, that he isn't just cribbing from Pittsburgh on that. His chief officers in his lucrative truck-stop business have been with the company for 27, 24 and 16 years.

"That's the way our company has always looked at it," he said. "You get the right people in place and let them do their jobs."

And that explains why he believes so deeply in what he saw in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have had just three coaches since the late 1960s. The Browns have had five since 1999, to go with four different general managers.

"It was great training being there," Haslam said. "They do it with character and intelligence. They run that organization the right way. They build through the draft. They're patient. It's just the right way to do it. It was a tremendous opportunity to be with them."

Now he'll go against them, twice a year, in a historically heated but, more recently, one-sided rivalry.

Haslam's already gotten a taste of what it'll be like. He's counseled with Banner, who was in the Philadelphia Eagles' pressure-cooker environment for nearly two decades, off and on since July, and he's been around Cleveland enough over the past few months to notice how important football is to the region.

Last Sunday, as he headed back home to Tennessee, he got a call from Banner following the Browns' victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

"We were all excited to get the win, but he was blown away seeing the fans' reaction," Haslam recalled. "He said, 'Imagine what it'll be like if we can turn it around.' And I promise you, I'm gonna work as hard as I can to make that happen."

In one sense, for Haslam, this is the finish line. Where some others who buy into football teams are simply investing, his family always saw its time with Pittsburgh as an apprenticeship, which makes this next step the culmination of a long-held plan.

But in another, more important sense, as Haslam sees it, this is just the beginning for the new owner. He admits he has more questions than answers at this point.

Still, for Clevelanders, he seems to be a breath of fresh air. Randy Lerner had become a largely absentee owner, despite his local ties. Where that was a case of someone breaking away, Haslam -- who is planning to split his time between Knoxville and Cleveland -- is arriving and trying to root himself in the community.

What he sees isn't much different than what he's seen back home with the college football program he and his family have been involved with forever. Neither is the goal.

"The analogy is this -- the town of Knoxville rises and falls with the Vols," he said. "It's similar in Cleveland. When I'm back in Tennessee on those Saturdays after a win, there's a bounce in everyone's step, everyone's happier. The goal here is to give Cleveland some happier Sundays."

Four things to look for in Week 7

1) The post-Ray Lewis Baltimore Ravens. It's easy to forget that Baltimore went a month without its emotional tone-setter last season -- and thrived in that time. The Ravens were 4-0 in the games Lewis missed, replacing him with a combination of Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe and Albert McClellan. After a slow start to that four-game stretch (allowing 483 yards and 24 points to the Bengals), the Ravens held the San Francisco 49ers to 170 yards and six points, the Browns to 233 yards and 10 points and the Indianapolis Colts to 167 yards and 10 points. Does that mean Baltimore's better off without Lewis? No. McClellan has been starting at outside linebacker for the Ravens this season, so depth was already thinned on the inside; the team was playing with Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson in 2011; and Ellerbe hasn't been the most reliable guy. But the experience of 2011 does provide something for the players to lean on. And the real boost they need should come when the injured Suggs returns, something the team is hoping happens in mid-November.

2) The Arizona Cardinals' ability to bounce back. With the NFC West strengthened, all of its teams have had their margin for error drastically reduced, and that puts the darlings of September in the crosshairs. Arizona's accomplishments during a 4-0 start weren't a mirage; this is a team with some very distinct strengths. But its holes could be big enough to take the whole operation down. "They're starting to get exposed," one pro scout said. "Very poor O-line play and poor quarterback play. [Backup running back William Powell] did a nice job Sunday, but teams aren't afraid of their run game at all anymore. They were at least more balanced early in the season. Their defense is still keeping them in games, and maybe the protection gets better without (Kevin) Kolb -- who holds the ball too long -- but it's tough to rectify poor O-line play midseason. They just don't have the guys up front." This week, they run into another early surprise team -- the Minnesota Vikings -- coming off a loss with something to prove. Should be an interesting one.

3) Robert Griffin III in NFC East play. New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle said earlier in the week that Griffin and Michael Vick are different quarterbacks, because it looks to him like the Washington Redskins rookie runs the ball more. Here's an amendment to that statement: Griffin goes on called runs a lot more, as part of an offense that relies on tenets of the option-based attacks at Oregon, Baylor and Ohio State. A lot of folks think that'll catch up to him. Last week, Mike Shanahan told me he's teaching Griffin that "sometimes, it needs to be 10 to 12 yards, and then slide." And if there's anywhere it's going to bite him, it'll be in the Redskins' division, whose teams will become familiar with him and the offense, and build a book on both. Interestingly enough, the Redskins matchup with the Giants is the first divisional game of the season for Washington. And it's the first chance for one of those soon-to-be familiar foes to set the tone for what's ahead.

4) The Patriots' offensive identity. Earlier in the year, Tom Brady acknowledged that the New England Patriots were shifting philosophically under new/old coordinator Josh McDaniels, which is why he wasn't surprised to see the fast start by the running game. That evolution certainly was affected by injuries to tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was out for nearly a month, and receiver Wes Welker's would-be replacement, Julian Edelman, who hasn't played since Week 3. As it turns out, Welker's still pretty good at age 31, and the Patriots have relied on him to make up the difference. But it's fair to wonder now if the Patriots still haven't found their identity on that side of the ball. It's hard to blame the offense for New England's three losses, particularly when a missed field goal cost the team a win over Arizona, and the defense crumbled late against Baltimore and the Seattle Seahawks. Still, the Patriots didn't get better as those games went on, and couldn't close opponents out when given the opportunity. These issues are fixable. McDaniels is sharp, Brady is elite, and it's a good bet they're going to be better in November and December than they are now. But you have to wonder if this transitional period could wind up being costly, in terms of playoff positioning, in the long run.

Three conclusions

1) Andy Reid is out of scapegoats. From 1999 to 2008, the Philadelphia Eagles enjoyed almost complete continuity. Joe Banner was the boss. Tom Heckert headed up personnel for most of those years. Reid ran the team on the field. Jim Johnson was in charge of defense. Donovan McNabb was the quarterback. And the one significant change -- Marty Mornhinweg taking Brad Childress' place as offensive coordinator -- came as a result of one of their own moving up. My, how things have changed. Banner and Heckert are gone, leaving after a power struggle within the ranks. McNabb was put out to pasture, and since then, two different quarterbacks have been declared the Eagles' future. And now Reid is on his third defensive coordinator since Johnson retired. The Eagles went to five NFC title games in the aforementioned period. They haven't won a playoff game since. Reason for alarm? Maybe not. But anyone in a position of power can only influence so much change before the finger is pointed at him. Which means there will be a ton of heat on Reid to make something good out of the sloppy 3-3 start that landed Juan Castillo on the unemployment line.

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2) The Broncos will catch fire. Coming off their Week 7 bye, the Denver Broncos enter a seven-game stretch that suggests a 7-0 run isn't inconceivable -- New Orleans Saints, at Bengals, at Carolina Panthers, San Diego Chargers, at Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at Oakland Raiders. Possible that Denver is 10-3 going into Baltimore on Dec. 16? It sure is, and that means this scenario isn't unlike the one in 2008, when Peyton Manning was coming off two knee surgeries and the Indianapolis Colts started 3-4 before winning nine straight. I asked Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme, who was a rookie with the '08 Colts, if it felt similar, and he smiled. "As a team, we're gonna get more comfortable as we go," Tamme responded. "Peyton has said that he's still kind of a work in progress. Played pretty darn good (against San Diego)." Broncos coach John Fox made it a little more succinct for me: "Like anything you build, it takes some time. The pieces are there. They're young players, they'll continue to get better just by the nature of it; the more you do it, the better you get." Denver still has some issues to work out -- the running game needs to improve, as does the run defense. But after six weeks, the arrow's pointing up. At a dinner in the offseason, owner Pat Bowlen proposed a toast, saying to a group of team employees, "Here's to a Super Bowl. Or else." My sense, given how the story was told, is he was joking then. But given the state of the AFC, it's not the craziest thing in the world to think that's possible.

3) London's calling. Most NFL powerbrokers think the league is still well over a decade away from putting a team overseas. But there is a small group of owners determined to push the league's attempt to grow that market to the point where it's feasible. And this week's NFL Fall Meeting provided a display as to how much clout those guys wield. Consider the steps taken in the past two months as Steps 2 and 3 on the path to putting a team there. Having a team in London annually -- in this case, the Jacksonville Jaguars -- will help the NFL measure how willing local fans are to support a single team. There's a novelty to different clubs coming in every year; this takes that away. And the second game, of course, further removes that novelty. We'll see how that works out over the next few years. Know this: Plenty of important people are rooting hard for this one to succeed.

Two college players to watch on Saturday

Every Monday, NFL.com college football expert Bucky Brooks looks back on the weekend action and evaluates which prospects are rising and which are sliding.

Week 14: A potential draft-day steal
Week 13: The enigma of the 2013 NFL Draft
Week 12: Can Lotulelei be 2013's No. 1 pick?
Week 11: Johnny Manziel is QB of the future
Week 10: Ducks' Barner not just a system guy
Week 9: QB Glennon flying up draft boards
Week 8 photo gallery: Top 20 college prospects
Week 7: College football's best defender
Week 6: Geno Smith is the real deal
Week 5: Looking for prototype running backs
Week 4: FSU QB E.J. Manuel answers doubts
Week 3: USC's Barkley is still the best QB
Week 2: Georgia's Jarvis Jones is top Dawg
Week 1: ND's Tyler Eifert stands out

1) Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel (vs. LSU, Noon ET, ESPN). For one reason or another, elite left tackles haven't been entering the NFL at the same rate they used to. So when a good one comes along, evaluators take notice. And they've taken notice of Joeckel. "Really. (Expletive). Good," one AFC scout said in a text message. "He doesn't have much left to prove. But this week's a good test." On the other side of this matchup will be the Tigers' proven pass-rushing tandem of Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. If Joeckel can show the feet and athletic ability to neutralize those two, who are considered freaks at the college level, then he'll again make a lot of people stand up and take notice.

2) Cal wide receiver Keenan Allen (vs. Stanford, 3 p.m. ET, FOX). Allen just posted his first 100-yard game of the season, but that's really through no fault of his own. With a dearth of other weapons around him, defenses have been able to gear up to stop him. And his quarterback, who also happens to be his half-brother, hasn't exactly lit the world on fire getting him the ball, either. But it's clear what kind of player he is: "Just a talented guy on a bad team," as one NFC exec said. "He's got speed, hands, RAC (run after catch) ability." Asked to name Allen's weaknesses, the exec responded, "Bad QB." This week provides Allen, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound specimen, a spotlight on national television to fight through a good defense focused on stopping him.

One prediction

Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett isn't going anywhere. Not soon, anyway. My old co-worker/buddy Jean-Jacques Taylor hit on this during the week, and I agree: Garrett is in the process of creating the kind of stability the Cowboys haven't had since their last championship.

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The fact is, the Cowboys need another offseason to rework the roster. The interior of the offensive line needs reinforcing. A complementary receiver would be nice, as would a safety and another pass rusher. And more depth is necessary in several spots.

Also, Garrett needs to learn and grow as a head coach.

But the principles he brings -- part Jimmy Johnson, part Nick Saban -- are exactly what the franchise needs. So riding it out with Garrett, as the roster is shuffled and he learns more, is the right thing to do.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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