In a drastic move that virtually no one saw coming -- but which, in retrospect, seemed like a page out of the Factory of Sadness playbook -- the Cleveland Browns fired first-year coach Rob Chudzinski on Sunday night, hours after the completion of a season that was supposed to usher in a new era of patience and stability.
Yes, this was a shocker, the Browns' 4-12 record notwithstanding. The move incurred the ire of fans, numerous NFL coaches and executives (one NFC general manager called it "a shame for the NFL") alike. Browns players, especially, were quick to vent their frustration, with more than a half-dozen of them expressing their dismay over Chudzinski's firing and what it told them about the state of the long-struggling franchise.
"This organization is a joke," one Cleveland veteran told NFL.com. "I'm completely in the dark about this. Please (rip them). I feel for Chud. He was good to us."
Added another veteran: "We are so dysfunctional. These billionaires need to pick somebody and stay with them. These aren't girlfriends. You can't dump them if they (fail to please you) one time. Too many dominoes fall and (screw stuff) up when that happens. This is highly upsetting."
While Chudzinski had lost 10 of his last 11 games after a 3-2 start, players were quick to point out some of the mitigating factors. For one thing, despite the promising early-season play of journeyman and Cleveland-area native Brian Hoyer, the Browns' quarterback situation was a volatile mess, with a prior regime's first-round draft pick (Brandon Weeden) and an inconsistent veteran (Jason Campbell) manning the position after Hoyer suffered a season-ending torn ACL.
The Browns also sent strong signals that they were ignoring short-term gratification in the name of building for the future, most notably trading starting running back Trent Richardson -- the third overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft -- to the Indianapolis Colts for a 2014 first-round choice.
Throw in the strongly stated rhetoric voiced by the new regime, primarily owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner, about patience, stability and continuity, and Chudzinski's firing appeared unfair at best and hypocritical at worst.
"Tremendous mistake, just epic," one Cleveland player said. "It makes no sense. Everything we did this year was setting up the future -- trading draft picks, trading players for next year's picks, playing young guys toward the end of the year to see what they look like, sitting older guys at the end to get them healthy (Joe Haden, Phil Taylor, John Hughes) when they could have played.
"This is such a rash decision. They just (expletive) hired him last year! The whole year we were making all decisions for the future and now you're pissed the coach didn't win this year? What the (heck)? It was like a big experiment with players and scheme. I think it came from upstairs, and then they are surprised we didn't win more games? Yes, it's all about patience and then fire your coach Year 1. This blows."
Said another Browns player: "We had a disappointing season, but it wasn't like we invested heavy into this year anyways. Trading away our starting running back was not the way to win games today."
According to NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport, the team's brain trust -- Haslam, Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi -- felt that the Browns were not improving or responding to Chudzinski and his assistants (all of whom, curiously, were reportedly retained, at least in the short term). Further, according to Rapoport, when the front office recently shared its concerns with Chudzinski, he did not seem to believe that the team's problems were severe.
The front office also collectively felt that losing to a talent-deficient team like the Jaguars (32-28 on Dec. 1), and the lopsided nature of many of the defeats during the team's 0-7 stretch to end the season, were black marks against Chudzinski.
When these sentiments were relayed to one Browns veteran, he replied, "It's kinda weird that's what they think. I would tend to disagree. We lost the last couple of games by a wide margin because injuries to our best players built up. Before then, we had Chicago, New England and Jacksonville down in the fourth quarter."
Later, in response to a statement issued by the Browns in the official announcement of Chudzinski's firing, the veteran said, "Does this mean every year we are not 'consistently competitive' they will fire the coach? This is awful."
It's especially unnerving given the earlier preachings of Haslam, a former Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner who purchased the Browns from Randy Lerner in October of 2012, and Banner, the longtime Philadelphia Eagles president Haslam installed as his CEO. Even before blowing out the prior administration -- president Mike Holmgren, general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur -- Haslam spoke of stability and continuity as his guiding principles, saying he hoped to model the Browns after the Steelers.
Those tenets were often echoed by Banner, who became the public face of the franchise after Haslam's trucking company was embroiled in a federal investigation amid allegations of deliberately withheld rebates from customers.
Now, the "carousel" that Haslam and Banner were hoping to eradicate is back in play once again.
"Yeah, it's hard to say (Chudzinski) got a fair shake when usually it takes a few years to get things established and see dividends, especially with all the quarterback changes we had," another Browns player said. "There's a reason coaches typically get a few years before changes are made, right? The whole thing just seems odd."
Said yet another Cleveland player: "It's a crazy league, man. I didn't see it coming. There's just too much turnover in this organization ... always looking over your shoulder."
In fairness, while firing a coach after his first year is far from the norm, it is not unprecedented. Mike Mularkey was let go by the Jacksonville Jaguars after a single 2-14 season in 2012, and the Oakland Raiders dumped Hue Jackson despite an 8-8 campaign in 2011, his first year as a head coach. The Seahawks deep-sixed Jimmy Mora following a 5-11 campaign in '09, and even Pete Carroll -- the man who replaced Mora in Seattle -- was a prior victim of a one-and-done move, losing his job after a 6-10 season with the New York Jets in 1994.
Banner's regime, however, was supposed to be different, especially considering his past: After Andy Reid went 5-11 in 1999, his first year as the Eagles' coach, Banner and Philly owner Jeffrey Lurie never flinched. Reid proceeded to win 11 games or more in each of his next five seasons -- and he took Philadelphia to five NFC championship games and a Super Bowl over the next 13 campaigns.
All of this had Browns players and others in NFL circles theorizing that something "bizarre," as one AFC offensive coordinator put it, must have taken place to compel Chudzinski's dismissal. Said one Browns player: "I've gotta get to the bottom of this. Something big must have happened behind the scenes."
If nothing else, it made for an exceptionally surreal postgame scene following the Browns' 20-7 loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday. Told of the reports that Chudzinski's firing was imminent about an hour after the game, one Browns player texted NFL.com, "I'm on the wrong bus (to the airport) and I'm very happy I don't have to sit on Bus 1 (with Chudzinski) in awkwardness."
Now, in the wake of this stunning move, he and his teammates are left to wonder if the wheels are coming off.
It's a valid question. Here are a dozen others in our perceived pecking order of the teams who've survived to compete for the Lombardi Trophy (yes, an abbreviated, playoff version of the 32 questions you typically find in this space):
1) Seattle Seahawks: Given that their prized offseason acquisition was restricted to a single game's worth of action in 2013 (and might be shelved for the playoffs), how extraordinary was the 'Hawks' 13-3 regular season?
4) San Francisco 49ers: Given that the Niners had already clinched a playoff berth, how impressive was Sunday's victory at Arizona -- and could this season become another memorable chapter in the franchise's special history book?
6) New Orleans Saints: When Drew Brees throws for 321 yards and four touchdowns by halftime in the regular-season finale, is it fair to say the Saints have a bit of momentum heading into the playoffs?
11) Philadelphia Eagles: Even though Chip Kelly didn't fall for the banana-in-the-tailpipe trick, how fortunate was Philly to be facing the Cowboys' second-team quarterback in the final two minutes of Sunday night's NFC East decider?
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.