Eighteen months ago, new Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam introduced CEO Joe Banner as the man who would help guide him through the stormy waters of NFL ownership. Five months later, coach Rob Chudzinski and general manager Michael Lombardi joined the mix.
Haslam is the only one left. The Browns announced Tuesday that Lombardi was out, and that Banner would leave the team in the next two months. It is a stunning, nearly unprecedented set of moves. And yet it somehow doesn't feel that shocking.
Lombardi's hire was greeted with groans in Cleveland, and the failure to hire Chip Kelly as hoped set a bad tone for this group's short tenure. Reports of dysfunction surfaced after Chudzinski -- one of six fired coaches the Browns have been slated to pay approximately $49 million not to work, per The Plain Dealer -- surprisingly was oustered to end the 2013 season. The entire structure in Cleveland was confusing, with Banner wielding a large stick in all football matters.
Plenty of Browns fans probably are happy with the move. Any decision to remove Banner and Lombardi from the mix will be viewed as a positive locally, but it raises a series of questions.
It is a bizarre time for a change. Banner and Lombardi were involved in the long coaching search that wound up settling on Mike Pettine just a few weeks ago. The draft is just two months away. National Football Post's Jason Cole reports that Lombardi and Banner failed to deliver on promises they made about who they would be able to get after firing Chudzinski. (Josh McDaniels comes to mind.)
The timing of the move indicates the Browns never really had a plan. If Haslam felt so strongly that Banner and Lombardi were the wrong men to lead the Browns, it would have made a lot more sense to fire them in January while promoting Ray Farmer to general manager then.
NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday, per a source informed of the team's thinking, that if the Browns hired Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, they wanted to pair him with Seattle Seahawks executive Scot McCloughan. So there were many different potential mixes in play before Haslam landed on the current setup.
Who really hired Pettine?
This is a crucial piece of information for the future of the new Browns coach. Imagine being hired by a room full of people, then seeing two of them immediately fired. Hiring a coach is a team decision with the owner having a large say. But if Banner ultimately hired Pettine, that sets up potential future problems.
"I would not do one thing different in the (coaching) search," Haslam said Tuesday. He emphasized he was very committed to Pettine.
The Browns tried everything in their search. Rapoport reports, per a source with knowledge of the search, that the Browns secretly interviewed Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, who got a raise. New GM Ray Farmer also was not involved in the coaching search, a team source told Rapoport. That isn't particularly surprising, as Farmer was an assistant GM that interviewed for the Miami Dolphins job. (Farmer turned down the Dolphins.)
Farmer's decision to spurn Miami can be seen in a new light now.
"I think Cleveland is primed and I think we're in a position to redefine the history books," Farmer said last week, via The Plain Dealer. "I think change is on the horizon and I didn't want to miss what's going to happen in Cleveland."
What's the new Browns structure?
Haslam stressed at his news conference that the previous setup was "cumbersome" and now the "reporting lines were clearer" in his new setup. Pettine, Farmer and president Alec Scheiner all will report directly to Haslam. There will be no new CEO to replace Banner.
Haslam indicated Farmer will have final say on the 53-man roster, but it will be a collaborative process with the coaching staff. Perhaps the key quote in Haslam's press release announcing the move:
"(Farmer) embraces his partnership with Mike Pettine, which is critical in helping build the right team," Haslam said.
There was a sense that the previous front office and coaching staff did not see eye to eye. Haslam repeatedly emphasized that he thought Pettine and Farmer would work great together.
So why should Browns fans buy any of this?
Banner hired two coaches in only one full season, and he's already out the door. That is a feat that might never be duplicated. Haslam, who would not address the FBI investigation or lawsuits against his other company Pilot Flying J, admitted that he's faced a learning curve since taking over the team late in 2012.
"I will accept comments and criticism about change," Haslam said Tuesday. "There is no primer for being an NFL owner. (It is) learn on the go, if you will."
In fewer than two years, Haslam has replaced his entire leadership structure, fired two coaches, hired two coaches and faced a serious federal investigation. It has been a time of nearly unprecedented change and tumult, even for the re-booted Browns.
Sports fandom is an article of faith. The brief Haslam tenure has tested the Browns fans' faith more than ever, but it's a group that remains amazingly devout despite all the struggles. Farmer and Pettine are the next men up with a chance to lead this talented roster to the promised land.