Believeland: Pettine determined to transform Browns


From beyond the walls of Berea, they are chuckled about as an afterthought in the AFC North.

It's hard to escape the facts. The Cleveland Browns rented a room at the bottom of their division when they returned to the league in 1999 and rarely sublet it out.

Finishing last in the North in 12 of the past 16 seasons -- and in each of the past four -- the Browns have eaten through 22 starting quarterbacks and a haze of coaches, scouts, football czars, team presidents and front-office henchmen.

Second-year coach Mike Pettine knows all about the grisly past. Despite last year's uptick to 7-9, the team's finest record in seven seasons, the challenge in Cleveland extends far beyond improving the roster.

This once-proud organization -- the owner of four NFL titles -- is widely viewed as a simmering mess after countless regime changes and ineffectual autumns. The Browns of today lack respect and the benefit of the doubt. Going two decades without a playoff win will do that.

Breaking off the rear-view mirror

"Let people think this is a dumpster fire," Pettine told Around The NFL at a recent Browns practice.

"Let them think this is completely dysfunctional. Let them drive by to see if the building is on fire every day, whereas internally, it could not be a more different reality," said the coach, swatting down rumors of a fractured relationship with general manager Ray Farmer. "Ray and I talk every day, have great conversations. Do we agree on everything? No. But the batting average is pretty damn high. I think our shared vision of this football team -- I think we've made great strides."

Pettine knows the Browns are largely invisible in a division that sent three other teams to the playoffs last season. He also knows that Cleveland still lacks its version of Tom Brady, choosing to use this offseason to strengthen both lines through the draft, deepen the secondary and find a hard-working stopgap under center in veteran Josh McCown.

"I think over 65 or 67 players are different from the 90 we started with a year ago and it's been all about changing the culture," said Pettine, adding: "The quickest way to change the culture is to change the people."

Some consistency would help, too. The three coaches before Pettine -- Rob Chudzinski, Pat Shurmur and Eric Mangini -- never made it to their third season. Years of drafting went to waste, as core players scouted for one particular system stood out as ill fits for the next. Veterans like Joe Thomas, Alex Mack and Joe Haden have seen more scheme changes over the past five seasons than Pittsburgh's roster has endured in two decades.

The Browns have burned through seven coaches since 1999. The Steelers and Ravens have just two over that span, while Marvin Lewis has been with Cincinnati since 2003. Bengals fans might not be sold on their coach, but Lewis has guided Cincy to six playoff appearances during his tenure. All in all, the consistent Steelers, Ravens and Bengals have combined for 48 playoff games to Cleveland's one since 1999.

"We talked about it a year ago, we're going to break off the rear-view mirror," said Pettine. "But, hey, we understand what the history is. We're not going to run from it. We know what it is. But, to me, it was just more motivation for us to say, 'Imagine the response we'll get from the fan base, based on what they've had to go through.'"

The fans are still here, packing out training camp practices despite the fact the team hasn't won a postseason tilt since Bill Belichick and Vinny Testaverde guided the "old" Browns to a wild-card victory over Bill Parcells and the Patriots on New Year's Day 1995. The two decades since have been a black hole of bad drafts, woeful signal-callers and unfurling embarrassment.

"But we carry none of that baggage," Pettine said.

Play NFL Fantasy Football!

How do you know a winner before it wins?

Karlos Dansby was part of an Arizona Cardinals team that surprised the NFL by reeling off 10 victories two seasons ago.

Today, the veteran linebacker is a central figure inside a Browns defense that believes it can be a top-five unit this season. Imported by Pettine and Farmer, Dansby doesn't see a train wreck when he looks around the locker room, sensing instead a team ready to turn the corner.

"Man, there's so many levels to it. You can feel it. You can feel it in the energy. You can see it when you come out on the field. You can hear it when you put the pads on. It's just a lot of steps to it, and we got what it takes," said Dansby, adding: "I think last year showed a lot of guys in that old regime that we can get it done. It's trying to build that foundation. We want to win. There's a lot of hungry guys here."

Dansby insists the Browns are "10 times closer this year than we were last year," a sentiment most outsiders would dismiss in a hurry.

It's hard to get excited about a team without a quarterback, but Dansby was just one of many veterans to shower praise on McCown, calling him a "wily vet" who "knows the game well, knows where to put the ball, how to place it and what it takes to win."

The hope is that McCown can operate as an upgrade over Brian Hoyer, who emerged as a fan favorite last season and helped the Browns to a 7-4 start before crumbling down the stretch. To his credit, McCown comes across as a leader at practice and has shown more interest in mentoring last year's first-round pick, Johnny Manziel, than Hoyer ever did.

Manziel has produced a business-like camp and better game film, earning the respect of his teammates along the way. It's still unknown if he can play, though, leaving the Browns as desperate as ever for a long-term solution at quarterback. Still, Pettine sees a team steadily improving around that all-important position.

"It shows up in the little things. Just the details," Pettine said. "The decrease in the number of mental errors in practice. The guys being more professional. Fewer guys with issues, with internal fines, guys being late. The uptick of professionalism. We tell our guys, 'Pattern yourself after our veterans, our mentors,' and the young guys really take that to heart."

One by one, they're buying into the message, with Pettine saying: "I was very encouraged to hear, one of our in-house media people was doing an interview with a group of players, and they were asking them a lot of stock questions, and I think one of the questions at the end was, 'What's keeping the Browns from being successful this year?' And every one of them to a man said, 'Nothing.' To me, that's a sign that the psyche is turning."

'On the same page'

The running joke is that you don't buy in Cleveland, you rent.

Click on team name for full report; click here for a complete archive.

With owner Jimmy Haslam on his third head coach in four seasons, the Browns are an easy target for apocalyptic jabs from all directions. Pettine and Farmer have endured steady whispers of in-house unrest, but Pettine insists those reports are a myth, saying that both men feel safe in their jobs.

"Ray and I both, we're on the same page. We're very willing to think outside of the box, so I don't think either one of us feels that," said Pettine. "I know Jimmy Haslam came out a week ago with basically a vote of confidence for the two of us and people ask me how significant that was. And I didn't think it was because he's been that way with us from the beginning. He just said that (to the media), but that's the vibe we've got from him from the beginning."

Haslam has gone out of his way to speak with a range of league figureheads in an attempt to learn the business. He's consulted with Parcells and also with New England's Robert Kraft, who learned firsthand two decades ago that owning a team can be tricky business. Kraft's messy internal battle with Parcells after taking over the Patriots is only forgotten because of the success that followed in hiring Cleveland's old coach, Bill Belichick.

Belichick's run with the Browns still haunts this franchise with echoes of what could have been. The all-star cadre of coaches and front-office men who met daily in Berea during the early-to-mid-90s under Belichick's watch is outrageous: Nick Saban, Scott Pioli, Jim Schwartz, Mike Tannenbaum, Kirk Ferentz, Thomas Dimitroff, Phil Savage, Mike Lombardi, Mangini and, of course, Ozzie Newsome.

It was Newsome who would follow former owner Art Modell to Baltimore and help guide the Ravens to a pair of Super Bowl triumphs as their star general manager. That doesn't sit well with Browns fans. Neither does Modell indirectly creating half of Cleveland's opponents in the AFC North. His exodus to Baltimore spawned the Ravens and his firing of legendary coach Paul Brown in January 1963 would lead to Brown founding the Cincinnati Bengals.

Mix in Red Right 88, The Drive and The Fumble, and it's clear why Browns fans lug around a megaton knapsack of psychological baggage. Dansby, though, says today's players aren't burdened by yesterday's wreckage.

"Man, we don't even hear it. We got a vision. We can't really listen to the outside noise right now, we're trying to do something that's special," Dansby said. "We're trying to be a special group of men. And we know we've got talent. We're just trying to figure out a way to join together as one and do it together."

Moscow Mules and The Warren Commission

Pettine's first season in Cleveland was a promising journey littered with landmines. As losses mounted in November and December, the first-time coach remained even-keeled. His players noticed.

"Pettine's a tough guy, man," Dansby said. "He's the type of guy you want to go and fight for. The guy you want to have in the alley with you in a fight. He's going to stand with you. He respects you as a man, he gives you that respect. It's only right that you give it back to him. And if you don't, he's going to demand it. You want that kind of edge to your coach and he has that."

With all the markings of a football lifer, Pettine pointed to a cluster of rooftops just beyond the team's facility when asked where he lived, saying: "You can't beat the commute."

During his brief summer hiatus away from the grind, the coach who lives within walking distance of work found peace in a property he purchased on Johnson's Island along northern Ohio's Sandusky Bay.

"It's a cabin," Pettine said. "Just a little plot of land. When you drive up there, you have to cross over this long bridge across the bay, and I don't know what it is, but my blood pressure goes down about 20 percent when I cross that bridge."

His breezy summer book of choice: The Warren Commission, a tome Pettine has kept in his office for years after developing an interest in the Kennedy assassination as a youth.

"For some reason, I did a project when I was in either elementary school or sixth, seventh grade on it," Pettine said. "I've just always been fascinated by it. That's just a bucket-list thing for me. I read some more of it this summer. I'm maybe about halfway through. It's dry-as-a-bone reading. I just want to be able to say someday that I read the whole thing."

Pettine is also known to order a Moscow Mule at the bar, saying: "I got turned on to those probably about six months ago, our secondary coach Jeff Hafley got me onto them. Otherwise I'm just usually a Bud Light, Coors Light guy."

If Pettine can turn the Browns around, the Moscow Mules and Silver Bullets will flow without cost in Cleveland until the end of days. Almost everyone associated with the Browns seems to understand that.

Attracted to the turnaround

Just like his legendary coaching father, Mike Pettine Sr., Pettine Jr. started as a high school coach, too. Taking over a tattered program at William Tennent High in Warminster, Pennsylvania -- which had won a whopping three games in three seasons before his arrival -- Pettine coached the squad to a school-record nine wins in his second year on the job in 1996.

"To me, there's nothing like turning something around. I got a small taste of it as a high school coach," Pettine said. "... The very first year (at Tennent), we won five games. And just the parents and the fans were so -- I remember we were 0-3 and lost three close games and a group of parents (approached me) and I felt like there would be pitchforks and torches coming up to me. This whole group of them ... they wanted to thank me because they had something to cheer for in the fourth quarter.

"So to just understand the mentality. To me, there's no more satisfaction than that, to be able to turn a place around," Pettine said. "I think we're headed in the right direction. I think we have not just the players but the coaches -- the right men for the job. But still, it all comes down to what we get done on the field. Coming close to winning is not good enough. This is a win business."

The latest Around The NFL Podcast questions whether "True Detective" has been more disappointing than the Jets and dives deep into the mailbag to answer questions about the Redskins' offense.