An Open Letter to Randy Lerner
Randy Lerner and Butch Davis earlier in 2004

Posted Nov 30, 2004


Seven steps to save the franchise, from Bernie's Insiders managing editor...

 


Dear Mr. Lerner,

Although you can't tell it by the activity and interest around Butch Davis' resignation today, the Browns are in danger of losing the most valuable asset the franchise has.

Browns fans have a passion for the team and game that seems to be hard-wired into our DNA. Every Sunday, win or lose, Browns fans are there, circled around televisions or bundled up in warm coats to see the game in person. 

It's the fans and and the team's storied legacy, not this year's roster or coach, which makes the Cleveland Browns special.

My message to you is very simple: You are in danger of losing us.

Even the NFL's most passionate fans can be worn down over time. Over the past fifteen years, Browns fans have endured more than any pro football fan base has ever had to endure.

I know you don't take your responsibility lightly. You're new to this football business, so you may be tempted to move slowly and carefully. But you should worry also about doing too little.

The Browns badly need to re-engage their supporters and stop hard-core fans from turning into fair-weather spectators.

If that happens, the Browns are just another team and you will lose the legacy you hoped to maintain, not to mention the value of your asset.

It's real, as much as I want to not believe it. It's happening. I've seen the passion of Browns fans lose a little bit of steam every year since 1995, and perhaps as far back as 1992. It takes a long time to grind down something as awe-inspiring as the passion of Browns fans, but it can happen.

Randy, I think you need to make some dramatic moves, and make them now.

I'm just a fan with no special qualifications other than running a web site and a magazine for the past couple of years. You've got all kinds of guys in $400 suits whispering in your ear. I don't expect you to listen to me.

That won't stop me, however, from telling you what I think you should do.
 

1. Step One is Complete: Butch Davis is Gone

I started to write this letter before today's news, but it's still the number one point.

Davis had to go.

Not necessarily because he's a bad coach. I disagree with many of my visitors about that, although I admit he has made a lot of mistakes. Rather, Davis had to go because he had lost the fans and the media.

Butch Davis got a lot of bad breaks, but also took an unscientific method to making important decisions such as draft choices and tossed out some good people (e.g., Lal Heneghan) while consolidating his power base. I believe that Butch Davis, like Bill Belichick, is too smart to make the same mistakes twice. He will be successful at his next stop. But it was too late for him to recover.


2. Drape the Team in Past Success

You have to re-establish credibility in your football operations, and fast.

In this environment, your best move would be to bring in people who have a track record of success with Browns fans. The choice can be either the GM or Head Coach, but the name of one or the other needs to resonate.

The obvious choice here is Ozzie Newsome. If you have to give up your 2006 #1 choice to the repulsive Ravens to get him, then do so. We're salvaging the future of the franchise now, and you can't be afraid to make bold moves. Ravens draft guru Phil Savage might bring enough of Newsome's aura with him to help, but you really want to get the man himself.


3. Fix the Offensive Line. Now.

Yes, we're looking at the big picture, and this seems like a detail point.

I have to tell you, however, your problems on the offensive line are more important than just a hole in the roster.

Since the late 1980s, the Browns have been short-changed on the offensive line. Nearly every Browns fan who follows this team knows that the offensive line needs to be fixed. The time for half-measures (e.g., Everett Lindsey, Kelvin Garmon) has passed.

Whoever comes in has to address this problem prior to the start of the 2005 season, or they will lose credibility right off the bat. That may mean spending the #1 draft choice on an offensive tackle, or it may mean spending big bucks in the off-season. Just do it.


4. Re-Build Your Relationship with the Media

The new Browns organization has wasted too much time and energy fighting a battle they can't win. Herding beat writers into a windowless room, making it tough to do their jobs with access restrictions, and giving special favors to corporate media partners (e.g., Clear Channel) just makes things worse.

Despite the problems in the Modell era, the local media got used to wide-open access to the team. You could sit down with the owner, talk to an assistant coach, or have an off-the-record conversation. You could even interview the coach without giving him hand-written questions in advance.

To make this work, you need the local media on your side as much as possible. Yes, the team will have to deal with media criticism, now and always, because it's part of the nature of the beast. Lighten up on the media and give them the benefit of the doubt. If you don't, you shouldn't expect them to give it to you in return.


5. Dump Expensive Washouts

Gerard Warren has come to symbolize all that was wrong with the Butch Davis era, just like Tim Couch symbolized the failures of Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark.

A "gut instinct" draft pick who didn't pan out, Warren has worn out his welcome with Browns fans with lackluster play and false promises. Warren's special treatment by Davis raised the eyebrows of many, and caused observers to speculate on Davis' objectivity.

Butch Davis' claims of Warren's greatness didn't wash with fans. His cost exceeds his production, and that's all the rationale you need to let him go.


6. No "Rebuilding" Rhetoric

Browns fans will now get to see yet another set of guys in charge, another plan, and another group who will probably say that they need a couple of years to win. You can't afford this.

We have watched our team get stolen away from us, watched the owner (who we grew to loathe) bask in the glow of a Super Bowl win. We have tolerated five years of expansion era ineptitude and we have seen Bill Belichick use Cleveland as a laboratory to grow skills which fans elsewhere have harvested.

It's too much.

We need to win, now. The team has Kellen Winslow and Sean Jones as "bonus" 2005 draft choices. Luke McCown, Andra Davis, Lee Suggs, Antonio Bryant, and Anthony Henry are among a group of interesting young players.

We will have high draft choices and room under the cap (especially in light of the step above) to upgrade our roster immediately this off-season. Don't wait for 2007 - aim to win now.


7. Get Out of the Media Business

We once had an owner who told us that he would never move the team, and then moved it. We had the NFL Commissioner in here who talked about how special Cleveland was to the NFL, and then let existing owners have their way with us as a bargaining chip.

We have gone through Carmen Policy's era of half-truths and obfuscations. We have made it through votes of confidence, "non-weight-bearing bones" and "diminishing skills".

After all this, Browns fans have developed acute and sensitive "BS Detectors".  They have never gone off as much as they have this year.

We know better than to trust an NFL team to cover itself. Watching Inside the Huddle with Butch Davis was a surreal experience, as we were shown fans cheering after humiliating losses and heard nothing but softball questions. How can a fan watch that and not be cynical about everything that comes from the team?

The team's web site, ClevelandBrowns.com, has top-notch writers like Pat McManamon and Steve King who can't ever be truly objective when covering their employer. When they weren't able to call for Butch Davis' head, it was all we needed to see.

I admit that I'm biased. I run the web site that the team considers their "biggest competitor", so much so that we're singled out for exclusion from links on the team's media page. That and similar antics doesn't exactly win friends and influence people in new media.

The Cleveland Browns are a football team. You don't want to be in the media business, especially when you can make much higher margins elsewhere. Your attempts to insert yourself into the media stream simply increases cynicism about the team among fans and irritates the fourth estate (myself included). It makes your problems with the media worse.

Winning football games and making profits through your licenses is your core competency. Now is the time to focus on it, and nothing else, until this team has restored its luster in the eyes of fans.

 

Randy, the time has come to deal with some of these franchise's problems.

Now that both Butch Davis and Carmen Policy are gone, you can re-build this franchise the way it should have been done in the first place, with one hand grasping the team's successful past and the other pointing to the future. This may require you to take some risks - something all successful businessmen know about.

Randy, you need to take this opportunity to stem the tide.

You may not get another one.


Barry McBride ()
Bernie's Insiders Managing Editor
Browns Fan since 1974

 


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