About a week ago, in the face of an overwhelming torrent of of negativity in the local media. I posted an article on the front page of the OBR asking fans if they were concerned about the direction of the organization. I really appreciate the replies I got in the TAP Room and elsewhere.
While at a family function last Saturday, I started receiving a number of calls that worried me a great deal, joined by a nice collection of emails when I returned. Stories of the team going through cell phone and email records emerged, right on the heels of employee layoffs and Pat McManamon’s stories about coaches held hostage and whitewashed murals.
Perhaps even more discouraging was the unrelenting feeling that there was no confidence among fans and the media about the organization’s ability to rebuild itself.
With this in mind, I sat down and wrote team owner Randy Lerner a long email on Saturday night, which you’ll find below. I sent this to him and team Communications VP Bill Bonsiewicz on Sunday morning with the idea of running it on the OBR front page if I didn’t hear back.
Within a couple of hours, I had heard back from both men, and had the opportunity to spend a portion of Sunday afternoon speaking to Lerner about the issues raised below and others.
The individual I spoke with on the phone is quite different from how Randy Lerner has been portrayed in many media reports. The person I spoke to was neither an absentee owner nor without a plan as to how rebuild the franchise. While some of what we discussed will remain off-the-record, all of it will inform our coverage here in coming months.
After our discussion, I have a better understanding of why the team responded the way that it did with respect to some recent changes on the football side, as well getting a better appreciation for how the head coach and GM searches were conducted.
Not all of my concerns evaporated as a result of our talk, and we hope to explore some of the team’s continuing challenges with members of the organization. However, I can say that I am greatly encouraged by the Browns owner’s willingness to discuss concerns, and the steps that the team is willing to take to resolve them.
Below is the original email. Expect more on related subjects in the days ahead.
Dear Mr. Lerner,
I may be part of the media horde, and the owner of a business minuscule compared to yours, but I’m sympathetic to what you’re going through right now. I really am.
I know that you truly want to return this franchise to its former glory and instill pride in the team back into the community, like you did for the long-suffering fans of Aston Villa. We both know it’s much harder here, with the NFL’s salary cap and furious competition. The challenge can’t be flooded with money and solved. You would do that if you could.
This franchise re-start was really Mission: Impossible, at least in terms of getting quick, favorable notices. There is no track record of success to lean on. There is nothing here which gives fans and the media confidence. They have been conditioned to expect failure.
Short of bringing on a big, safe name like Bill Cowher or Bill Parcells, which you attempted, there was no way to satisfy and engage the media and fans. This isn't your fault, really. The benefit of the doubt is a privilege which was lost by those who preceded you over the last forty years.
Here's a case in point. In Denver, Pat Bowlen hired his coach before his GM. The event prompted little criticism. Here in Cleveland, you did the same thing and the editorials and blogs flew. That is the price you pay for recent history.
And, to be sure, most fans appear to be cynical that the right steps are being taken. Your team's revenue will drop as a result.
Whatever you do will be nitpicked and criticized. I know that. I didn't want to take part in it.
Because of all this, and because, like you, I desperately want this franchise to win for the city of Cleveland, writing this is especially frustrating. The last thing I wanted to do was add to the inevitable and dispiriting wave of negativity in the media.
But I have to, because, the truth of the matter is that the team is making a lot of decisions which are making it look destined to fail. Things need to be turned around, and fast, assuming it's not already too late.
You’re a busy man, and so am I, so you’ll excuse me if I just bullet-point the issues:
1. The organizational reconstruction process looks hopelessly disorganized
This isn’t a criticism of your attempt to perform a diligent and in-depth search. That’s understood. Be smart... cover your bases. The problem is more in how the process has been communicated and what appear to be principles that are critical one day and thrown away the next.
Case in point: The team has been highly secretive about the search process, but a story that has reached many ears (including mine) is that you pushed off ex-Patriots executive Scott Pioli because he wanted to tear down and rebuild the entire franchise.
Fair enough. You preferred executives who would assess the organization and not toss out elements that were working well.
How, then, can we explain the team jettisoning Pro Personnel Director T.J. McCreight before the new General Manager is even announced to the public? It looks to fans and the media that the teardown you were trying to avoid is underway. Scouts are being dumped as are personnel on the business side. The appearance is that Pioli's cold boot of the franchise is happening anyway.
The problem here is that it looks like you’re not sticking to the plan. The lack of communication to fans and the media allows this impression to fester, making the organization look like it’s making it up as it goes. It does not inspire confidence.
2. The Browns appear mean-spirited and uncaring
Even in hard times, the Browns have always been this city’s first love. Part of the reason for that is that the team always looked like the good guys. Not even Carmen Policy could screw that up.
No one thinks that the team’s recent layoffs were an easy decision, or one without a high emotional cost to both those who left and those who were left behind.
But to release a respected, veteran writer like Steve King into the most brutal job market for journalists in history? To dump a fair and consummate professional like Ken Mather – who, frankly, I respected as much as anyone in your organization? While paying guys like Phil Savage and Rob Chudzinski?
Our sources tell us that you saved somewhere in the neighborhood of $800,000 in salary by releasing these employees. Let’s generously assume, with benefits, the team saves $1.2 million or thereabouts. Regardless of what it looks like inside the organization, outside the organization it looks like these good people are being sacrificed in a ludicrously insufficient attempt compensate for the $30 million in contracts you signed for individuals who will no longer do productive work for the franchise.
Of course, I suspect that’s not the case. The NFL is moving to shared services in its media arm and, I'm guessing, others. Importantly, there's the possibility of work stoppages as the NFLPA and league head toward collision. The NFL teams are positioning their pawns. And the Big Three are dumping their football advertising like it's a week-old dead carp. Trust me, those of us associated with Fox Sports are keenly aware of this.
There are certainly a number of rationales that can be trotted out for cutting back. Fans can understand all this intellectually, but emotionally, it's a different matter. And you sell emotions. It should probably be pointed out that the people you just sent packing, more than any others in your employ, look just like the people who are buying the tickets and watching the ads that support your organization.
On top of this, you got out-classed by the media, of all entities, when Dante Lavelli passed away. This is man who fought in World War 2 and retired to the community, running a store in Rocky River. This is a man who was responsible for some of the glorious moments that still empower this franchise with a mystique it hasn’t deserved in recent years. And his passing went without any real notice by the organization.
And, again, this man came from an era when players still acted very much like the people who support your business.
3. Your new executives look like they’re focused on the wrong things
Based on how we're seeing it from outside the Berea walls, the new men in charge seem to be obsessed with things that don’t really matter much.
The new football organization has huge challenges. They have an entire roster to assess – quickly – as they have just slightly over a month to make free agent decisions which will impact the team for years to come. They have burgeoning contract issues with Sean Jones, Josh Cribbs, and Kellen Winslow. The draft, critical as always to the team’s future, creeps closer every day.
The team’s new head coach, whose 2008 pick was the biggest bust in the draft, skips critical practices in Mobile. The new GM spends a large chunk of his week talking to the new coach and then flying to New York to talk to you. The scout who led your efforts in Mobile is fired before he can even start his work week the next Monday.
Scout.com had more people at Senior Bowl practices than your organization did. Think about that.
On top of this, the team doesn't even have a complete coaching staff in place. Who is going to assess your roster?
You should be in full panic mode right now, getting ready for huge player personnel decisions.
Instead, here’s what the fans are hearing about: Team executives pouring over cell phone records and emails looking for leaks. Murals being painted over outside practice areas. Scouts being fired.
Next up: banning hard pats of butter in the team cafeteria. And locking the refrigerator that contains the strawberries.
Maybe the decisions are all the right ones for the team in the long run. But they’re not the ones your people should be focusing on now.
4. Trying to further shut out the media will be a disaster
Speaking for the Orange and Brown Report, rest assured we've already heard what is going on. Information eventually makes its' way to the people who spend every waking hour trying to find it.
Word is coming down that folks are being told not to talk to the OBR or the Plain Dealer. We're singled out, but the same push applies to the entire media. Executives are snooping through cell phone and email records. It's bizarre.
Here’s the hard word: While the media doesn’t know much about the details of football, your coaches don’t know much about the media works in 2009. And they're making mistakes.
This economy is pushing journalists harder than ever before. Money is drying up, newspapers are dying, journalists are facing crushing unemployment, the battle is moving onto the internet where profits are small and time pressures are intense. I'm beating myself up because we got beat by a competitor by twenty minutes on a free story about T.J. McCreight. Imagine the pressures to push out something exclusive.
You're facing an industry that is turning into a buzzsaw as it tries to survive. There's the scent of desperation in the air. None of the combatants are going to go away or stop writing just because your football guys want to slam up an Iron Curtain in Berea. They're going to be pushing more frantically than ever.
If the new group persists, I can promise you that what will happen is this:
(1) Rumors, whether tossed out by the local media or new internet media like Pro Football Talk and the National Football Post, will get increased heft because they will be increasingly difficult for local media entities to disprove. Weaken the local media, strengthen snipers at the national level who you cannot control.
(2) Journalists will not stop writing or shift to a diet of puff pieces. They are being pushed to write more than ever. They will simply shift from in-office resources, who will likely paint the organization in a more positive light, to external and league sources who will tend to be more critical of the organization. Leaks can be your friend. You will lose a significant part of your ability to tune the discussion.
(3) You will build up resentment in the media. Ultimately, every team has bad times. When it does, many in the media will pounce, taking out their frustration on your organization. Many journalists have strong principles, but they’re still people, and still have feelings. Of course, many others in the sports media have few principles, and will not hesitate for a second.
It’s going to be a disaster, and it's all based on the ludicrously false notion that the local media's reporting somehow impacts the team's competitive advantage. The credentialed local media is one of the few that actually will refuse to print something that might put the team at a disadvantage.
Your franchise needs as much positive notice as it can get. It needs to get its own story out there. The more you plug leaks and shut down local professionals, the more you put power in the hands of people who couldn’t care less about the future of this organization. What you will not have is greater control over what is written, or any sort of competitive advantage over other teams. None.
Of course, you may shrug this off. You may think that I’m telling you this because we’re concerned our sources will disappear.
If so, you couldn't be more wrong. As a businessman, frankly, I love it. If anything, restricting information to the local media just increases the value of the service and detail we provide relative to our competitors. Unlike the local media, the OBR can muster resources in every NFL city and every major college town. This is great for my business, at least in the short term.
But it’s horrible for the Cleveland Browns. As a fan of the team and this city, what I'm hearing makes me sick.
I’m not going to tell you how to fix these early problems. I didn't even want to write this, and it won't create an OBR fanbase among some of the new folks in Berea.
What's most important is that you recognize the problems that are quickly developing. You can turn them around in the short term with better communication, among other things, but I’m very worried about whether this organization has the right priorities at all. I'm seeing a lot of paranoia, a bit of brutality, and little preparation.
Over the course of this year, of course, you have only one choice, only one chance: Win.
Winning hides a lot of problems, but no team wins ever year. If you don’t win, and now, this off-season’s direction has already positioned the Cleveland Browns to become the next national NFL joke, on a par with the Detroit Lions and Oakland Raiders.
The franchise is hanging by the thinnest of threads. I fear the proudest youth in the NFL's history will enter it's golden years having deteriorated into farce.