In the NFL world, perception is reality. When free agents, coaches and fans view your organization as a mess, it usually is. The Cleveland Browns have been the definition of "a mess" since returning in 1999, but perhaps some light is shining through the gray clouds.
I would love to say that the perception of the Browns is changing because of careful planning and a well-executed game plan, but that would be inaccurate. In fact, it seems as though the Browns may have slipped and fallen backward onto a pile of luck.
When free agency starts next week, players and their agents will be deciding the next step in their careers. Anyone who thinks the 12-month debacle that has played out very publicly in Cleveland won't factor into those decisions is naive. The Browns will have to overpay for players simply because the situation looks so bad.
This is something Cleveland sports franchises are used to, however.
The interesting thing about the Browns moving forward is that they actually may have their best combination of coach and general manager since returning to the NFL. It seems like every time the team had someone who could effectively lead, the general manager was terrible.
I still believe that both Butch Davis and Eric Mangini were good coaches that bit off more power than they could chew. Davis conducted drafts with Miami-colored sunglasses on, and Mangini couldn’t evaluate talent to save his life.
Other times, the general manager hit for a pretty high average and the coaching was the problem. Tom Heckert made some very successful picks, but Pat Shurmur was a walking panic attack on the sidelines.
Enter Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine. Farmer, who is one of the most respected young football men in the NFL, was nearly hired as the general manager of the Miami Dolphins before the Browns gave him his bump. He wasn’t the general manager entering the offseason, and it seems as though pure happenstance is what moved him into that position.
Then there is head coach Mike Pettine. After an exhaustive coaching search in which the head Browns job seemed to be the most unattractive one on the face of the earth, they ended up hiring Pettine from Buffalo. He nearly pulled out of the running in the Browns’ search to focus on things in Buffalo.
The Pettine hire, while unorthodox and not their first choice, seems to have gotten favorable reviews around the NFL.
I'm in on Pettine. Wayward search to get to him but I think he was the best hire this offseason.— gregg rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) February 22, 2014
Then there are the fans. Diehard, loyal, hardworking people who just want a chance to watch a winning football team. It has become so mind-numbing to watch the Browns run on the hamster wheel of dysfunction that there is a whole cottage industry based around being a downtrodden fan.
Cleveland comedians each take turns lamenting how terrible their beloved team is to watch.
If The Browns draft Michael Sam could that be construed as a hate crime?— Mike Polk Jr. (@mikepolkjr) February 10, 2014
So why don’t they just stop supporting the team? That is a good question with an answer that only someone who bleeds orange and brown could truly understand. The best description of what it’s like to be a Browns fan comes from comedian Brian Kenny in the video below.
While it is not politically correct, it’s funny and accurate. But maybe those days are changing as well.
The Browns made upgrades to the in-game experience last season and will be adding to that in the future. The team has already begun a massive facelift to FirstEnergy Stadium, which is set to be complete in 2015. Also in 2015, the team will get “cutting edge” new uniforms.
This all means very little if they waste 10 draft picks and once again fail to find a quarterback to lead the franchise this offseason. Winning is the true cure for a bad reputation.
But then again, maybe, just maybe, they have finally started getting the ball rolling in the right direction. They were criticized for firing head coach Rob Chudzinski after just one season, but they turned around and did the same to Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi just weeks later. You have to give owner Jimmy Haslam credit. When he feels something is not working, he hits the detonator.
Jettisoning two men who were almost unanimously disliked around the league was a good move, even if it meant Haslam was admitting a mistake in hiring them.
So the Browns will now enter their most important offseason since the return of the franchise with a general manager who was not supposed to be the general manager, a head coach who was nowhere near their top choice and a dream that better days are ahead.
Maybe, just maybe, the Browns didn’t fall into a big pile of dog crap for once. Maybe they finally fell into some good fortune.