The Caretaker Era

I’ve spent a sizeable chunk of the past half-decade analyzing the Cleveland Browns on websites such as the original Cleveland Reboot, the Orange and Brown Report and on any forum, chat, radio show and podcast that found my opinion remotely valid. Hundreds of thousands of my words devoted to the Browns have alternated between the rational and sometimes judicious, to the goofy and sardonic and on my worst days, vicious and dismayed.

During this same time, I’ve tried to absorb and evaluate every worthwhile source of actual news and informed opinion written and spoken about the Browns. I pour through premium content from writers actually connected to the power structure of the league, suffer through endless neutered transcripts of team press conferences and even wade into the abyss of Cleveland.com reader comments and Bleacher Report trash. I’ve probably spent more time discarding information than better-adjusted people do taking it in.

And I do these things and I spend this time – voluntarily and usually without compensation – simply because I need to find some scrap of enlightenment. All of these time-slaughtering measures are nothing more than attempts to figure out why the Browns – this miserable failure of an expansion franchise – cannot function like every other team in the NFL.

Along the way, I’ve realized just how foreign this type of existence appears to others. I’ve found myself both eloquently defending the Browns’ virtue and clumsily justifying their futility – often to the puzzlement of those with no connection to my peculiar claim on football reality. At times, I’ve felt like a wayward alien being readied for dissection – even in the midst of otherworldly moments like laughably successful Bengals’ owner Mike Brown being celebrated by Northern Kentucky fans displaying the fervor of brainwashed North Koreans.

This disconnection has even extended to communities of somewhat like-minded people. What I once regarded as relevant extrapolations of the Browns’ organizational direction and player talent I now view as a farce. I still cherish the exclusive community that Browns’ fandom provides, but the hard truth is that discussing Colt McCoy’s 2012 role is not an evolution from debating the merits of Brady Quinn, Charlie Frye and Kelly Holcomb. These conversations are my identity, but only exist in the framework of perverse Browns’ fandom.

Ultimately, a deeper truth has to be uncovered to explain the abyss that is the current state of the Browns. Beyond just a general explanation of random and wildly crippling misfortune lies the realization that the Browns have been virtually leaderless for at least a decade of their expansion lives. Certainly, the run of overconfident, overwhelmed, underwhelming and unprepared general managers and coaches have decimated the franchise with a continual series of reboots and renovations.

Yet this statement demands more than just a listing of the failed Browns’ front office regimes and bust draft picks of the past decade. As I’ve suggested for years now, the liability of the Browns’ failures rests with owner Randy Lerner – who I’ve repeatedly characterized as either incapable or unwilling to forcibly alter the direction of the franchise purchased by his father years ago.

The continued self-destruction of the Browns – a sickening decade-long display of continual power grabs, internal sabotage and cronyism – infected the organization to the point that Lerner wildly overpaid Mike Holmgren to serve as his literal owner proxy. Holmgren, by no means actually qualified to be a team President – based on his Seattle record – at least performed the basic skeletal functions of hiring a competent general manager and assembling experienced resources around an untested head coach – items that Lerner again was either incapable or unwilling to do.

Yet, even this argument – one that is completely vital, yet now seems oddly clichéd – pales in comparison to a much more sinister thought. On the heels of the Browns being sold for a billion dollars to Jimmy Haslam – a moment that should be celebrated – I can’t let my mind unwrap from the thought that the entire past decade and every exhaustive moment connected to this team can be summed up by the following:

Errant sperm has dictated the current state of the Cleveland Browns.

Throw away any hardened logic or superficial criticism relating to the Browns and just focus on the following:

Every second of the last decade involving the Cleveland Browns has been nothing more than cosmic occurrence – a cruelly impartial event completely removed from any attempt to understand the logic of a franchise directed by someone who never wanted to be there – and whose sole existence was the result of simply being born.

And somehow we all thought that Brady Quinn vs. Derek Anderson actually mattered.

As some of us already know, Randy Lerner never wanted to own the Browns. In most respects, he was simply honoring and serving his family by becoming a caretaker of a suddenly orphaned NFL team. At face value, Lerner’s baseline contribution – which based on the team’s value and sweetheart city lease – was simply to maintain a status quo. And as recent reports suggest, Lerner could have easily been counting down the days until his father’s ten-year moratorium expired.

Certainly, Lerner’s contributions were cast in the light of how he was thrust into the public spotlight – a place that provided only terrible anxiety for an otherwise private person. Naturally, Lerner recoiled, as many of us would do given a similar situation. However, this facet of Lerner’s personality proved crippling when it came to the Browns’ ability to function as a legitimate NFL franchise.

Again, because of Lerner’s inability or unwillingness to either personally adapt or initiate the building of a functional front office that would earn him the right to slip into the shadows, the Browns of the past decade are a legacy of self-destruction. Lerner’s attempts at building the structural components of the Browns focused on listening to league elders and trying to cut and paste elements of successful teams. These efforts only created a patchwork of superficial systems and philosophies and never the kind of substance required for consistent success.

Along the way, Lerner became known for his generosity – at least according to every former coach, general manager, front office executive and Browns’ alumni. From Butch Davis simultaneously quitting and receiving a raise to Mike Holmgren’s 2009 looting, you won’t find many connected NFL people denigrating Lerner. Who wouldn’t love a person like Lerner – especially in the situation he found himself in? As for the predatory nature of some of these past and current names, we’ll leave that for speculation.

Likewise, there aren’t many professional journalists who would offer a divergent opinion on Lerner – except for one – one that is likely based on his placid and congenial demeanor. Truly, Lerner appears to be a gentle person – who as nearly every Browns’ journalist has repeatedly assured us “cares about the Browns” and “is trying to improve the team.”

In this respect, Lerner is the prime example of the lowered expectations created by Art Modell’s Baltimore exodus. Or in other words, simply because Lerner was not Modell, he was allowed immeasurable room to simply exist – regardless of the endless front office and coaching reboots and the constant on-field futility.

This last thought I find equally frustrating and fascinating. Of course, Lerner should be commended for not orchestrating a sale of the Browns – something that obviously was a part of his family history. Also, Lerner did authorize a series of executives to spend Browns’ money on personnel in the hopes of improving the team. Yet, Lerner was never truly judged by the same standards that govern all league owners.

Call it another example of our society’s penchant for rewarding those who clear a bar of lowered expectations. After realizing Lerner’s limits as a franchise leader, most fans simply appreciated the Browns’ owner for not moving the team and for emerging to hire and fire the personnel swallowed up by Lerner’s dysfunctional organization. During the team’s rare moments of success, Lerner’s “quiet, steady leadership” was noted by journalists and repeated by fans and when the failures reached a crescendo, the familiar refrain of “Lerner cares deeply” again surfaced.

Yet, even the most optimistic and charitable of Browns fans have to admit that the past decade of Cleveland football has been mostly wasted. Because of Lerner’s devotion to his family – which is completely natural and honorable – the Browns have been reduced to probably the worst franchise in the entire league. If Lerner “truly cared” about honoring both his family and team – and was realistic about his own personal limits – a sale like the one occurring now would have happened years ago.

But then again, I’m writing this from the perspective of someone naïve to the mechanisms of billion dollar business. Lerner receiving the Browns was likely no different than inheriting oil wells or a shipping fortune – regardless of his ties as a fan. Certainly, Lerner was somewhat contractually bound to retain the Browns – just as the new owner’s past ties with the Steelers was nothing more than a preliminary run on the path to owning a future team. Yet, as Lerner’s tenure suggests, an owner who doubles as a fan doesn’t exactly guarantee success.

Staying true to his introverted nature, Lerner will likely slip into the shadows of his post-Browns future in a manner consistent with how he operated over the past decade. Perhaps an occasional PD puff piece will surface or maybe a mention of Aston Villa soccer. By the time the new Browns’ season begins and the sale is complete, a brand new assortment of front office speculation, coaching hot seats and player analysis will take precedence over wondering about a reserved billionaire.

As for the Browns’ new owner, it’s impossible to know what his ultimate goals truly are. Certainly, a businessman the caliber of Jimmy Haslam wants to win – but “winning” as an NFL owner does not always translate to the kind of “winning” that fans savor. Yet despite my reluctance to blindly accept Haslam’s motives as genuine, I think it’s safe to celebrate the Browns being purchased by someone who actually wants to be an NFL owner – regardless of not having a clue who Haslam was a week ago.

But then again, perhaps one simple quote explains it all.

Browns Sale Complete

Schefter said the sale will be in two parts. The first for a reported $700 million with another $300 million in the second part. Randy Lerner is not expected to be part of the long-term ownership.

Truly, Randy Lerner never was “part of the long-term ownership” of the Browns. He may have been a nice guy and misunderstood according to some and an endless source of revenue for others, but the cold reality is he was nothing more than a passive caretaker of a franchise that demanded more.

And now Lerner’s caretaker era is over and it’s likely that few will remember. In a sort of fitting tribute to Lerner, the Browns will likely yet again reboot – only this time the results could actually matter.

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Comments (3)

  1. pdxscott

    glad you’re back, dk.

    two quick things. one, i didn’t totally understand the preoccupation with lerner until last week – all is now clear. two, tony grossi was never the hack i thought him to be.

    tony, if by some chance you read this (and you really should because reboot is the singular worthwhile browns blog) i’m sorry.

    • Thanks, Scott.

      It’s also weird how I suddenly respect him. In the end, a lot of people do talk to him. He runs circles around the current PD collection.

  2. Parker

    Fantastic content. Thank You DK.
    Great to have this forum up and running again! Without a doubt my favorite source for Cleveland Browns news and opinion. I do agree that TG has developed into an extremely readable columnist since being unleashed from the PD — I guess there is hope for us all.

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