Failed Cleveland Browns trade says plenty about sad state of franchise
There are the easy jokes and the low-hanging fruit, and we can’t blame you if you go bobbing for it. It’s just too ripe for the picking — there’s no other way to say it but that the Cleveland Browns look completely inept following their reported failed trade with the Cincinnati Bengals.
If this was most other NFL teams and a story came out that one of them failed to call/fax/email the NFL in time before the trade deadline had elapsed, there might be a day or two of scorn, perhaps a scathing column about the dysfunction, and that likely would be that.
But these are the Browns. The 0-8 Browns. The one-playoff-game-since-1999 Browns. The Browns that have been looking for a franchise quarterback since Bernie Kosar. Or you might call them the Murphy’s Law Browns — whatever can go wrong, will.
So while there most certainly is someone to blame in Cleveland for the team failing to send in the specifics of the agreed-upon deal with the Bengals for quarterback A.J. McCarron, we are just as interested in the “who” as we are the “why” and the “what.”
As in: What does this apparent snafu say for the future of the franchise?
Owner Jimmy Haslam has been mostly silent for months. He hasn’t said where he stands on head coach Hue Jackson, who carries a 1-23 record to date. Haslam also hasn’t given much indication of where the front office — whose structure is unique, we might add — lies amid what looks like the Browns’ 10th straight losing season.
It all feels so helpless once again, and Jackson often is left twisting in the wind as the only one of the bunch who speaks to the media on a regular basis. They have questions — hard ones — about the state of the franchise. And this isn’t to absolve Jackson completely from the team’s struggles since his arrival prior to the 2016 season. The Browns have lost nine of those 23 games by one score, so there certainly is a coaching aspect that must be looked at critically.
But when you step back and start putting the pieces together, especially after this botched trade, it’s easier to look up higher than Jackson and ask far bigger and much tougher questions. Including this: Did the front office, with which Jackson has clearly been at odds for some time, sabotage the McCarron deal?
We don’t know the answer to that and might not for some time, if ever. But a report from Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot sheds some clear light on how the McCarron thing started. It was Jackson’s desire to land him, the report says, and from the context of the rest of it we can safely infer that the front office led by Sashi Brown, Paul DePodesta and Andrew Berry were not in favor of the deal.
Cabot wrote: “Sources say Browns owner Jimmy Haslam signed off on the McCarron trade on Tuesday after [quarterback Jimmy] Garoppolo went to the 49ers, because he knows Jackson is trying to win football games with a lack of talent on offense and a rookie quarterback in DeShone Kizer who’s thrown three touchdown passes against 11 interceptions, tied for the league-high.”
The Browns had tried in the offseason to acquire Garoppolo from the New England Patriots, which was widely reported at the time. But Cabot wrote in this same report that the Browns “made only a half-hearted attempt” to land Garoppolo. It sounds as if their effort to land McCarron — after the Patriots traded Garoppolo — was even less hearted than that.
They either forgot to notify the league … or chose not to.
Can you even imagine if that was the case? Certainly, the timing of the deal, mere minutes before the 4 p.m. Halloween trade deadline, makes it plausible that even the slightest delay or any technical glitch could have prevented the deal from being consummated.
After all, John Elway was once forced to cut Elvis Dumervil because of a fax-machine error. The Minnesota Vikings famously forgot to make a draft pick on the clock in Round 1. Human error exists, even at the highest levels of the NFL.
But the Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills pulled off the Kelvin Benjamin trade with the clock ticking. It was struck at 3:57 p.m. ET, or three minutes before the deadline hit Monday. And the Browns, as incompetent as they appear to be on the surface, have made dozens of trades with this new regime in place and know the rules. They know what has to happen for a transaction to become complete.
That’s where the conspiracy theories are ripe for the picking. This is where those really hard questions must be asked, shouted if need be. Once more, the Browns’ franchise is at a flashpoint, and the current structure absolutely appears to be at loggerheads … with itself.
Jackson threw some real shade at the roster he’s being asked to coach following the most recent loss, in London against the Vikings. It’s the latest politicking Jackson has invoked as his job status very much hangs in the balance.
“Everything has got to be perfect for us to have a chance to win a football game,” Jackson said in his postgame press conference. “That’s just where we are as a football team. We get it, and our coaching staff gets it and our players get it, and we work that way. We try to do the best we can to get everything right, but we all know that’s not how football is played.”
You don’t have to do a lot of reading between the lines to see where he’s going with this. We’re putting words in his mouth here, but Jackson appears to have exactly zero faith in the Browns’ front office to build a team, pick a quarterback or execute even the most basic of football-related actions.
Brown is a lawyer by trade, having served as general counsel for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Browns before earning the title of executive vice president after former GM Ray Farmer was fired. DePodesta was a former baseball executive with the Cleveland Indians, Oakland A’s, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and New York Mets before being hired by Haslam as the Browns’ chief strategy officer. Berry played college football and spent seven years with the Indianapolis Colts — four as pro scouting coordinator — before being hired as the Browns’ vice president of player personnel.
All three are Harvard-educated men. But the Browns’ current structure reminds me of two quotes by Bill Parcells, a man who knows a little something about building teams up from the ashes, both during his final year as a coach in 2006.
The first: “Creatures of similar plumages habitually congregate in places of closest proximity.”
And the second: “When you don’t know that you don’t know, it’s a lot different than when you do know that you don’t know.”
Combine the two, and you have what I assume Parcells might say — again, more words in mouths here — if he was asked about the Browns’ leadership. They have three guys with similar backgrounds running the show, and they don’t know what they don’t know. That’s a problem. It’s not a function of being dumb, clearly. It’s one of being clueless of how to steer the ship.
So if someone in that front office decided to go rogue and conveniently forget to report the McCarron trade, that person (or those people) didn’t think about how this would look from the outside in. You can’t convince people you’re the smartest guys in the room when you continually look dumb.
If they did know the ramifications and were willing to throw Jackson under the bus, then they need to be fired. Immediately. It’s as simple as that.
Tension and disagreement between coaches and front offices is as old as football itself. And in a way, those things can be positives. Bill Belichick famously tries not to surround himself with “yes men.” He wants positive, constructive disagreements in his meeting rooms, even if it leads to awkward conversations and hurt feelings. Out of those things can come real, concrete and positive growth and development.
But when you have two sides that actively appear to be working against each other, it’s absolutely no shock at all that the product on the field has been an absolutely miserable one. When you see that the front office isn’t making much of an effort to give its coach — one who once was known as a QB guru, believe it or not — the quarterback(s) of his desire, well, then it’s time to burn the whole thing down.
Yet again. Sad as that sounds.
Right now, the feeling from afar is that the Browns’ front office is assuming Jackson will go. Jackson is trying to make clear that he’s not the one picking the players who are losing. All while Haslam, we assume, is trying to figure out what in the heck to do next.
Canning Jackson would be easy. But what if he’s not the biggest problem? And if you scrap the Ivy League trio, or disassemble parts of it anyway, where do you go to fix that crucial element? Or to take it a step further, what right-minded, reasonable and respected football architect is going to take a job in the Browns’ front office without power to decide who goes and stays?
And so there you have it, a complete catastrophe — from the top on down.
This is Haslam’s problem now. He hired these guys. Now he must decide how to clean it all up. Short of bringing in someone with a sterling reputation, such as his Tennessee buddy Peyton Manning, we honestly are not sure how that gets done. Manning would have to be incredibly leery to enter into this mess — and do so without any front-office experience — even with nowhere to go but up.
The Browns have some talented players, a warchest of draft picks and ardent fans — this is the type of situation that Parcells used to drool over. But just as he butted heads with a few of his former teams’ owners, the idea of working under Haslam is not anywhere close to attractive right now given his team’s chronic struggles and Haslam’s reputation in league circles.
So whether this trade was handled improperly or whether it was straight up vaporized, it’s yet another sign that the Browns apparently can’t have nice things, no matter how they try to get them.