Cleveland Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby detailed a season of strife when speaking to ESPN’s Pat McManamon on Monday and his comments should come as no surprise. His recounting of the ever-decreasing morale in the Browns’ locker room through the end of the 2014 season and into 2015 is not uncommon for long-losing teams that cannot break out of their ruts; the atmosphere becomes negative and then poisonous, digging a hole out of which little good emerges.
As Dansby himself said, “There was something about the situation that wasn't right. And it was in the atmosphere. It was suffocating. You kept fighting and fighting and fighting, but you know it's there. You'd try to fight out of it, but it kept grabbing you and somehow pulling down into that boat.” It wasn’t that way initially, in the first year of now-former Browns head coach Mike Pettine’s two-season tenure. But it did develop into an untenable situation. Dansby continued: “The first year  wasn't that bad. The first year wasn't bad at all. I don't think the first year got that bad until we lost the five straight games. Prior to that, we were straight. Everything was good.” Then, the Browns lost their final five games—which Dansby missed with injury—and the internal power struggle between Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer over whether Johnny Manziel or Brian Hoyer should serve as starting quarterback intensified. Dansby said, “But there was something else internally going on [at the time] that we as players didn't have a clue what was taking place. I think that's why we ended up faltering, an internal struggle, man. It didn't even have to take place.”
Dansby said that struggle over power and the quarterback position—this time between Manziel and Josh McCown—continued to contribute to the negative environment in 2015. It affected Pettine’s ability to lead his players, according to Dansby,” I felt like it was too much on him fighting that fight and then trying to inspire us. He couldn't balance it because that fight was too overwhelming. You could see it on his face and in his body language.” Ultimately, it was a “suffocating” situation and concluded that the dual dismissals of Pettine and Farmer were the right moves, saying, “I think everybody needed it, man. Even the organization. I think the organization needed it more than the players.”
The only thing remotely surprising about Dansby’s comments is how frankly he laid out what was plaguing the Browns players and coaches in 2015. Any team facing a power struggle as the one that went down between Pettine and Farmer will trickle down to the locker room, especially when it is accompanied by a losing record and a head coach who is visibly unable to rally his troops. It’s one thing if the Browns had experienced sustained success in recent seasons—beyond the 7-4 record Pettine’s team opened with in 2014—but the tools were not in place to prevent the team from wallowing in its dysfunction, to know how to overcome this time of struggle.
But it also highlights just how bad things got. At first, as Dansby said, no one really understood what it was that deflated Pettine’s confidence late in his first season, but as the power struggle become more prominent, more difficult to hide, it was hard for Pettine’s attitude and body language to not rub off on his players. Though the Browns have leadership in terms of players—Dansby being one of them—if the ultimate leader, the head coach, is having a crisis of confidence, it’s hard even for those locker room leaders to be able to trump the atmosphere created by a coach in that situation.
Dansby said that unity from the top down is required to build a consistent and winning NFL franchise, something that Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has emphasized during the most recent period of coaching and front office hiring. He’s emphasized collaboration, of everyone at least being on the same page about the team’s overall vision even if there are dissenting opinions. This is necessary lip service to pay these offseason moves-to-date given what was made public about the divisions in the organization that widened in 2015. But if he’s sincerely all-in on this collaborative approach, then at the very least the top-down morale should be improved in 2016.
The problem, though, is that many members of the Browns’ roster have been through this many times over. Getting them to buy into this being the time it actually, finally gets done right is going to be a hard sell. It will take in-house leadership like Dansby’s and especially offensive tackle Joe Thomas, who was on the verge of being traded to the Denver Broncos during the 2015 season and was skeptical about the value of more change in Berea at the end of the season. But that skepticism has given way to optimism, with Thomas saying he wants to “be part of the turnaround,” and executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown also desiring Thomas to remain with the team in 2016. Thomas’ veteran status and heavy dose of influence in the locker room could help bring aboard teammates not sold on yet another change in Cleveland or that change yielding better results than previous attempts.
More than anything, though, Dansby’s comments further illuminate just how important front-office and coaching harmony is to the men who actually take the field and play football every week. The Browns players were not immune to the effects of the Pettine-Farmer power struggle—in fact, it weakened them as players and teammates and directly affected how they performed in games. This should be the lasting takeaway for Hue Jackson, Sashi Brown, Paul DePodesta, the rest of the coaching and front office staffs and Haslam—that discord among the powers-that-be has a direct correlation to the quality of the on-field product. What Dansby said on Monday may not be new news to those of us who know the Browns; it is, however, illuminating when it comes to just how big a toll disagreements among the decision-makers can take on the players.