Postseason Evaluation: A Look Upstairs

On the day that the Browns hire Ron Wolf in order to bring more expertise to their peronnel department, Joe Brownlee finishes off his post-season look with an examination of the brain trust. As usual, Joe offers his analysis without spin, and with the hope that the Browns soon regain their historical place as one of the NFL's top franchises...<BR><BR><I>(Fan Commentary)</I>

Good day, Browns fans!

A Look Upstairs

The failures of the 2003 season in many ways have as much or more to do with the coaching staff and the front office as they do with what happened on the field. In some cases, perhaps even more. Let's close out this review by considering the performance of the head coach and the front office. This is the final part of a four-part series looking back on 2003:

Part 1: The Offense
Part 2: The Defense
Part 3: Special Teams

Coaching

Butch Davis has been the subject of many commentaries from journalists and fans alike. This is part of the job for the head coach of a professional football team. While I am going to discuss some things here that are negative, it should be pointed out that many of these issues were not new in 2003. When you lose, things that are overlooked or tolerated in better times are magnified. So keep that in mind as you read over this list.

Probably the top thing that has been raised repeatedly is the issue of either lying, or at least spin doctoring. Part of the problem Butch Davis is having with the media and fans alike is that he says things that just aren't credible, then seems surprised if someone calls him on them. Some examples:

  • "The team is ahead of schedule." This was said when the team was something like 4-10 after making the playoffs the previous year.
  • "Player X played well." This was said about defensive players like Gerard Warren or Kenard Lang after giving up over 340 yards rushing in a single game at Balitiless.
  • "Kelly Holcomb will play." This was said after Holcomb was beaten to a pulp at San Francisco. It was later revealed that Holcomb had a broken leg and torn ligaments in his ankle.
  • "The fans should get a life." This is the worst quote of all. Think about it – if the fans "got a life" and ignored the Cleveland Browns, Butch Davis would be out of a job.

These kinds of ridiculous statements are why there is a lack of trust between the team and the fans. Butch Davis thinks the fans are so ignorant that they can't see through these statements.

I won't criticize Davis for the famous "gut feeling" statement about the quarterback situation. I believe firmly that Davis had concrete reasons for decision he made that he was not about to reveal. Imagine the result if he had said, "I've come to the conclusion that Tim Couch does not have what it takes to be a successful NFL quarterback". I have a feeling that would have had some negative results in the locker room, especially when given Holcomb's injury history in limited playing time, it was almost certain that Couch would see playing time on 2003.

Beyond simple spin control and lies, I really feel that Butch Davis has to stop with pointing the finger at circumstances for the failings of the team. Without question, injuries factored into the failures of 2003. Some of the injuries were at position where it was obvious going into the season that the Browns had not made adequate contingency plans, such as the offensive line. I have also grown weary of the expansion excuse, which really holds no water since Houston surpassed the Browns in 2003, and the poor decisions made by people like Chris Palmer and Dwight Clark. The most encouraging thing I heard all year was Butch Davis owning up to some of the problems at the end of the season. The problem is, I have a hard time believing that it is sincere. After the "team is ahead of schedule" remark, the next day, Davis backed away from having said that. I had the feeling either Carmen Policy or someone coached Davis on changing his tune. Likewise, I am left wondering if Davis was counseled to back away from blaming injuries and the previous regime and instead take some of the blame himself.

A hallmark of Butch Davis's teams has been an inability to make meaningful in-game adjustments. A few rare times, they have changed something with success. A common pattern has been to play well early, but once the opponent has a chance to counter what the Browns are doing, the Browns never react back. The most classic example of this I can think of is the 2002 Colts game, but there have been other occasions as well. When it is obvious something is not working in a game, the Browns will doggedly stick with it. This issue I believe is a central cause of all of the late game collapses that the Browns have suffered since Butch Davis took over.

In fact, I'd say that this trend extends to the entire season. Last season, it took until the bye week to take a step back and see that William Green was failing. The team only them made some adjustments to its playbook and Green found success. Some trends have been going on since last year, like incredibly poor tackling, receivers running five yards on third down when six are needed, and so forth. It is hard to understand why these issues not addressed in the offseason, but even so, how can these issues not be seen on film week in and week out without making some changes.

One of the issues that faces every coach is whether to use the "get players to fit my system" versus the "use the talent you have" approach. Based on the remarks Butch Davis made at the end of the season about the offense, he seems to be leaning more toward fitting the system to the talent. I have never felt that Davis was a huge "system" guy. His complaints when he took over the team were more general, like a lack of speed or talent, or general philosophy disconnects like wanting big blocking offensive linemen versus more athletic types. The one downfall Davis has had, which I mentioned in discussing the offense, is this insistence that every player must play more than one position. It helps in the NFL, but it is not by any means as important as talent and playmaking ability. As I said earlier, I attribute this to Davis coming from the college ranks where he had twice as many players to work with.

When a team loses, it also takes a toll in the locker room. Butch Davis has not come off as a master of player relations over his tenure, but this year, the complaints were regularly reaching the press. Granted, you expect some vitriol from departed players like Corey Fuller, but some of the issues about players not even being allowed to go to dinner on the road do seem over the top. Also, the way Davis has handled several veterans has raised eyebrows enough that it might sway players away from coming to Cleveland given comparable contract offers. Beyond that, when a team fails as the Browns did this year, it makes it appear that Davis is leading the team in the right direction. Based on some late season statements, I think Butch Davis is learning just what the presence of some veterans can mean to a team.

I know people are sick of hearing about it, but no review of this season would be complete without discussing the handling of the Kevin Johnson situation. While I will agree that there is probably blame to go around on this, Butch Davis let go of the most productive player the franchise has had since The Return, did so after signing the player to a contract extension, did so in mid-season, and did so in a way that while half the league was interested enough to put in a claim under Johnson's existing contract, the Browns got nothing in return. It is hard to view this as anything but negative. Could Davis have done more to keep the situation from becoming irreconcilable? Who knows? All I can say is that when respected and successful coaches like Jeff Fisher openly wonder what is going on in Cleveland, I as a fan have to question how these situations are being handled. While Davis constantly talks about have "a plan", moves like this make it look like the team is making it up as it goes along.

I like hearing Butch Davis embracing a more meaningful role for alumni. I hope he will continue to do things to make the players of the past a part of the team. I had a chance to speak to former Browns defensive lineman Bill Glass this past summer. I asked him if he was still involved with the team. His eyes lit up as he told me how he had spoken to the team in both of the last two seasons. The Browns need people like Mr. Glass involved, not only as a tie to the team's history, but in particular people who have made a difference with their lives after their football careers and have given back to the community.

All of the above may come off as pretty negative. But if Butch Davis is serious about self evaluation and making changes, I think it is wise to give him another year. Jeff Fisher as noted above is a respected and successful coach, yet his teams had losing records in his first four years. When you watch the way Bill Belichick handles things today as opposed to the mistakes he made in Cleveland, you see that a learning curve is required that is long and steep. I have a hard time advocating a change as yet. On the other hand, I believe Davis needs to show tangible improvement in 2004 to remain as head coach in 2005. That improvement may be in terms of wins and losses, or it might come in terms of players or in other areas. Regardless, I doubt a second consecutive 5-11 season will be enough.

Talent Evaluation

One of the consistent failings of the current staff, and for that matter, the previous staff, has been talent evaluation. While Butch Davis makes the ultimate decisions, many others in the organization have their hands in this process as well. I believe this area is the single biggest problem facing the Cleveland Browns.

When you look at recent free agent signings, few have been successful. Ryan Tucker would have to be considered a success. I suppose after 2003 you could argue that Kenard Lang was a good pickup, but given his contract, it is debatable. I love Orpheus Roye, but he was signed to contract that was far too big. But more often, the team has been burned by high priced players like Robert Griffith and Dwayne Rudd. Even cheaper players like Barry Gardner were probably overestimated in terms of their value. The front office thought they had stuck gold in undrafted Qasim Mitchell, but he fell out of favor in part because of problems with his work habits and the fact that he played just one position. The Browns struggled the entire season on the line, and meanwhile, the released Mitchell went on to play in wins for the Chicago Bears.

Then there is the draft. As you look at the drafts the current regime has had, the top picks have not done well. Gerard Warren was considered a problem because he didn't play hard every play. He has shown the same in Cleveland. Quincy Morgan was big and fast but had bad hands. He has shown the same in Cleveland. William Green had problems in college with substance abuse. He has shown the same in Cleveland. I could go on, but the point is that the team has repeatedly ignored obvious warning signs. Other players like Melvin Fowler, Chris Crocker, and Chaun Thompson have had questionable value at best. To be fair, you have to give the staff credit for finding contributors in the lower rounds like Anthony Henry, Andra Davis, Ben Taylor, and Michael Lehan.

Unless this area does not improve definitively and immediately, the Browns will not turn things around. They cannot afford another draft like 2003 where choices in rounds 2 and lower were almost all speculative in nature, rolling the dice and hoping to pick up a steal. I'd rather see the Browns take the "safe" obvious pick in the first three rounds and play those percentages instead.

Front Office

Butch Davis comes by his spin doctoring naturally. He is working along side a master of the art in Carmen Policy. Once of the worst cases this year was counting the pronouns in a Kevin Johnson interview. If the guy wouldn't follow the direction of the coaching staff, fine, say that. Don't count his words and make statements like Policy made. It made the entire organization look foolish.

The handling of the William Green fiasco isn't a lot better. Policy came out with supportive statements and then backed away from Green as more and more damaging evidence came out. Where was Policy when the Browns drafted a trouble player like Green and paid him above market value to get him in camp? What did they do to try to prevent the situation that has resulted? None of us on the outside know for sure, but it does not reflect well on the organization.

There is no question that fan relations have been terrible since The Return. Much of this can be traced back to Policy's bad experience as part of the visiting team at a Monday night game in 1993. I was at a preseason game where a fan in front of me got a dirty look from a police officer for chanting "Way to go Brownies". That is inexcusable. I was at another game where a fan was ejected after getting so drunk that he threw up on someone else's seat. I have no problem with that. But preventing fans from even supporting the team isn't good for the Cleveland Browns in any aspect. The fiasco with fans having to take off "Pittsburgh sucks" t-shirts and the flap that resulted from promising fans Tasty Cakes (whatever they are) and then not making it clear where you could get them just makes the entire organization look bad. The buck stops at Policy on these issues. I can only say that I will think long and hard before plunking down more money for tickets.

It is hard to know what to make of the quiet sale of Carmen Policy's ownership interest back to team owner Randy Lerner. On the surface, a move like this looks like a precursor to leaving the organization. I am left to wonder if the team will be impacted if Policy considers himself a short timer. Of course, there is no way to know that.

I mentioned the handling of alumni, and this failing of the team is Policy's fault. I wonder how much of this is related to his fear of popular former players like Bernie Kosar. His handling of that situation in particular has been inexcusable, but all of the former players ought to be treated with honor and class by the team, not as annoyances who come in to wave at the fans at halftime once a year. The players need the connection to the past and to the kind of men who played for love of the game, not million dollar paydays.

Based on the statements coming out of late, I have to believe that Butch Davis is going to be on a much shorter leash. While Policy certainly wants Davis to work out to vindicate his choice and they way he left Chris Palmer twisting in the wind, if things don't go better in 2004, the natives will become restless in Cleveland.

I can only speculate about the role of Randy Lerner in the team. Despite his willingness to appear as someone who is happy to be out of the picture and let Policy run the team, I question whether that is a true picture of his role. I don't see Lerner as anywhere near a meddling Daniel Snyder-type owner, but he probably has more of an idea what is going on than it appears.

Looking Ahead

The Browns draw the NFC East and the AFC East in the division rotation next season. They will also play the AFC North, as always, and their two at-large opponents from the AFC will be the other last place teams, namely San Diego and Houston. This schedule has just four 2003 playoff teams (Philadelphia at home, New England at home, at Dallas, and the Bruises), but we have seen in recent years how little this will have to do with the strength of the schedule by next fall. The Browns will play Miami and Buffalo for the first time since The Return.

It is hard to predict what will happen in 2004. So much will change in terms of the offense, the team must select a quarterback, and I expect the Browns to be active in free agency. Things won't start to take shape with respect to expectations for 2004 until April. I think the problems of 2003 will lead to some improvement in 2004. How much is hard to say. Let's hope some dues were paid this year.

Summary

Many expected the Browns to take a step back in 2003, but most predicted a finish of 7-9 or 8-8. Some of the national press predicted the Browns finishing last in the AFC North. Most people expected a defensive collapse, but not the total train wreck on offense that took place. The Browns were hurt by the Quarterback Controversy, injuries, youth, lack of talent at some key positions, and bad management of the team. Even with all of these factors, the Browns were three touchdowns from being 8-8. This tells me that if some of the problems can be corrected, the Browns can bounce back to respectability in 2004.

Suggestions For Improvement

  • Help Terry Robiske succeed as offensive coordinator.
  • Manage game day decisions better, especially in terms of adjustments during the game.
  • Correct recurring problems better during the season.
  • Evaluate talent more on playmaking and less on measurables.
  • Strongly consider character in selecting both draft picks and free agents.
  • Treat players as adults. Instead of blanket restrictive rules, hold violators accountable for their actions.
  • Treat players equitably – no special treatment for certain players.
  • Realize that the fans are the customer of this organization.
  • Meaningfully include alumni in the activities of this franchise.
  • Improve the kick return game.
  • Improve kickoffs.

Next Up

Free agency begins in earnest in February.

The 2004 schedule will be released in early April.

The NFL Draft will be held in mid-April, with the Browns choosing 7th or 8th, depending on a coin flip.

Minicamps will be held at various times in the spring, with training camp starting in late July.


The season is short. Bark hard!


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