Commentary: It Starts at the Top

OBR Publisher Barry McBride comments on his concerns about the role of team owner Randy Lerner as hopes fade once more in 2006. Barry argues that Lerner now needs to step forward and make some changes, but those changes do not involve the coaching staff. At least not yet...


If one thing has become very clear during his relatively short reign as owner of the Cleveland Browns, it is that Randy Lerner is a man of action.

The Cleveland Browns, a once-storied franchise, entered the seventh year of their new era with high expectations. Perhaps fans were too enthusiastic after the team's free agent spending spree, but the team did little to discourage such excitement.

Other owners might have been happy with the well-received off-season, but not Randy Lerner.

When the team began to show late in the exhibition season that it was likely headed for another disappointing season, and proved it by sinking quickly to the bottom of the AFC North, Lerner leapt into action...

...and bought a soccer team.

It's a smart move. The Aston Villa fans are used to futility, and Lerner is now an owner in a league where he can simply throw his family's money at a team and purchase improvement.

Why put up with the irritation of dealing with unhappy Cleveland Browns fans when one can be lionized in the Isles?

* * *

The Cleveland Browns are rudderless, adrift. They are wandering aimlessly in the world of football and in the world of business.

The franchise started over in 1999 with incredible assets. They had a motherlode of draft picks, no dead money eating up their salary cap, the excitement of a brand new stadium provided by taxpayers, and the good will which goes with representing hundreds of thousands of people who had been unfairly screwed in 1995.

They blew it all, save for one last thing.

The franchise also had in place a nationwide network of the most loyal sports fans anywhere. Those people are still there, but they're wavering.

These are fans who had been through forty years of Super Bowl futility. They had been through Fumbles and Drives. They had been through being stabbed in the back, a force-fed hiatus, PSLs, high prices, sterile stadiums, Big Money, Carmen Policy, Dwight Clark, Quiet Storms, and still kept coming back for more.

Now, though, that asset is disappearing. The team's owner needs to act, if only to sell tickets and stadium loges to an increasingly skeptical market.

* * *

Randy Lerner seems like a decent enough guy.

He's done a couple of things I really like. Lerner clearly wants the team to bind itself to its proud tradition and has worked to bring alumni back into the organization. These are two things I begged him to do in an open letter a couple of years ago.

People who knew Lerner personally wrote me after that, telling me that he truly cares about the organization and the fans.

The Browns organization creates some good will by supporting some genuinely good causes in the community, which almost makes one forget the giant sucking sound of dollars being vacuumed out of the wallets of fans and taxpayers.

The question is whether or not Lerner will be an effective leader for this franchise into the future, and that seems to be very much in doubt. Browns fans are already openly cynical of the value he provides, labeling him "Jammies" due to the well-publicized story of the Browns pajamas he wore as a child.  

The fans' first serious look at Lerner as an executive was last December. Hopefully it will not serve as a defining moment in his tenure as owner.

Due to disagreements which have never truly been spelled out, Team President John Collins apparently convinced Lerner that the Browns needed to fire general manager Phil Savage after only one year on the job. Lerner reportedly agreed, and the organization prepared itself to dispense with the person who appears to be the first halfway-decent judge of talent they've employed in over a decade.

Similar to his father's relationship with Carmen Policy, the younger Lerner seemingly allowed a smooth-talking executive to attach himself to the owner like a Remora, and appeared to have bought into Collins' attempt at a power play. Only the massive outpouring of anger by Browns fans, a large number of whom reside on this site, saved the organization from shooting itself in the foot.

When it came time to replace Collins, Lerner appointed himself.

And now we have a second time where we have to question Lerner's decision-making.

One has to wonder who is running the organization while the team's owner and president bones up on soccer.

Either Collins didn't actually do any work, or Lerner has delegated responsibility to unknown people in the organization, or things simply aren't getting done.

Based on what I'm seeing, it's the latter.

* * *

Romeo Crennel doesn't believe in his players.

That sounds harsh, but it's evident in the way the team plays.

Crennel plays to keep games close. The offensive strategy is focused on not making mistakes. It's careful, running between the tackles whether the back is making yards or not. Potentially talented rookies are left on the sideline or on the inactive list, where they can't make mistakes and make things worse.

His defense rarely gambles, keeping the ball in front of them and playing a lengthy game of "bend but don't break". The cornerbacks play off the receivers, allowing short reception after short reception.

It's sixty minutes of playing not to lose, but losing anyway. It's what you do if you don't think you've got enough talent to run someone over. The team doesn't get blown out, but it never comes alive, either.

One can hardly blame the veteran defensive coordinator. He comes from a team that had let him develop a nice collection of jewelry. In New England, Crennel worked with Tom Brady, Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, and that whole gang. In Cleveland, Crennel had Trent Dilfer, Ben Taylor, Frisman Jackson, and that whole gang.

So, Crennel understandably plays it close to the vest, but it's the wrong strategy for the Browns. He's the wrong coach for a team with a decade-long record of despair.

If we could rewind to 1999, he might have been the perfect coach, a calm teacher who never gets too upset. If we could allow him five years to patiently change the environment, Crennel might be the right guy for a young team. But this is Cleveland, and things have decayed too far. The team needs a coach that will allow those who can flourish to run free and suffer the shocks of youthful inexperience. The lid needs to be lifted off of the offense and defense.

There may be some games where we lose by three touchdowns, but it will be worth it if we find ten players who can lead the team in 2007 and beyond. Travis Wilson needs to play. Jerome Harrison needs to play. Leon Williams needs to play. Isaac Sowells needs to play. Josh Cribbs needs to play.

If nothing else, the games themselves have to become less of a stultifying exercise in safe football. That needs to happen fast, because the Browns are losing a generation of fans.

An experienced businessman should be able to see this. Randy Lerner should be able to see this.

* * *

There are two things that Randy Lerner needs to do, and neither of them involve firing Mo Carthon or Romeo Crennel.

The first thing that Randy Lerner needs to do is hire an experienced football executive. He needs some gray hair and some vision on the football side of the organization, and he needs it yesterday.

The Browns exist from week to week, month to month, year to year, without anything but what seems to be tactical planning.

Phil Savage is general manager of the team, but he needs help. Savage is inexperienced in his current role, and there have been whispers for the past two years that there are holes in his game.

Savage loves the personnel side of the business. He loves scouting and finding players, and he seems to be pretty darn good at it.

A lead football executive needs to be more than that, however. There needs to be a vision for what type of team this will become, and that needs to be reflected in both the personnel group and the coaching staff.

Savage and Crennel seem disconnected. Players are acquired that the coach doesn't want to use, and the general manager seems mystified at times by Crennel's disinterest in upgrading parts of his roster. This is most obvious in Crennel's lack of concern over the backup quarterback situation and the way Savage spent a valuable third-round pick on a receiver who is spending every Sunday afternoon catching up on Sudoku.

If Crennel, Carthon, or Savage need to be fired, it is that executive who needs to make that decision, not Randy Lerner. Phil Savage needs to mature into taking over that executives role within the next three to five years, but he's not there now.

The second thing that Randy Lerner needs to do is step down as the Browns team president.

The Browns are bleeding fans and appear to have not the slightest clue in how to retain them and spark interest in the franchise again. The business side of the organization seems to have forgotten their ultimate customers: fans.

Without fans, National City Bank doesn't care about the Browns. Without fans, Dick's Sporting Goods is looking for other ways to find people to buy recreational gear. Fans are the ultimate currency in professional sports, and the Browns are not alone in forgetting their importance.

But it needs to change, and now.

If prices need to be cut to keep the seats filled, cut them. If the gameday experience needs to be less marketing and more partying, make it happen. If trying to play media mogul is backfiring, get out of that business. If the media despises the way the team restricts information, loosen it up.

The Browns need a Team President with a willingness to compromise in the long-term interest of the team and a dedicated focus on customers.

This isn't rocket science. It's just business - the entertainment business. Somewhere along the line, that's been forgotten.

* * *

The most effective owners set up an organization, establish guiding principles for that organization to live by, get the best people to run the business, and let them do their jobs. They make changes only when the business isn't working.

Randy Lerner can either make the changes that need to be made, or tinker around the edges, making permanent what was supposed to be a temporary approach adopted early in 2006.

Watch the newspapers. Keep an eye on the internet.

I think we're about to learn who Randy Lerner really is.


Barry McBride is publisher of The Orange and Brown Report. He began publishing football-related commentary as a hobby in 1996 with a website protesting the move of the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. In 2001, he established the OBR, originally named Bernie's Insiders. Barry would be happy to receive your questions or comments via email at

The opinions expressed in this article are his and his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of other writers or staff of the Orange and Brown Report.

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