Jimmy Haslam has some reason to smile now.
For the first time in what seems like centuries, almost all the off-season moves for the Cleveland Browns have been good. The craziness of the past few years has stopped, at least up to the point of the NFL draft, and I can't believe it. Jimmy Haslam, Ray Farmer and the Browns front office deserve great credit.
As an amateur sportswriter, I have been bitterly critical of the Browns management. I have complained that Jimmy Haslam III is not a resident owner since he is based in Knoxville Tennessee rather than Ohio. Plus as a Steeler fan, I wasn't sure whether there he would protect Cleveland's interest when the people from LA come calling to try to persuade the Browns or some other NFL team to move. Then there is the matter of a potential of an indictment involving the Pilot Flying J discount-shaving scandal which may break any time. But for the moment, smart football moves appear to be prevailing in Cleveland.
Last year, the $24 million dollar question was why the Browns deliberately tanked the 2013 season. In addition to underspending the salary cap by $24 million dollars, the Browns traded 2013 draft picks for 2014 picks and traded running back Trent Richardson for a number one 2014 pick. Make no mistake, we were a few players short in 2014, and that could have made some difference. Tanking the season is not illegal, at least in the sense of diverting money and draft picks to future years, but it is unethical. The fans expect the team to try to win as many games as possible every year, no matter what. It gave the franchise another black eye and made it unattractive to prospective free agents. It got to be so bad that the Browns couldn't hire a Head Coach, as most candidates just walked away from them. The main question was whether this was Haslam's idea? Or was it Banner's?
Well that question was answered when Haslam fired Banner. He also fired GM Mike Lombardi, who in my mind was more honest than Banner but had a terrible draft (zero starters from 2013 draftees) and didn't get good results from free agents either.
Ray Farmer has made some great moves, signing Alex Mack when the critics said it was impossible, prying loose Andrew Hawkins from the Bengals, and bring two Pro Bowlers to Cleveland in Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner. In my opinion, none of this could ever have happened with Banner and Lombardi calling the shots.
Funny thing. As soon as Banner left, and Ray Farmer took over, he made the smart move of "franchise tagging" Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, which led to a long term commitment with a good player. The Browns signed quality free agents like Pro Bowlers Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby; halfback Ben Tate and a true fullback in Chris Pressley. Farmer made mincemeat of the rival Cincinnati Bengals, signing slot receiver Andrew Hawkins to replace drug addicted Lombardi signee Davonne Bess. The Bengals wanted to match the Browns offer, but Farmer used his 2014 cap advantage to structure a front-loaded deal that the Bengals couldn't match (lesson learned: read the rules). And most importantly, that talk about trading away our first round draft picks to move up and take a qb (namely Johnny Manziel) went away. Mind, I won't criticize if Manziel is selected by the Browns, but I would have complained if they had decided to mortgage the future by trading away 3 or 4 first round picks for him or any other quarterback in a year in which most experts say there is no true "franchise quarterback" of Andrew Luck's stature.
There's still time to screw this up, but my guess is that Ray Farmer knows what he is doing. I think they are going to draft good players and resist the fan's clamor to draft a quarterback no matter what. In the meantime, the Browns are going to have a normal payroll this year. It'll be interesting on May 8 when the NFL draft finally arrives.