A Mostly Factual Retrospective on the Reign of Joe Banner with the Cleveland Browns

I never really held a high opinion of Joe Banner as far as an NFL decision maker is concerned. Anyone who read me throughout the football season will understand that. To me he was always someone who was more bluster and posturing than substance. He promised a lot and delivered basically nothing. Ultimately he wasn’t qualified to hold the position that he maintained with the Browns as I wrote in more detail a few weeks ago upon the canning of Banner and Mike Lombardi.

The Browns front office structure had not been “normal” under Banner, who held way more power and personnel control than a typical CEO who doesn’t have a football background would and should have. However, according to CBSSports’ Pat Kirwan, things were way more unnatural than any of us could have possibly imagined. According to Kirwan’s sources the new Browns coordinators were supposed to report directly to Banner—not head coach Mike Pettine. This is about as far from “normal” as you can get. If this is what Banner thinks makes for a successful process in running an NFL team then it’s not surprising why things didn’t work for his first head coaching hire Rob Chudzinski. Calling Banner “a bit of a control freak” seems pretty light given what we know now.

This recent news has reignited an idea in my mind that it would be fun to do a little retrospective on Joe Banner’s tenure in Cleveland—not solely based on actual facts alone but also including plenty of observation, conjecture, and general make-belief. So what follows is what I think happened during Banner’s reign in Berea, parts and all of which may or may not be completely true and/or completely made up…but I feel like I can’t be too far off.

October 17, 2012: Banner hired as CEO

After spending 18 years working in the front office with his childhood friend and owner of the Eagles, Jeffrey Lurie, Banner left Philadelphia in search of a bigger role with an NFL team, something he readily admitted during his introductory press conference. Banner found that sucker willing partner in the new owner of the Browns Jimmy Haslam.

Haslam and Banner were not an arranged marriage necessarily so much as they were a couple that was forced together by their mutual friends and then got together because everyone around them said they should. Haslam claims to have done his due diligence prior to hiring Banner and that he received nothing but glowing remarks. It is probable that those glowing remarks came for two reasons: 1) Banner’s close friends in the business wanted to see him land a good gig and would obviously praise him; and 2) other NFL owners (particularly those within the AFC North) upon hearing that Haslam was considering a glorified accountant who used to sell suits as his football guy obviously responded “You can’t find a better man for the job!”

So that’s how Haslam became hoodwinked into bringing Banner to Cleveland and had him put in charge of all football decisions.

Banner’s introductory press conference held some foreshadowing of what would lie ahead for his reign in Berea…

On the topic of the GM and coaching staff (which were already in place with Heckert and Shurmur at the time, it being in the middle of the season), Banner said, “It really is just about really making sure you’ve got the best people working for you and you’ve got a common vision, everybody pulling in the same direction so that’s going to be our focus.” Little did we know at the time that that “common vision” was only viewed clearly through the lenses of Banner’s spectacles.

“I know these fans have been through a lot of hopeful starts” he said, “and I don’t want to sit up here and be the next promiser in their eyes.” Smart idea. These fans have been given enough vain assurances over the years.

But yet he went on… “We’re going to lay the foundation for things that are going to get put in place, done right and then last a long time.”—Whoops!

And then came the gold nugget paragraph that I and other Browns fans and bloggers will hold over Banner’s head till the end of time…

“If you ask me to really put a time frame on how quickly I think we’re going to win how many games. I really can’t do that. There are too many unknowns. I don’t think it should take very long before you’re all sitting here, and the fans watching the team are sitting there going, ‘You know what? These guys know what they’re doing. We’re on the right track. We can start to enjoy this. We’re going to end up in a really good place.’ I think you’ll start to feel that reasonably quickly. I think you’ll feel like there’s a plan, this is well run, these guys know what they’re doing, their priorities are exactly what they said they were. Obviously, this season we’re observers. I don’t think it’ll take long before you start to feel like I’m starting to see some smart things happen, some decisions that make me feel like this team is on the right track and I think we’re going to end up in a good place.”

Banner was right in one sense…it didn’t take long for us as fans, sitting here, watching the team, to come to a conclusion about how smart Banner is. Unfortunately for Joe there isn’t a Browns fan in the world who ever uttered the words “You know what? These guys know what they’re doing. We’re on the right track. We can start to enjoy this. We’re going to end up in a really good place.”

But we’re only getting started at this point.

December 31, 2012: Browns fire Pat Shurmur and Tom Heckert

In full defense of Banner, Shurmur needed to be fired. He was in way over his head as a head coach. He got promoted one spot too high. That was totally legit.

Firing Heckert so he could replace him with his puppet Mike Lombardi, on the other hand??? Ehhhhhhh.

Before we get ahead of ourselves with Lombardi, though, (and we’ll get to that, don’t worry) the Browns decided that they would be hiring a head coach first before the new GM/player personnel guy. Banner said, “We think that the head coach is going to play even a bigger role in where we go from here. That will create a better situation for us to identify what role the GM, potentially director of player personnel, whichever it ends up being, exactly what qualities do we need in that person so when we fit everybody together we’ve got real strength in every area that we think we need to be strong in.”

And by “fit everybody together” he of course meant “make sure we have people who I can control.” But we didn’t know this just yet.

Banner would go on throughout the press conference to talk about why they would be hiring the coach first and how that would open them up to more possibilities should they hire a coach who expects/deserves/needs more control over the roster. This was all well and good and it certainly seemed to everyone at the time that they had their eyes set on a select group of candidates.

And we were right…mostly.

January 4, 2013: Dinner with Chip Kelly

All props in the world to Banner for identifying a top-notch head coaching candidate. Chip Kelly was everything the Browns could have hoped for in a head coach. They set their sights high.

Banner, in the first sign of his undying bravado, believed that he could land the big Duck. How could he possibly lose? The Browns had a great dinner with Kelly that led to multiple reports that Friday evening that Kelly would indeed be the next head coach of Cleveland Browns.

Banner was the man! The #InBannerWeTrust hashtag was flying around Browns Twitter! They even talked about it as a virtually sure thing on the Cleveland Browns Daily radio show—a show run by the Browns! Banner knew he had him! They had it all locked up! Fly in the lawyers and we’ll sign him at dinner on Saturday! HERE WE GO BROWNIES HERE WE GO WOOF WOOFF!!!

And then Kelly got up from dinner and let Banner know that he still wanted to meet with the Bills and Eagles. The next day Kelly met with the Eagles for a lunch that never ended. After nine hours with the Eagles the Browns were no longer in consideration for Kelly.

Kelly (probably) had his reservations about the front office structure of the Browns. It isn’t natural for a guy with such a wealth of football knowledge, power, and control like Kelly had at Oregon to just give that up to a guy whose claim to fame in the football world is that he’s really good with the salary cap. With those reservations already in his mind going into Saturday’s lunch, he had them confirmed when he sat down with the Eagles (Banner’s ex) who clued Kelly in on what a disaster working for a team controlled by Banner would be like. Kelly ultimately made the right choice and went to Philadelphia where he got them into the playoffs in his first season doing amazing things on offense and maximizing the talents of what was a relatively marginal team.

Banner was left to wonder what happened, and how anyone could possibly resist his charms.

January 6, 2013: Browns “reboot” the coaching search

Nothing says “we had no idea that our top choice would possibly say ‘no’ to us” quite like “rebooting” your coaching search.

Banner’s arrogance hadn’t allowed for the possibility that the guy they targeted could possibly go elsewhere. No one is smarter than Joe Banner after all!

But the Browns were left without a real Plan B and the wheels were already in motion with other coaching vacancies being filled around the league and Banner and his Browns left behind trying to catch up on the fly.

January 11, 2013: Browns wind up with hire Rob Chudzinski

After missing out on their top choice and failing to recognize the potential in other coaching candidates (hello Mike McCoy and Bruce Ariens!) the Browns landed on local boy Rob Chudzinski after Banner and Haslam shared a moment across the table at dinner with the former Browns and Panthers offensive coordinator.

Banner and Haslam praised themselves for their thoroughness in the coaching search and reiterated multiple times during Chud’s introductory press conference that they had found the right guy to be their coach for a long time. They spoke about Chud as one of the smartest, young, innovative minds in football. They affirmed his strong leadership. They spoke about continuity and how good franchises don’t turn over their coaches every couple years.

Banner said of his first coaching hire “We’ve come up with a candidate we feel very, very confident in.”

All is well in Bannerworld J

January 18, 2013: Browns hire Mike Lombardi as lead puppet Vice President of Player Personnel

Lombardi had been long rumored to be joining Banner in Cleveland since even before the latter was even announced as CEO of the Browns. Banner lied about denied any prior contact or even having seriously considered Lombardi for the job until after they had fired Heckert.

Lombardi would go on to be “promoted” to general manager to allow Ray Farmer to join the team under the title of Assistant GM. But none of this really mattered for squat. This press conference would be, little did we know at the time, the last time we’d really see Mike Lombardi in any formal matter in his role as Browns GM. This is, of course, not normal. And as time would progress the true totalitarian reign of Joe Banner would become more and more prevalent.

One really good Banner arrogant bluster nugget did come from the Lombardi presser though. Amidst skepticism about the moves that he had made—hiring Chud first (a coach without great credentials) and then Lombardi (a GM with a poor track record of picking good NFL players)—Banner was questioned if winning would validate those decisions. He responded “It started with winning being the only thing that mattered anyway. I don’t want to put a ‘this year’ on it, because as we’ve said we want to build this the right way so it’s sustainable [emphasis mine]. The only reason any of us are doing this is for the thrill of victory. There needs to be no more motivation, or any criticism or skepticism doesn’t change the drive to do that as quickly as we can.”

Ah, yes…you just couldn’t help yourself could you, Joe? We’ll see in time just how sustainable those decisions will be.

April 25, 2013: Browns throw Chuck Klosterman out of the War Room on Draft Day

Chuck Klosterman, a widely respected writer for Grantland, was promised access to the Browns War Room during the Draft where he would write an in-depth piece about the inner workings of an NFL franchise as the draft unfolded and all that stuff. Only problem for Klosterman was that when he arrived at Berea he wasn’t actually allowed access to much of anything at all.

Instead what Klosterman chronicled was an organization fraught with paranoia. Afraid of anyone spying on them they even erased their white board when the IT guy came in to fix the cable. Klosterman referred to them as being “crazy on purpose.” He would write that “I’ve never witnessed this level of institutional paranoia within a universe so devoid of actual secrets. I don’t even know what they don’t want me to know.”

Klosterman did note in the piece that Banner without a doubt was the one running the draft. Banner is a man who believes that his wisdom is so far beyond other humans. To allow lesser beings to have access to the inner workings of his brilliant mind would compromise his whole operation.

So good. But we’re just getting started, really.

September 18, 2013: Browns trade “star” running back and face of the franchise Trent Richardson

Incidentally the best thing that Joe Banner did in his brief time in Cleveland!

Banner denied that trading their marquee player meant that they were giving up on the season but the message had been sent to everyone: This team needs a franchise QB and the best way to do that is to bottom out and pick one at the top of the draft.

Everyone understood this point. Richardson had been lackluster (to put it kindly) as a player with the Browns so getting back first round pick was golden. But he was the face of the franchise, a guy most fans (not me) were really behind. There were more No. 33 jerseys in the stadium than anyone. This one was a shot to the fans. But the carrot at the end was the franchise QB. This season was a wash. Everyone believed this…including the coaching staff.

And then the Browns went on an improbable three-game winning streak!

November 13, 2013: Banner praises head coach Rob Chudzinski

During the bye-week, with the Browns sitting at 4-5, Banner couldn’t help praising himself by way of praising the guy he picked to be the Browns new head coach. “I’d be hard-pressed to think that in nine weeks a first-time head coach can do any better or any more than he’s doing,” Banner said. “All of the measurables that you’d look to come up with, if you even wanted to create a yardstick of measuring at this moment, I just think he’s doing an outstanding job.”

Banner of course has no problem gushing about how great of a coach Chud is when things are going well. This is vindication! This is proof that Joe Banner is smarter than everyone! Screw Chip Kelly! We’ve got Rob Chudzinski!

Banner couldn’t help his bravado at this point. He spilled the beans about how they viewed the team after Week 2 when they traded Richardson. “I did that trade thinking that our team and their team were in totally different places and this would be a trade that legitimately would work well for both teams.” He legitimately thought the Browns sucked and were trading away their best player!!!

Even when Joe Banner is wrong everything turns out right! He can’t be stopped! He’s the smartest man in football! Go Browns!

December 30, 2013: Browns fire Rob Chudzinski

Wait what!?!?!?

In a move that blindsided fans, media, players, and coaches, Banner fired Chudzinski after only one season…despite singing his praises only a month and a half previously.

The players and coaching staff—along with most of the fans and media—understood that this season was about getting ready for the next one. So it wasn’t surprising to see the team fall apart towards the end, especially considering the revolving door of mediocre to bad QBs all season long. Yet Chud was fired supposedly because Banner and Haslam did not see enough progress in the second half of the season.

“At whatever level you may assess the team or the talent,” Banner blusters, “as you go through a season you see teams get better. Sometimes they are not very good teams that get better, sometimes they’re the best teams in the league. It was concerning to us that that wasn’t happening. It left us feeling the best thing to do was to make a change.”

More Banner bluster…

“I think it’s just what we said and if you look around, you’ll find similar situations to what you’re describing and teams that improved as the year went on. I don’t want to walk through all of the teams around the league, but I think that the improvement that should be happening during the season, regardless of the talent level that you’re at, is something that you have to be able to see. It’s something that’s happening on many of the rosters.”

I’m curious how many “similar situations” there were around the NFL that were forced to start eight combined QBs and RBs in one season? Let alone with a first year head coach.

And that’s of course not to mention that they received almost no help from the 2013 Draft class because the Browns (fairly, I might add) traded multiple picks for future selections…again, showing everyone they were focused on 2014 more than 2013.

Banner flatly denied that there was any disagreements with the coaching staff about personnel: “I want to be unequivocal, there was no such thing.” But yeeeeeeeet…we know otherwise. Banner wanted the coach to cut Greg Little late in the season to send a message and Chud refused, that method of fear mongering not being genuine with his coaching style. The Almighty obviously didn’t take too well to his totalitarian authority being challenged like that.

Banner would of course take this public opportunity to puff up himself… “I think the fact that this didn’t go well doesn’t change the track record we both have in attracting good people [emphasis mine], recognizing good people and having continuity once we’ve done that.”—We’ll see about this in a bit.

“I just want to add” Banner would say, inadvertently sealing his fate, “that as unpopular or undesirable for us to be sitting here right now and acknowledging that we didn’t get it right, I think the fact that we are making this change makes a statement that we’re not going to accept not being really successful. Whether you agree with the decision or not, that’s an important message for our fans to hear. It may be one of the things that we feel will make a difference as we go forward. We are going to demand of everybody, especially and starting with ourselves [again, emphasis mine], that we be successful. If we’re not, we’re going to do what we need to do to get there.”—In retrospect, this is an eternally condemning statement given how things played out. Haslam would ultimately hold Banner to that promise. But we’re not there yet…

“I really think the most important thing going forward is,” as Banner revs up his personal hype machine again, “are we going to be able to identify and attract the right coaching candidates…I think we also have in myself somebody who has a 14-year history with the same coach and a great amount of success that should give somebody comfort.”

Banner would go on to address the notion that some coaches wouldn’t want to come to Cleveland because of the organizational structure with Banner holding so much power (paraphrasing…kinda): “I think we’re open to whatever structure we need to have to get the right person.”—Sure you are…we’ll see in a bit.

At the meeting where Banner and Haslam announced to the assistant coaches of the change, Norv Turner spoke up and forcefully challenged the head men. He wanted to know why they’d been sold a long-term building project only to have it yanked out from under them after only one year with a purposefully undermanned roster. Turner had tolerated that lack of talent on the roster because they had been promised the team was being built with 2014 in mind. Only now Turner and the others won’t be around to finish what they started.

The reality of the situation is (probably) that Banner, despite being spurned by his first big coaching target in Kelly, believed he could do better than Rob Chudzinski. The confidence and bluster that Banner displayed after having to can his first hire after only one season told only one story: Joe Banner still believed in Joe Banner.

Banner believed that they would be able to land a big target and they set their sights high once again. The list of top candidates included Bill O’Brien, Josh McDaniels, Gus Malzahn, James Franklin, Adam Gase, and Dan Quinn. That’s an impressive list. Again, props to Banner on being able to identify some real quality talent and set his sights high.

Only problem is that none of them saw the perceived “comfort” that Banner believed working with him would bring. Several of the coaches preferred the stability of being an assistant coach for a good team over taking over a train wreck under a seemingly unstable front office structure that only gave the last guy one year with an undermanned roster. Many of the candidates expressed their unease with taking the position in their interviews. Instead of Banner trying to evaluate for himself which coach he deemed worthy of being his next hire, the Browns CEO was forced to do a sell job and try and convince a qualified candidate that being head coach of the Browns was in fact a good and stable job. But the man who made his mark selling suits was unable to sell himself as the leader of a team because smart football men saw through the bravado and all that was left was a weak man who was losing power by the day and the trust of his boss with every failing interview.

Sometime in the month of January, 2014: Browns attempt to trade for Jim Harbaugh

Determined to not fail on his pursuit of a great coach, Banner took the biggest swing yet by trying to trade for 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. The details are sketchy as to why exactly Harbaugh would want to leave a team that has gone to three straight NFC Championship Games including one Super Bowl. Bill Barnwell wrote a really good piece for Grantland breaking everything down. But none of that really matters to us.

All that matters is that Banner was super desperate to land a big fish and was even willing to mortgage the future by giving up draft picks if it meant not coming up empty on a big promise again. No matter how it all went down, Banner and the Browns came up empty.

But, WOW, was this a fun and entertaining story!!! Who could have seen that coming??? You keep doing you, Joe.

Sometime in the month of January, 2013: Browns interview Gary Anderson…seriously

This is the depths that Banner sunk in his search for a coach…Gary. Anderson.

Sometime in the month of January, 2014: Banner inserts himself as a head coaching candidate

Unable to find anyone to take the job it finally dawns on Banner “I’m smarter than all of these people anyways! I’ve been in football for almost 20 years now! How hard can coaching be anyways? Why should I bother with any of these phonies who wouldn’t know a great opportunity if it put a suit on them when I can do a better job myself? I’ll just be the next head coach of the Browns!”

When Banner brought the idea to Haslam and Lombardi they both laughed uproariously thinking it was just Joe being his silly, whimsical self again, not realizing that he was totally serious. When Banner realized they thought he was joking and wouldn’t take his idea seriously he started to awkwardly laugh himself and “admitted” that it was just a joke.

[Ok, this part may or may not be completely fabricated. But at this point, would you really be surprised if it was true?]

January 23, 2014: Browns finally wrangle someone into taking the job hire Mike Pettine

Hey, nothing says “attracting good people,” “strong leader,” and “moving in the right direction” quite like “former defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills Mike Pettine.”

Ultimately we have no idea if Pettine will be a good coach or not. But the fact is that he wasn’t on Banner’s radar until all the other guys said “No thanks.” Otherwise he wouldn’t have waited two-plus weeks to interview such a hot commodity.

It’s the Tom Brady corollary: Everyone praises the Patriots for getting Brady with 199th pick in the draft. But the reality is that if they thought he’d be anywhere close to that good they wouldn’t have waited until the sixth round to draft him. It was more luck than anything on their part. Same holds true for Pettine. Sure, he could wind up being the greatest coach of all time. But if he is it will be luck on Banner’s part. If they really believed he’d be great they would have interviewed him right away instead of waiting two and a half weeks while everyone else filled out their coaching vacancies. Anyone could have gotten Pettine just like anyone could have taken Brady. One team lucked into one of the greatest QBs of all time. We’ll see how things work out for the other.

Banner smartly steered clear of taking any questions at Pettine’s opening presser but he did take some time to make himself look smart and funny in addressing the infamous “Three Stooges” label that the Browns front office had gotten: “I don’t know if you had a chance to meet Mike, but since Mike Lombardi and I are Moe and Larry, we went and set out to find Curly and we succeeded. That’s why it took so long; there aren’t a lot of Curlys running around the country.”

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

What a crack up this guy is!!!

But he can’t stop there… “I know we were exhaustive to the point that we caused people to question and wonder, but we think that was the right way to do it. [And I add parenthetically…LOL] It’s a very, very important decision to make sure we met as many people as we possibly could” especially when you keep striking out on every guy you talk to.

Banner said of Pettine’s qualities that “we’re very attracted by his intelligence, his aggressiveness, his toughness and the type of discipline I think he’s going to bring to the team” and the fact that he would actually, you know, take the job. “We think he’s an outstanding fit” because he has to fit, seeing as how there were literally no other options.

Eventually after that: Banner has the Browns coordinators report directly to him instead of Pettine…you know, like normal teams do.

Banner is in full-on control freak mode right now. This is a completely insane plan for any type of business, let alone a football team.

So much ego.

So much belief in himself in spite of all the surrounding evidence that disproves his abilities to run the football side of a football organization.

I mean, really??? Why not just make yourself the coach at that point?

This last gasp of insane power mongering of course led to this…

February 11, 2014: Browns fire Joe Banner

Haslam had finally had enough. It didn’t even take two full years of working with Banner before Haslam realized the error of hiring a coat salesman to run his football team.

Furthermore, Banner’s brash and braggadocios personality had finally worn thin. Haslam himself was tired of all the unfulfilled promises. He had seen first-hand the disdain with which competent head coach candidates treated Banner for his lack of football acumen. Haslam finally realized that the team could not be successful as long as Banner was the guy calling all the shots.

The embarrassment that Banner had brought to the organization had finally reached a tipping point. A change was necessary and well overdue.

Haslam of course said some nice things about Banner: “Joe and I, after a lot of conversation, mutually agreed that it was best for the organization if we streamlined things, where accountability and reporting lines were much clearer.”

But even that statement tells us so much about what went on during the dictatorial reign of Banner. The structure was far too cluttered with the paranoid Banner needing to have a hand in every level of the organization. He had essentially everyone reporting directly to him. Again… “control freak” just doesn’t do it justice. It’s no wonder that the Browns didn’t win last year.

Banner did some nice things running the Browns from a business standpoint, bringing in Alec Scheiner. They really are doing good things with the game experience and facility improvements and making things better for the fan experience (aside from the whole “winning football games” thing obviously).

But in the end Banner, much like Pat Shurmur, got promoted one spot too high. He was never qualified to make real football decisions. But his ego and need for control had grown to the point where he no longer lived in reality. I really believe that in his mind Joe Banner believed that he was smarter than everyone else and that he could do the job of running a team better than anyone. Banner is Icarus, who was given a great privilege but became too proud and arrogant with the gift he was given. He flew too high and it became his undoing.

The crazy thing is that if Banner had allowed for a normal organizational structure right from the beginning things could have worked out differently. If he had allowed those in position to just do their jobs without needing to meddle with everything we may have seen a different outcome. We may be sitting here saying to each other, “You know what? These guys know what they’re doing. We’re on the right track. We can start to enjoy this. We’re going to end up in a really good place.”

But that didn’t happen. And instead I sit here and say, “You know what? That guy had no idea what he was doing. He was so far off track. The last two years were absolutely unbearable. We’re actually in a worse place now than when he got here.”

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