By Tony Grossi
Extra Points …
The odd couple: As Jimmy Haslam introduced CEO Joe Banner, the contrast between the two men who will shape the future of the Browns, perhaps for the next generation, was unmistakable and stark.
Haslam, a Southerner, deeply tanned, tall and fit, friendly and outgoing, in-your-face, projecting loud enough to be heard in the back of the room without a microphone … Banner, a New Englander, balding and bespectacled, shorter than a ball boy, almost dumpy, soft-spoken and unemotional like an accountant breaking bad news about your tax return.
A dyed-in-the-wool SEC football booster and a lacrosse player from Denison University?
You couldn’t help but ask: How did these two get together?
It’s simple. Haslam wants to build a winning organization. That’s where it starts in the NFL. Teams may win something occasionally. But organizations win consistently. And Banner pieced together one of the league’s best, most consistent organizations in Philadelphia for over a decade.
For 14 years, the Browns have had two good teams – the one in 2002 that made the playoffs through tie-breakers, and the one in 2007 that caught fire and scored a lot of points. But the primary reason they haven’t competed with Pittsburgh and Baltimore is because the disparity in quality of organization might be greater than the disparity on the field.
Banner does not build football teams. He builds organizations.
“Our goal is to put together an organization that’s the best at everything we do,” Banner said.
For 14 years, I could not tell you what the Browns were best at doing. No matter what regime was in charge, there was no one thing the Browns were known for being good at.
Laying down the law: Banner is a no-nonsense administrator. There are about a dozen familiar faces with the Browns who worked in Philadelphia at some time under Banner. GM Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur are the most prominent. They have been told to just do their job and they will be evaluated after the season. The buddy system is gone.
“I don’t think you see any operations that are successful that don’t have continuity,” Banner said. “So I view continuity as important. But you have to pick the right time to begin to talk of continuity. When you feel the organization is set up with the right people, then you have continuity.
“I want to be able to attract really good people and create an environment where they’re going to want to stay. But you may have to go through a process getting to the point where we have that in place.”
Banner said he is open-minded about the structure of football operations. In Philadelphia, coach Andy Reid had final say on every football matter. Other organizations have had the coach v. general manager structure.
“For me it’s like a chess game,” Banner said. “This is an intellectual challenge. Can we put together the pieces, which is really about can we put together the right people. Can we figure out who are those right people? Can we fit them together properly? Can we lead them properly? Can we create the right environment and culture that all that comes together and you’re literally in the top 4-8 teams in the NFL and you’re doing it on a consistent basis? From where we are, that’s a big job. I’m confident we can get there and I’m excited by the challenge.”
Good cop/bad cop: Banner admits to being “competitive to a fault.”
“The saying, ‘A strength taken too far can become a weakness.’ I’m at the extreme end of being competitive. Sometimes that’s a great virtue, sometimes you wish you could roll it back a little bit,” he said.
Banner was extremely competitive at the negotiating table, where he often created disharmony in Reid’s locker room and among his fan base by alienating popular players.
“But I learned there was some value sometimes in finding common ground as opposed to winning a negotiation,” he said. “It is very important to find the right balance between paying people fairly, managing your cap and keeping a positive atmosphere where people feel appreciated and want to work hard and make individual sacrifices for greater goals.”
At the same time, Banner appears to revel in being the “bad cop” in the organization. “If I need to play that role, I’m happy to do so,” he said.
That makes Banner a good – not bad -- complement to Haslam. The owner is a hard-driving salesman who is a blast of fresh air to Banner’s sobering intellectualism.
Asked to speak to fans weary of failed five-year plans, Banner said, “Actions speak louder than words. We’re not gonna stand up here with any great claims or be the next one to promise. We’re just going to work as hard as we can. We have one priority that overrides everything by a massive amount. The focus is going be on the football team. That’s what’s going to drive this organization. Winning championships. Frankly, we’ve got to prove it.”
So does that mean we’re heading into another five-year plan?
“I’ll be in a strait jacket if it takes that long,” he said.
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