By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
A sitdown with the new CEO: Joe Banner is on the job, evaluating everybody at Browns headquarters before he and new owner Jimmy Haslam make the decisions that will shape the organization for years to come.
In the first part of our one-on-one conversation with Banner, we touched on the franchise’s ability to attract free agents, his philosophy on free agency and the future of older, but popular, potential free agents such as Phil Dawson and Josh Cribbs.
In a poll of active players done by the Sporting News, the Browns were voted the worst NFL organization. Your thoughts on that distinction?
Banner: It’s not where you want to be. But they don’t know who’s here and the inner workings of what’s been. You take it with a grain of salt. Obviously, our goal is to be thought of as one of the organizations in the league that are highly respected. It helps you -- to the extent of free agents – to be perceived in a way as a place where people want to come.
Does the vote indicate how tough it will be to attract free agents here?
Banner: Every team struggles with that. I don’t care who you are, for different reasons. Some players, it’s where they’re from or what type of coach they like to play with. Some players actually like joining a team that isn’t doing well and helping to turn it around. Some players only want to join a team that’s already doing well and they want to win a championship. I do think we need to position the franchise better, in terms of the perception in the league to attract free agents. That’s not going to be our priority but it’s not going to be something we’re allergic to, either.
How do you position a franchise that’s had perennial double-digit loss seasons?
Banner: The answer to this is mostly about hope. People want to be able to look forward. If a free agent signs, it’s going to be for the next 3-5 years. He’s going to look at the quality of coaching staff, he’s going to look at the organization and feel like it’s really committed. He’s going to be influenced by his agent who’s going to help him and tell him whether he thinks an organization is on the right track. They’re very directly affected by who their position coach is, who their coordinator is, and then the overriding leadership of the head coach. I think the way Jimmy’s come into the marketplace has already impacted around the league the way people, especially agents, start to think of the franchise. I think it’s always been highly respected in terms of a marketplace. There’s just tremendous passion and excitement and how great it would be if you got the team going. So I think there already are a couple of pluses and now I think they just have to start to see we’re going to do some things differently. That all helps.
Since coming here and also prior to coming here, have you seen the reasons why the Browns would be voted the worst NFL organization?
Banner: I don’t, other than if you’re looking purely at won-loss record, and I do think players reflect continuity as an issue. The fact is there’s been a lot of change and we haven’t won a lot of games. My bet is that’s what drives that perception. We don’t have the best or the newest stadium in the league, but that’s not a detriment.
Now that the franchise is embarking on major changes again, how do you sell continuity to free agents?
Banner: I think you have to hit the start button at the right moment on continuity. So it’s important -- even conscious of how much change there has been and hasn’t been helpful -- to re-evaluate and make sure what’s right we stick with and what’s not we change. It will mean to some extent some more change. It could be more on the business area than in the football area. But it’s inconceivable there won’t be some change. And there could be a lot of change. But we’ve got to do that, get through it, be really conscious of picking the right people, and then you have to try to create continuity. I think you’re going to have continuity for a very long time, as far as you can see, with a passionate, smart, committed owner and that starts setting the tone for continuity. Hopefully I’ll be continuity for a while.
The roster has been gutted and is loaded with young players. Is it time to add some veteran free agents?
Banner: It depends on what your goal is. I think you have to do things at the right time. If you sign a bunch of veteran free agents to balance the team too early in the maturation of the team, you’re probably using up a year or two of their still-good years before you’re going to be good enough to really benefit from their presence. So I think kind of the analysis we’re doing right now is a self-evaluation of where the team’s really at. Is it ready to take a big leap forward with a good draft and maybe some free agents? Does it need one more year of pure maturation and development in the draft and then it’s the right time to start to take a big step forward with free agents?
So we will participate in the free agent market. We’re not going to lead the league in free agents. We’re going to have a team that’s overwhelmingly built through the draft and re-signing our own guys. I’ve seen teams that were really two or three years away from being really good, they invested a ton of money in free agents, and by the time they got to really good that 28-year-old player they signed is 31 and he wasn’t even helping that much. So I think the first step is a really objective analysis of where is the team, how close is it to getting really good, who’s available in the marketplace and is this the right time to do it?
Who’s doing that analysis?
Banner: The people here write up reports every single week on where the team is at, both the coaches and player personnel department. I have relationships around the league at which it’s helpful on getting perspectives from the outside as well as what people think of the team. So I think if you put that all together, you’ll at least have a number of well thought-out, should be good, insightful, honest opinions. And it’s also good to have a new look at it because when you’re invested in the players here, you see them with the strengths that caused you to bring them in. If you’re an opponent, you’re writing up our players and grading them. If you’re able to put the minformation of those two sources together, you should have a pretty good picture as to what the consensus is as to where the team is at.
The other thing, and this is where I’ll be very aggressive myself, I think one of the mistakes that teams make is just adding good players as opposed to understanding how to build a team. So part of the analysis of where the team is at is how strong are you at the positions that actually make the biggest difference in who wins and who loses. So it may be that we have a lot of good players, but we’re missing players at the most important positions, at which case we may be farther away from winning than it looks on the surface. It could also be the opposite – we may have some of the most important spots filled and be actually closer to winning. That’s where I’ll be very engaged and forcing the organization to be disciplined about that now and stay disciplined as we build the team to not merely be adding more good players but to be adding more players most likely to make an impact.
You’ve got to make those decisions quickly after the season.
Banner: The first step of that is whether we should be extending any of our own players. That’s the first thing we do.
In Philadelphia, several popular players were forced to leave after they reached a certain age. What are your thoughts about two popular, older Browns whose contracts are up after this year – Phil Dawson and Josh Cribbs?
Banner: I’ll never speak about a specific player. But we’re beginning an internal process of starting to look at where we’re at next year. It’s not just restricted to who’s a free agent this year. Who do we have coming up in the next year or two as we’re building a core that we want to hold onto, that is either free now or will be in a year or two? We’ve started to have some meetings and discussions about that. I don’t envision any of that happening in the next few weeks. It’s a process we’ve begun. You want to have that done certainly no later than the end of the season.
Dawson has been franchised two years in a row. Doing it a third time would be cost-prohibitive. Is he gone?
Banner: I don’t want to get into specifics. Any player that wants to be here and we want to have here, my experience is we usually end up with a deal done at the appropriate time. So he’ll be part of the group that we’ll evaluate and at the right time figure out if we should be reaching out to him and then we’ll figure out what we’ll do.
Will you redo any contracts before the end of the season?
Banner: I think before the end of the season is probably a stretch just because we have so much to do in such a short time. I think before we get into next league year (in March), if we haven’t, that means we’ve decided not to because if we’re going to we will have done it in that timeframe. Even if we were going to take somebody who had a year or two left in a deal and felt this was the right timeframe for it to happen that would probably happen before we get into the next league year.
Next: Evaluating GM Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
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