When a team starts as poorly as the Browns have started this year, it's natural to look to the team's most visible faces for answers.
The shortcomings of Derek Anderson, Romeo Crennel and even Phil Savage have been dissected and dissolved down to the molecular level ever since the Browns' nightmarish second preseason game against the Giants. The opinions on who to blame are diverse.
In a typical scenario, a fan calls into a talk show to blame Anderson's erratic arm and poor decision-making, but is quickly interrupted by the host who points out that Anderson is only as good as the plays drawn up by Crennel and Rob Chudzinski. The show's co-host butts in and asks why Savage and his spotty draft record are off the hook.
It's become a tired tradition of Cleveland autumns over the past decade. It doesn't matter who is running the roster, who is coaching the team, who is under center. From Chris Palmer, Dwight Clark and Tim Couch to Butch Davis, Kelly Holcomb and Jeff Garcia to Crennel, Savage and Anderson, there is always plenty of blame, and excuses, to go around for why this latest season is following all the others to the city dump.
It begs the questions: Over the past decade, what has been the one constant among Browns personnel? Who has overseen it all? Who is the only person in the organization that can hold everyone else accountable?
It's none other than Randy Lerner, and his late father Al Lerner.
Before you start thinking that this is going to turn into Lerner family bash-fest, or that I'm going to speak ill of someone deceased, let me clarify a few things: I think Randy is a good person and I have much respect for him, just as I did and still do for his father.
Al Lerner was a self-made man who grew from humble beginnings to one of the moguls of the credit card industry. He was active in charitable endeavors. He was a community-minded person. I truly believed that when he won the ownership of the new Browns franchise in 1998, the team was going to be in good hands.
I didn't care what the stories said about Art Modell using Lerner's private jet to negotiate the Browns departure to Baltimore. If anything, it spoke volumes about his willingness to stick his neck out for a friend. Besides, if Lerner had denied Modell the use of his jet, chances are Modell would have found another clandestine meeting place with Baltimore officials. It wouldn't have prevented the move.
When Randy Lerner took over after his father's death in 2002, I questioned whether he would be devoted to the Browns franchise. Randy took over the team to keep it in the family, but he didn't live in Ohio full time, and while he appeared to have his head in American football, his heart gravitated toward soccer. I expected him to sell the team at some point. When he bought English Premiership club Aston Villa in 2006, I really expected him to sell the Browns. But he didn't.
Instead, Lerner became more involved, strengthening the team's ties to the past by welcoming back Browns alumni, which previous ownership regimes were less eager to do. Bernie Kosar and Jim Brown are now regulars in the owner's box at home Browns games.
So if I had to sum up the ownership of Al and Randy Lerner since 1999, I'd say they have had the best interests of the franchise and community at heart. The have understood what the Browns mean to all of northern Ohio, and have worked to repair and strengthen the bonds that were damaged by Modell's flight.
That's off the field, though. On the field, where wins and losses are the barometer of success, it has been a much more depressing story, one that needs not be retold in gory detail here.
If there has been an issue to have with the ownership of the Lerner family, it's who they have hired to try and pull the Browns out of the abyss. Try as they might, it hasn't worked, largely because most of the people they have brought in to run the show weren't proven commodities. And the hires who did have a proven track record ended up running amok.
Common logic among sports fans says the best owners hire their general mangers and coaches and get out of the way. They sign the checks, attend the games, but do not interfere in the running of the team. That's how the likes of George Steinbrenner and the Redskins' Daniel Snyder have gotten in trouble. At their worst, they treated their teams like fantasy-league playthings, hiring and firing coaches on a whim, toying around with the organizational structure, meddling in the affairs of those beneath them.
It's true. Meddling owners are usually bad owners. And the Lerners have not meddled. But maybe they've gone too far in the other direction.
When Al Lerner partnered with Carmen Policy, he took a backseat role to Policy's far more dominant personality. Policy hooked up the pipeline to San Francisco and began dousing the Browns organization in 49er red and gold. That would have been great in 1989. But this was 1999, and the Niners were well on their way to becoming a rusted hulk of the model organization first organized by Bill Walsh in the early 1980s.
Policy quickly showed that he talked a good game, and maybe he played the salary cap well enough to squeeze in a fifth Super Bowl title for the Niners in 1995, but as a starting-from-scratch organizational architect, he wasn't so good. But Lerner was Policy's guy, and Policy was Lerner's guy, so he wasn't going anywhere.
In Chris Palmer and Dwight Clark, Policy plugged in two guys who will likely never ascend so high in professional football again. Palmer returned to the coordinator ranks following his 2000 dismissal, and Clark is now completely out of football.
Policy didn't leave the organization until a year and a half after Al Lerners death. As the Lerners' franchise leader, he led the Browns to four losing seasons in five years. He left all football operations in the hands of Butch Davis, who resigned under pressure halfway through the '04 season.
With Policy and Davis gone, Randy Lerner had a chance for a fresh start in 2005. Unfortunately, that fresh start included new team president John Collins, who Randy hired to be his own version of Policy. It was Collins who helped oversee the hiring of two more unproven commodities in Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage. The former was a career-long defensive assistant who had never been a head coach on any level. The latter was a superscout for the Ravens who had never headed an organization before.
Reviews on the two have been mixed, but it appears that both have had to deal with a large learning curve. Crennel has had extensive trouble managing games and instilling disciplined play in his players. Savage still looks like he's more comfortable in the role of scouting head than team administrator. A general manager's most important role is that of roster manager, but he also has to oversee and be accountable for all football-related activity in his organization.
If that wasn't enough, Collins left the organization due to a bizarre series of events in December 2005 that almost cost Savage his job after less than a year. Whether it was a power play on the part of Collins or not, it became apparent that the two couldn't coexist. Another bump in the road.
Pointing out all of this isn't necessarily done to accuse the Lerners of running a bad organization. I still think that the Browns believe in high standards and doing things the right way. But the owner's finger is the one that flicks the domino line. If the owner doesn't hire effective administrators, the organization becomes flawed from that point down.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly where the broken links in the chain are. Policy came to town with a full resume and multiple Super Bowl rings, but was exposed as little more than a spin doctor with no organization-building skills. Butch Davis came to town as the architect of a reborn Miami Hurricanes powerhouse who also had Super Bowl experience with the Cowboys, and also fizzled here.
John Collins came out of the NFL front office to join the Browns and was gone within two years. Chris Palmer and Romeo Crennel were both among the top head coaching candidates in the coordinator ranks when they were hired. Phil Savage had a Super Bowl ring to his credit, and even had his roots in the old Browns organization. None of these guys seemed like bad hires at the time, and Savage and Crennel still have time to save their jobs -- moreso Savage.
But there is no doubt about it. The Browns, on the field of play, are a losing team with a losing culture and, with few exceptions, have been that way since re-entering the league. Confidence is fleeting and fragile, mistakes are crushing and the effects of misfortune are long-lasting. This is a team that fears losing and plays that way. No matter who has been the coach, who has been the GM, who has been the starting quarterback, that has been the one constant.
That, and the Lerners' ownership. Which, fairly or not, might need to end before this franchise sees sustained success again.