Every time you think it can’t get worse for the Cleveland Browns, they find fascinating and creative ways to lower the bar. Their first Monday night football game since 2009 ended in stunning fashion when their last-second field goal attempt was blocked and returned for a game-winning touchdown by the Ravens. A first in Baltimore history meant another swift kick to the collective groin of Browns fans. They deserve better. They’re loyal and passionate, though tortured and long-suffering. Cleveland is now 2-9, guaranteed an eighth consecutive losing season.
How do you stem the tide? How do you infuse hope? How do you fix the Browns? Dozens of general managers and coaches have tried since the franchise rebirth in 1999. Perpetual turnover is the only real constant. The team has cycled through eight head coaches in nearly 17 seasons, none of which posted a winning record overall. Over that stretch, Cleveland has reached the playoffs just once–in 2002 under Butch Davis–and it’s been more than two decades since they celebrated a playoff victory. The Browns need consistency, not more change. It’s impossible to build a winning culture with a revolving door of architects.
Mike Pettine is slogging through his second year at the helm, and he’s gamely faced every challenge, distraction, and obstacle. His attempts to establish discipline, accountability, and toughness as hallmarks in the locker room are noteworthy. Does he have the football acumen to guide the Browns out of the muck and mire? With no prior head coaching experience, he’s definitely learning on the job. But with no quick path to the Super Bowl, Pettine deserves a longer rope and more time. He represents stability where the Browns desperately need it. The organization had a hard enough time with its coaching search in 2013; he wasn’t the first or second choice. If the front office fires Pettine, what coaching candidate with any pedigree will accept the position? Who wants to work for an impatient owner with unrealistic expectations? Get rid of Pettine, and the challenge becomes infinitely more difficult.
You can’t blame the coaching staff for the Johnny Manziel mess. The front office coveted the former Heisman Trophy winner for his entertaining and explosive style, charisma, and star power. So far, the choice has backfired. In his rookie season, he spent more time snapping selfies than studying his playbook; he missed meetings but never missed parties. He didn’t take his new role seriously and was admittedly unprepared when he finally hit the field. In his second start, he got hurt. Manziel vowed to make changes in the offseason and mature into a leader worthy of the position, even spending 10 weeks in rehab to face his demons. But this year is more of the same.
Pettine went out of his way to praise Manziel’s development early in the fall. And with Josh McCown suffering multiple injuries, Manziel has played in a half-dozen games. But his drinking is still well-documented on social media, and he was investigated by the NFL after he got into a public fight with his girlfriend and she accused him of slamming her head into a car window. The league declined to take action, and Manziel promised to keep a lower profile. That didn’t last long. He got benched for lying about his public partying during the bye week. Pettine stuck to his guns on Monday night when McCown was knocked out of the game with a blow to his collarbone; Austin Davis replaced him on the field. But what now?
The Browns need to find out if Manziel is a viable option for the future. They must decide if he can be trusted as a leader and face of the franchise. His trade stock is taking a nosedive with all these off-field issues, and they only have five games left this season. If they didn’t use a first-round draft pick on him, Johnny Football would already be out the door. Since they opted to keep him, they need to find out if he’s worth the long-term investment. He’s rapidly using up all of his nine lives, but he has to play.
Putting all their eggs in one QB basket is too risky, though. When healthy, McCown has played well and might be the best choice for next season. Like Pettine, he represents stability. Cleveland has rotated through 23 different starting quarterbacks since 1999. The Browns would be smart to keep McCown in the fold.
The most glaring problem for the franchise is player personnel. General Manager Ray Farmer is feeling the heat with back-to-back shaky drafts and some miserable free agent signings. (See wide receiver Dwayne Bowe: three catches for 31 yards and no touchdowns to the tune of $9 million.) Too many of Farmer’s recent decisions have flopped or failed to pan out. Bringing in a new GM or adding a Director of Player Personnel with a proven track record could make a significant impact this offseason without causing massive upheaval inside the locker room.
For the better part of 20 years, it’s been one step forward, two steps back for Cleveland. No wonder the disappointment and frustration are palpable. But cleaning house and starting all over would be a knee-jerk reaction, the kind the Browns can’t afford. Consistency is vital to long-term success. A winning culture requires commitment, determination, leadership, vision, and character over time. Better to invest in the long-term and build around an established core than to search for an elusive quick fix.
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.