Cleveland Browns rebuilt smartly from 0-16. Here are lessons Detroit Lions can learn

Detroit Free Press

Four years ago, I huddled around a group of reporters in a darkened tunnel at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh waiting for Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.

The Browns had just lost to the Steelers on New Year’s Eve 2017 and marched into history, lockstep with the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only two NFL teams to go 0-16. I covered the Lions’ disastrous 2008 season, but to me the Browns’ situation was worse because the previous season they had finished 1-15.

Haslam approached reporters and said Hue Jackson, the man who had authored a 1-31 record in two seasons, would return to coach the Browns.

“I don’t think Hue has lost his magic,” Haslam said of the once-hot offensive coordinator, noting the team played hard until the end of the season.

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The interview lasted only a few minutes and Haslam was peppered with more questions, but it was all very polite. Almost too polite. I was aghast at how easily Haslam was being let off the hook. I thought about Detroit sports writers like Drew Sharp and Rob Parker. They would have practically wrestled Haslam to the ground and beaten Jackson’s firing out of him.

I thought about at least grilling Haslam. But it wasn’t my place. I was there to write about the comparison between the Browns and the Lions. I wasn’t there to hand out pitchforks and hijack a news conference.

Of course, it ended in disaster. Jackson was fired after going 2-5-1 the next season. Then Gregg Williams was let go. Then Freddie Kitchens was hired — and fired after one season.

After so much turmoil, the Browns looked like they finally got it right last year when they hired general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski. They finished 11-5, returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and won their first postseason game since 1994.

Even for Believeland, this was unbelievable. The Factory of Sadness was suddenly assembling happiness?

It was so befuddling I felt I could only unravel such an improbable scenario by asking two of the most respected NFL reporters in the business: Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com and Tony Grossi of 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.com.

I wanted to arrive at some understanding of such an improbable turnaround. I figured if the Browns could pull this off, then maybe the Lions can, too, because these franchises are Great Lakes cousins related not only by geography, but also by their hapless and often hopeless history.

What Cabot and Grossi told me boiled down to a story of organizational dysfunction, power struggles and owners who were finally willing to admit they didn’t know what they were doing and ceded control to someone who did.

“It’s been constant dysfunction between the front office and the coaching staff,” Cabot said. “And that’s really been the No. 1 thing that hurt the team. Nobody was ever on the same page. It was always a clash between the front office and the coaching staff.”

Getting the right people in place

Like the Lions, the Browns’ problems could be traced back decades. For the sake of brevity, and everyone’s sanity, let’s focus on how the current regime of Berry, Stefanski and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, the analytics wunderkind famously portrayed by Jonah Hill in “Moneyball,” turned around the Browns.

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It started in January 2016, when Sashi Brown was promoted to executive vice president of football operations and functioned as the general manager, even though he didn’t have a personnel background. DePodesta and Jackson were hired shortly after.

Brown and DePodesta were analytics guys. Jackson was not.

“And Sashi Brown really didn’t want to hire Hue Jackson in the first place. That was a Jimmy and Dee Haslam thing,” Cabot said of the married couple that owns the team. “Sashi wanted to hire Sean McDermott (now in Buffalo) at that time. So it was ill-fated from the start.”

Cleveland pulled off a blockbuster trade with Philadelphia in 2016, shipping the No. 2 overall pick the Eagles used to draft Carson Wentz in exchange for a boatload of picks. The Browns also loaded up on more draft picks through trades with Tennessee, Carolina and the Raiders. Cleveland made 14 picks in 2016, with all but one coming before the sixth round. None of them became stars and linebacker Joe Schobert was the only Pro Bowler.

“Hue Jackson came in wanting to win,” Cabot said, “and at that time Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta wanted to rebuild the team with all of those assets: draft capital and cap space. And they did a good job of that. They did a phenomenal job of that. But then in that first year when they had all of those draft picks, they just didn’t use them well.”

Especially on quarterbacks. In the 2016 draft, the Browns selected Southern Cal’s Cody Kessler in the third round. In 2017, they spent a second-round pick on Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer.

“And one of the biggest things that hurt between Hue Jackson and Sashi Brown the years they were together,” Cabot said, “is they just didn’t have any consensus on any quarterbacks.”

Brown was fired Dec. 7, 2017. That was the same day Cleveland hired John Dorsey as GM — the former Kansas City Chiefs GM who drafted Patrick Mahomes and is currently a senior personnel executive with the Lions. At the time, Berry was the Browns’ VP of player personnel and aligned philosophically with DePodesta.

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Dorsey seemed like the missing piece, at least to the Haslams. He was a true GM with a strong background in football and came up early through the Green Bay Packers’ organization as a player, then as a scouting and operations executive, mostly under GM Ron Wolf.

But Dorsey wasn’t an analytics guy.

“It was very evident from the start that when the Haslams hired John Dorsey that it wasn’t going to work,” Cabot said. “It was obvious from the start.

“You can’t bring in that Ron Wolf family tree and plop it in there with the Paul DePodesta-Andrew Berry analytics-driven group. It was a mismatch from the start.”

Dorsey made the fatal decision of promoting Kitchens from the offensive coordinator to head coach after the disastrous, drama-filled 2018 season.

Kitchens was in over his head and went 6-10 in 2019.

“Dorsey brought in a lot of talent, which is the foundation of what they’ve got going here,” Grossi said. “But he clashed with the analytics people and made a bad choice in head coach, so they made a change from him.”

Taking the next step

Dorsey and Kitchens were fired after the 2019 season. That’s when the Haslams accepted a hard truth. They, too, were in over their heads.

“In 2019 they had a lot of talent on this football team,” Cabot said. “And they realized at that time they hired the wrong football coach to coach that talent. And at that point they just had to raise the white flag and say we don’t know how to do this. We need somebody else to tell us how to assemble the organizational flow chart because we are not getting it right.

“And so they finally really allowed Paul DePodesta to put the program into place that Sashi and Paul were trying to pull off in the years that they were together.”

In 2019, Berry left the Browns to join the Eagles as VP of football operations so he could learn under GM Howie Roseman. After Dorsey’s firing, DePodesta hired Berry back in 2020 and made him the youngest GM in NFL history at 32. A few days later, Stefanski was hired at age 37.

But Dorsey also did a lot of good things that put the Browns on the right track, like using his first pick to draft Baker Mayfield first overall in 2018. He also drafted cornerback Denzel Ward and running back Nick Chubb that year. He added valuable free agents like receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. and guard Wyatt Teller.

“Dorsey should receive some credit here,” Grossi said. “The quarterback was an issue that escaped the Browns for the entire expansion era of 22 years and Dorsey settled on Mayfield and it looked like the right pick the way Stefanski developed him last year. Now he’s kind of taken a turn back.”

Mayfield has absorbed heavy criticism — most notably from analyst and former NFL coach Rex Ryan — for his dip in production during a difficult season for the 5-5 Browns, who sit at the bottom of the tight AFC North. Mayfield is dealing with several injuries but he’s expected to play Sunday against the visiting Lions.

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But even amid a tough season, the Browns’ leadership group has been unflinchingly steady through Mayfield’s struggles and the crisis that led to Beckham’s release. Berry and Stefanski have even been described as stoic through it all.

“The team and the front office, the coaching staff, they’re built to weather the storm,” Cabot said. “They are going through adversity right now, but they’re aligned even in their adversity. So they can pull through it and work through it as a team and as a group because they’re all on the same page.”

Of course, it took a few chapters, maybe even several thick tomes, to arrive at that page.

“They all speak the same language, they embrace analytics,” Grossi said of DePodesta, Berry and Stefanski, all former Ivy League football players with a penchant for numbers. “And Andrew Berry is kind of the perfect modern-day GM because he does have a football background. He played at Harvard, he started under Bill Polian in Indianapolis. He’s a football guy but he’s also an analytics guy.

“So they feel with this setup they’re at the forefront of sports, the way it’s going.”

So, what about Detroit?

It’s the most functional Browns organization Cabot has covered in more than 30 years.

“The chaos is gone,” she said. “They all share the same vision. You can kind of describe their culture. You know what it is. You know what they’re looking for. Everybody in the organization is expected to be smart, tough, accountable. They don’t tolerate a lot of shenanigans.”

That even applies to shenanigans from Haslam, the owner who had a sharp ax and often had a will to use it. This season for the Browns, if it had come at another time, would have been ripe for speculation about firings.

“In the past, Haslam would blow it up,” Grossi said. “And that’s not going to happen now. You should be allowed to have a bad season and continue with your program.

“It hasn’t been a totally bad season yet. It could turn out that way, but they’re just staying the course and trying to figure it out.”

I’ve thought a lot about the Browns since last year and how it all seemed to come together so quickly for a team that has been so bad for so long, even though it was really a process that was years in the making.

There are no transitive laws in the NFL. If a team wins one year, that doesn’t mean it will keep winning. There’s no certainty about anything the Browns are doing. But there is hope because an owner was willing to do something different and put people in charge who are aligned in their vision.

I thought about the Browns again last week when I saw Lions coach Dan Campbell and GM Brad Holmes talking as they walked off the practice field together. I thought about how owner Sheila Ford Hamp took a different tack and shook up her organization over the past year.

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Similarities between organizations don’t lead to similar results. They believe in Cleveland, where there’s hope.

In Detroit, we’re still waiting.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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