Why Kevin Stefanski? Browns see him as first answer to fixing institutional dysfunction of the Jimmy Haslam era

·NFL columnist

Under team owner Jimmy Haslam, there have always been turf wars inside the Cleveland Browns. Some were quiet and conniving. Others were loud and ham-handed. Some took place with the office door closed. Others were broadcast on HBO for the world to see. For the balance of Haslam’s reign, time has always created a common thread among warring parties.

Eventually, nearly everyone would lose — on the field and off. And in hindsight, the roadmap to failure couldn’t have been more obvious if it had been drawn on the back of a pink slip.

For the Browns, this has turned the Haslam era into a layer cake of failed regimes. From the beginnings of Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi and Rob Chudzinski, right into the most recent endings of Hue Jackson, Freddie Kitchens and John Dorsey. Smashed in between, NFL coaching and executive careers were often left to be rebooted or fundamentally changed forever. Whether it was Jackson, Alec Scheiner, Ray Farmer, Mike Pettine, Todd Haley or a litany of others in the margins of a perpetual fallout zone.

We can talk about the failures forever, clucking our tongues at the factionalism that has been the most consistent part of the Cleveland Browns. Or we can address the two fundamental questions that matter when looking forward:

Has Browns ownership learned anything during this brutal process of warring and attrition?

And …

If it has, can it actually apply the lessons it has purchased with millions of severance dollars and incalculable embarrassment?

The answer to this — whether Browns fans like it or not — is Kevin Stefanski.

Browns were a disorganized organization

Note that I didn’t say Stefanski was the right answer, or even a good answer. But make no mistake, the new Browns coach is the beginning of a different answer.

For the first time since Haslam took over this franchise, he’s trying to engineer a structure where the head coach, general manager and chief strategist are not only on the same page, but are carrying the same book and speaking the same kind of football language. That’s the end goal in ultimately pursuing a trio of Stefanski, DePodesta and (if it actually comes to fruition) general manager Andrew Berry. To take three Ivy League minds who each embrace analytics and put them into a rowing crew together. All pulling in the same direction. All unified together and, if need be, challenging and debating Haslam as a unit rather than individual shards of opinion.

That is what this hire is about: Locking the braintrust together rather than incentivizing rivalry.

As one source framed it during the coaching search: “Jimmy has seen enough to know it hasn’t worked for him doing it the other way. John [Dorsey] and Paul [DePodesta] didn’t see eye-to-eye on things, but the bigger problem is they didn’t truly believe in each other. I think that’s what Jimmy is looking for — getting everyone on the same page [in the fundamentals], but also having confidence in each other as individuals to execute.”

It certainly wasn’t that way with the structure of the last regime. And there will be no shortage of gory details and illustrations to drive that point home — particularly with yet another wave of fired personnel set into the wind. But one story sums up all of Haslam’s past failures the best. It was recounted by sources with direct knowledge of the details.

BEREA, OH - JULY 28, 2018: Owner Jimmy Haslam of the Cleveland Browns answers questions from the media prior to a training camp practice on July 28, 2018 at the Cleveland Browns training facility in Berea, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images)

Dialing back to the early days of Dorsey’s arrival as general manager, then-coach Hue Jackson had started a dialogue with Dorsey about the viability of DePodesta’s role in the organization. Jackson felt that he and Dorsey were aligned when it came to how they wanted to build a team, what the structure should look like and, most important, who should be involved in showcasing that vision to Haslam.

To Jackson, it was simple: With Sashi Brown out of the organization, he and Dorsey should cement their places in the structure and express to Haslam that DePodesta wasn’t necessary in the process. The way Jackson figured it, he and Dorsey and the rest of the football side of the operation were the right pieces to guide the franchise forward. Dorsey agreed and through a series of conversations, it was relayed to Haslam that DePodesta should either have his role minimized or move on from the franchise.

In the end, Haslam disagreed. And he reacted by delivering an individual message to all the top executives before camp kicked off: Everyone was valued and everyone was going to have to find a way to work together. As part of his delivery with some of those involved, Haslam vowed to get the leadership from the football side and analytics side communicating regularly. His message? He wanted to build a shared vision between Dorsey, Jackson, DePodesta and everyone else who filled out their respective cliques.

Ultimately, it failed. Jackson’s tenure began unraveling in a fractious relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. And in turn, that put pressure on Jackson’s relationship with Dorsey and Haslam — ending in Jackson’s firing, which eventually opened the door for Kitchens … and the 2019 disaster … and left Dorsey just as vulnerable as Jackson when it came to the future of the franchise and how DePodesta would factor in it.

All of that was the preamble to Dorsey eventually losing his place in the organization. It was sped up by Kitchens being an unmitigated disaster at times, including a lack of accountability on the roster and friction between not only coaches, but players and coaches. And finally, when it appeared DePodesta could leave the Browns this offseason, it stimulated Haslam to take stock of the crumbling empire he had created. By the last few weeks of the season, rumors about the Browns began to swirl: Kitchens might be fired, DePodesta might leave, Dorsey might not be safe. And somewhere in that mess, Haslam had to make some choices about what he wanted.

This is where the two questions about Haslam becomes key again: What did ownership learn, and how can it apply those lessons?

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Why Josh McDaniels wasn’t going to work

I don’t know if Haslam will ever come out and detail his own mistakes, but there are plenty of people who have come out of the Browns who will do it for him. And first and foremost, many of them say the same thing: Rather than building his structure through an ideology — where the mission shapes the hiring process — Haslam has often tried to cluster different people around an ideology, hoping that their intelligence and experience would be common bonds bringing them together.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t worked. Whether it has been corrupted by egos, power grabs, impatience or simply Haslam being swayed by the last voice to exit his office — the vision has splintered. And over time, the ideology has been a matter of which faction you belonged to, or who you viewed as your direct leader, or simply whatever helped you survive through the chaos.

That’s a large part of the reason Kevin Stefanski is the guy in Cleveland now. He fits with DePodesta. And the general manager hire will fit, too — presuming it’s Berry or someone earmarked by Stefanski and DePodesta. Think of the trio as the Three Musketeers, locked in every coming battle together, protecting each other’s backs and carrying out their mission arm-in-arm. A three-man block that will not only execute together, but also be there in support of each other through all of Haslam’s involvement.

None of this is to say Josh McDaniels couldn’t have had his own version of this in Cleveland. But it absolutely would have been more complicated, necessitating not only that DePodesta was out of the organization for good (much like Jackson and Dorsey wanted), but that everything would be built and streamlined through McDaniels. There’s no telling how that would have worked with Haslam being as involved as he is. And there’s no telling what other land mines might have existed that are definitely there but completely unseeable right now.

The simple truth of this is that Haslam knows DePodesta. He trusts DePodesta. And he believes in DePodesta. He also knows Berry and has a reasonable idea of how the organization was prepared to function with Stefanski. One year later, with Dorsey out of the franchise, that vision has even less complication.

Time will tell if all of this is the right move. Maybe failure will leave it to break apart in warring voices. Maybe the common denominator of corruption in the system will always be Haslam. But the Browns can’t know for sure until they try something different. And this is that chance, plain and simple.

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