One of the most interesting aspects of the 2013 Cleveland Browns is that despite the losses on the field, I’m still very satisfied with the organizational structure that’s been built in Berea. The organizational structure they’ve put in place is by far the most comprehensive of any I can remember since 1999, and that starts at the top with CEO Joe Banner. I’ve said on a number of occasions that Joe Banner is likely the most qualified executive to ever be hired in Berea. After polling fans last week, it seems that my fellow fans are of the same opinion. Joe Banner had 47% of fans above the “No opinion” line and 84% were at least neutral or better overall. That really says a lot about the belief in an executive who has given Browns fans some very good sound bites and an on-field product with only four wins so far. And despite my continued criticisms of the won-loss record, I voted “Like him” at this point as well.
Despite the current optimism, the challenges awaiting Joe Banner this off-season are numerous. There are plenty of draft picks, including Indianapolis’ first rounder, that need to be chosen. Many fans will have a watchful eye on how the Browns handle their own free agents, namely T.J. Ward and Alex Mack. It’s very difficult to say just how good Mack and Ward are compared to what they’ll garner in their next contract, but it’s also very difficult to envision improving the Browns year-over-year while also allowing those two positions to become holes that need filling.
There are decisions to make with regard to the Browns’ more high-priced players. The Browns will likely think about Ahtyba Rubin for one because they could save $6.8 million by cutting him loose. If they keep him, his cap number will be a hefty $8.175 million. I’m a Rubin fan and there’s no reason to think Joe Banner and his staff don’t like him too, but we also know these Browns are very conscious of value. With a young Phil Taylor, John Hughes, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, and Billy Winn to go along with their hand-picked guy, Desmond Bryant, it remains to be seen if they’ll budget for Rubin’s large, inherited contract going forward.
D’Qwell Jackson is another guy I’ve been talking a lot about because next year is the first year where it starts to make financial sense to do something about his contract. This year, his cap number is $6.4 million, but if they cut him, they would have had “dead money” of $9.2 million. Next year is when the Browns could save money on his contract. D’Qwell’s contract calls for him to have a cap number of $8.1 million, but if they cut him, his “dead money” would be $4.2 million representing a cost savings of $3.9 million.
None of this is to say that D’Qwell Jackson or Ahtyba Rubin are bad players or unimportant as leaders. There’s just little doubt that Joe Banner’s keen sense of roster building based on value won’t have at least a strong opinion on the topic of these two high priced players’ continued employment.
And therein lies the rub. Joe Banner made a bold move when he traded Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts and I don’t think even he could have planned for it to look any better than it does right now for the Browns. Similarly, after having Josh Gordon’s name bandied about league-wide in trade rumors, they kept the receiver and he started breaking records. Maybe they are that brilliant in the Browns’ front office starting with Joe Banner at the top, but I don’t think even he would tell you that keeping 100% success rate with regard to NFL personnel is realistic. Of course, if they keep their hit rate higher than their miss rate, they’ll be fine, but we’ve yet to see him really miss as the head of the Browns.
Also, while the opinion of Joe Banner is pretty positive right now, I do think the team really will have to start winning in order for him to keep the opinion polls running so high. We saw how quickly that same ship – the S.S. Holmgren – turned from talking about the old coach to cracks about umbrella drinks and Seattle radio appearances. It happens quickly. That’s why this off-season, like so many others, is such a potential minefield. The Browns have to ask some tough questions that might have equally tough answers. If it somehow results in the Browns trying to improve on the field while also creating new holes to be filled by free agents and rookies, it’s hard to imagine it going really well.
But so far, so good. Joe Banner continues to welcome accountability. He shows no signs of fear when it comes to making tough, bold decisions. As a result of his current hit rate, Browns fans are enjoying the honeymoon with Joe Banner. Despite the mounting losses, most fans seem to see good potential for a brighter future, or at least no cause for alarm. Now for the tough part though. Winning. That’s something that’s been pretty elusive in Cleveland and we’ve been around long enough to see what many thought was the light at the end of the tunnel become just another collection of torches that accompany pitchforks.