IN LATE OCTOBER, owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam summoned all Cleveland Browns employees to the auditorium at team headquarters for a familiar meeting. It was to announce another major shake-up, this time the firing of head coach Hue Jackson. Some longtime staffers suspected it would follow a script of sorts that has emerged over the years. Sure enough, Dee, with straight shoulder-length blond hair and an easy smile, explained that she and her husband were “still learning,” and she turned over the floor to Jimmy. Then, with white hair combed neatly and posture so perfect he looked like he was puffing out his chest, Jimmy once again pledged to “hire the right people.”
Despite the appearance of confidence, the Haslams, overseeing their fifth regime change in six years as owners, were embarrassed to be starting over again, according to confidants. This was not what they envisioned when they bought the team in 2012, after being minority owners of the Steelers. Haslam had personally made the decision to hire Jackson in 2016, against the recommendation of the Browns’ executive team. But the Browns had just lost to the Steelers, dropping Jackson’s three-year record to 3-36-1, and after constant fighting behind closed doors, Jackson was publicly warring with his offensive coordinator, Todd Haley. So according to people briefed on the meeting, on Oct. 29, Haslam and general manager John Dorsey entered Jackson’s office and told him the team was going to move in a different direction.
Jackson asked why he was being fired.
The team quit on you, Dorsey replied.
At the time, four of the eight Browns games had gone to overtime.
“Get the f— out of my office,” Jackson said.
A few hours later in the auditorium, the Haslams tried to bring order to chaos and restore lost faith, projecting optimism. It wasn’t a long meeting. Nobody asked any questions. And some employees returned to their desks curious as to why Jimmy and Dee felt the need to hold yet another all-staff gathering after an all-too-predictable change and frustrated that the Haslams seemed unaware they were using the same words — down to the phrase — to explain why they made mistakes that have typified their ownership. Again.
TWO MONTHS LATER, Jimmy Haslam is in another familiar meeting — in the locker room with Browns players after a loss, this time to the Ravens in the regular-season finale. As he walks around bowlegged, dodging shoulder pads and cleats on the ground, Haslam looks like what he is: a rich, well-tailored Southerner who wears a suit well but might seem most comfortable in shorts at a University of Tennessee tailgate. He has a big smile of white teeth and a persistent worried look in his eyes. He puffs out his cheeks and breathes slow and heavy, disappointed at coming up just short against the Ravens. But more than in any season since the Browns returned to Cleveland in 1999, there is hope surrounding this franchise, because the quarterback passing by in the locker room on his way to a postgame news conference is Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield was a vision in the final game of his rookie year, throwing for 376 yards and three touchdowns. He is the main reason the head-coaching job of the Browns, for the first time in Haslam’s tenure, has become a coveted position. At the news conference, Mayfield endorses Freddie Kitchens, who was promoted to offensive coordinator when Jackson was fired. Asked about his rookie-record 27 touchdown passes, Mayfield credits coaches and teammates for sticking by one another. He is tough and confident, unburdened by the team’s history of losing. Mayfield’s Browns are not the old Browns. An aide ushers him into a small room inside M&T Bank Stadium where many of the game’s legends have autographed a white wall. Ozzie Newsome. Peyton Manning. John Harbaugh. John Elway. Baker scribbles his name and leaves his mark, penning his jersey No. 6 — the seventh-highest seller in the NFL in 2018 — below “Mayfield.”
Haslam exits the locker room and walks toward a Mercedes-Benz van surrounded by a police escort. He made a fortune expanding the Haslam family business of Pilot Flying J truck stops and saw it come to a halt in an FBI raid in 2013, which left him looking for redemption as the owner of the famously hard-luck and comically inept Browns. For the past six years, as Haslam’s former life dissolved, he tightly gripped every aspect of the Cleveland organization, often creating as much chaos as he inherited, according to more than two dozen interviews with current and former Browns executives, coaches, lawyers, scouts and staffers, as well as league executives and other team owners and executives, most of whom requested confidentiality. Now, to ensure Mayfield and the team reach their potential, Haslam will have to ignore what seem to be some of his strongest instincts. He’ll have to be patient and deliberate. Nobody knows if Haslam — who along with Dee declined to be interviewed for this story — will change his approach, or if the 64-year-old man worth an estimated $2.7 billion, who has willed himself to business success in other areas, is even capable of it.
Haslam sits in the front seat of the van with his glasses on, reading his phone, surrounded by friends and family. A coaching search is set to begin the next morning. The police vehicles flash their lights and the van is off. Mayfield stands near the team bus, posing for pictures, an NFL star in waiting — as long as he’s not cut off at the pass.
HASLAM WANTS TO be a football guy.
That’s what those who work for him will tell you, with a mix of warmth and caution in their voices. When he first bought the team, football friends warned him that new owners inevitably struggle to understand how the NFL truly works. But that only made him want to learn. Over the years, Haslam has talked regularly with Jon Gruden, Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick, among others. He has been known to chat with his head coaches about game plans on Saturdays and to sit in on draft preparation with the Browns’ scouting department. Haslam is dazzled by the promise of new ideas. In meetings, he listens more than he talks. “He has a big ego,” says a former confidant, “but when you talk to him, you don’t know it’s there.”
His conversations often feel like interviews. In a league of absentee owners, Haslam is accessible, walking the halls of the facility and stopping to converse with coaches and staffers regardless of rank, which is both charming and problematic. He will lean in — he’s a close talker — and ask open questions, wanting the unvarnished truth. Each answer leads to more pointed queries. If you’re a position coach, he’ll ask how you rate the talent the scouts have drafted. If you’re a scout, he’ll ask how the coaches are developing talent. You realize he has no true football compass and is pitting you against your peers, sometimes even your boss, but in the moment it feels like you’ve got the owner’s ear.
“You think you’re the one he trusts,” says a former high-level member of Browns management. “By the time you realize that he confides in everyone, it’s too late. You’re gone.”
WHEN THE HASLAMS first bought the Browns, Jimmy was at the facility only once a week or so. They lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, part of one of the state’s most powerful and successful families. Jimmy’s brother, Bill, is Tennessee’s popular governor, and the University of Tennessee’s business school bears the Haslam name. Jimmy spent most days at Pilot Flying J, tending to the family business. He had grown up as a janitor at his dad’s gas stations; retired Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, Haslam’s roommate at UT, remembers Jimmy frequently leaving their apartment to take out the trash at the station. He helped turn the company into a billion-dollar enterprise when he took over in 1996, expanding from 100 stations in seven states to more than 650 in 43 states and Canada. “He’s one of the most focused and disciplined people that I know,” Corker says.
Haslam pledged to run the Browns like the Rooney family ran the Steelers, with stability and patience. He had one direct report: CEO Joe Banner, the former Eagles president, whom he hired shortly after buying the team on the advice of several league executives, signaling the end for the team president he’d inherited, Mike Holmgren. The Browns, as usual, were a mess, with no quarterback of the future. Banner and Haslam brought on Michael Lombardi, a protégé of Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick, as GM, and Rob Chudzinski, a precocious offensive mind with the Panthers, as head coach. They set out to build the NFL’s most modern football operation, combining analytics, traditional scouting and psychological methods.
“I was filled with confidence and optimism that we could replicate what we had achieved in Philly,” Banner says, “that the sadness and frustration that the city had felt about its football team for years was finally going to end and the ride from here to there was going to be a blast.”
The ride started to derail early. On April 15, 2013, Haslam was leading a staff meeting at Pilot Flying J headquarters in Tennessee when FBI and IRS agents raided the building. A total of 19 Pilot executives and staffers eventually either pleaded guilty, were given immunity or were convicted of participating in a five-year-long fraud that shortchanged small trucking companies on diesel fuel rebates. The company agreed to pay $85 million in civil settlements and $92 million in criminal penalties. Haslam vehemently denied knowledge of the scheme and was not charged, but court testimony by a former Pilot staffer and secret recordings of other executives discussing the matter contradicted that claim. At the time, several NFL executives and owners called Banner, worried the league had erred in approving Haslam. Some new Browns hires panicked, fearing they’d made a mistake in moving to Cleveland; Banner had to talk some of them into staying. He also vouched for Haslam, both privately and publicly, calling him an “extremely principled and extremely honest man.”
Haslam was up and down emotionally during the next few months, trying not to lose the faith of the league and the Browns building. He threw himself into work, showing up at the office at 7:30 most mornings, sometimes in a Browns T-shirt and shorts, making lists on yellow legal pads and grinding as if more than a day’s work were at stake. His recall was incredible; at will he could recite diesel gas prices or Browns business charts or schemes the coaches would use to deploy star receiver Josh Gordon. The Browns started the 2013 season 3-2, and Banner had fleeced the Colts by trading running back Trent Richardson for a first-round pick. But when things stalled out and the team finished 4-12, organization brass voted 5-0 to replace Chudzinski. Haslam championed the move and did the actual firing. “The intensity is stronger than in other markets,” Chudzinski says. “The history of Cleveland sports factors into it. It gets negative faster and builds pressure faster.”
The Browns couldn’t get out of their own way on the next coaching search, failing to land their top three candidates. Trade discussions with the 49ers for Jim Harbaugh never got serious. Manning raved to Haslam about then-Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, but Gase wanted nothing to do with the Browns. Haslam would meet with Banner to discuss the search, then meet with Lombardi. The two were often of different minds and battling against each other. Media mocked the Browns daily. Haslam ended up deciding on Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, an underwhelming choice after an embarrassing year.
In early February 2014, during draft preparation, Banner and Lombardi argued over a player. Haslam called assistant GM Ray Farmer to ask about it. Farmer later told associates he was surprised Haslam knew such specific details about a routine draft meeting. Farmer, who declined comment for this story, told his boss that while everyone knew Banner and Lombardi disliked working together, arguments over draft prospects were common and healthy. Haslam said it made sense and told Farmer he understood. Only in retrospect, Farmer later told staffers, did he realize that Haslam had an ulterior motive for his call.
Haslam next called Banner and asked if the two of them could grab dinner on Feb. 10. That day, Haslam asked to meet at the office before dinner. Haslam and Banner chatted in Banner’s office for half an hour about free agency. Banner said he was hungry and asked if they could continue the conversation at the restaurant. Haslam replied by praising Banner for building a strong team.
It was so strong, in fact, that he said he was going to let him go.
Banner was stunned. He asked for a reason. Haslam wouldn’t give one, allowing only that Lombardi would be fired too and that he wouldn’t change his mind.
Haslam then left Banner’s office to meet his new executive team, which was waiting for him at dinner, some of whom knew ahead of time that Banner wouldn’t be in attendance. Haslam told associates he was tired of all the negative press and felt the league office had tacitly married him with Banner, even if he had decided to hire him. Later that week, Haslam held an all-staff meeting to announce the firings, the first time he used now-routine language about regime change, learning and hiring the right people. Before that meeting, Haslam dropped by Farmer’s office and told him he was being promoted to GM. At age 39, Farmer was suddenly the second-youngest GM in the league. Both Farmer and Pettine would report directly to Haslam. Farmer later told associates he was shocked.
He never interviewed for the job.
HASLAM LOVES THE war room on draft day, its power and potential. Like many owners, he invites friends and family and team sponsors to see the room, but unlike most, he has often allowed them to stay and watch as the draft unfolds. It frustrates some of the football people, but they learn to roll with it. In 2014, the war room was packed with Haslam’s guests. It was a consequential draft. The Browns were looking to pick a quarterback, either Blake Bortles or Johnny Manziel in the first round, or Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr in the second. Farmer was running his first draft. He had a lot to work with: 10 total picks, including an extra first-rounder because of the Richardson trade.
He started the draft by trading down, from No. 4 to No. 9, then traded up to No. 8 to pick Pettine’s preferred player, Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert. With the second first-round pick, Farmer was targeting Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks. But then Manziel started to slide and Haslam wanted Manziel. Some of the football guys in the room wanted to wait and pick Bridgewater in the second round. But the team had soured on Bridgewater after his interview dinner and workout with team brass; something about Bridgewater’s handshake rubbed Haslam the wrong way, he told team executives. Manziel texted Browns quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains during the draft, begging the team to pick him, and Loggains forwarded the texts to Haslam. Farmer knew whom the owner wanted, so he made a decision that felt like a concession and traded up to draft him, despite significant concerns about Manziel’s skill set and hard partying at Texas A&M. Haslam celebrated, but those in the room could tell Farmer was frustrated. After months of planning, he’d given away his two first-rounders to his coach and owner.
Brian Hoyer, the Browns’ starting quarterback, was furious about Manziel. Farmer called him shortly after the pick to calm him down. Moments later, the Texans called, offering a high second-round pick for Hoyer. The room was buzzing with the chance to pick up a potential first-round player for second-round money. But Farmer killed the trade, later telling friends he felt like he had to take control of his first draft. Several in the room later told associates it felt like a quintessentially dysfunctional Browns draft: team leaders on different pages and bad decisions leading to more bad decisions — both Gilbert and Manziel would flame out — with the owner in the middle of it all and his guests as a live audience.
A year later, after a 7-9 season, Haslam announced to the football staff that he was committed to Farmer and Pettine — but also that general counsel and salary cap strategist Sashi Brown would have more involvement in football operations. It was sold as a chance to take administrative duties off Farmer’s plate and free him to watch more film. Farmer didn’t buy it. “There will be two people holding the bag when this goes south,” Farmer said later in a private meeting with team brass. “Me and Pettine.”
“That’s not true,” Haslam said. “We will do this together.”
FARMER’S FEARS WOULD prove to be well-founded. Haslam was losing faith and patience in Farmer, who told his deputies that the owner questioned his roster decisions so often that every move “became what he would like to see done.” Haslam told other executives he didn’t think Farmer was strategic enough in the draft — an unfair charge, the scouting department felt, given Haslam’s fingerprints on personnel decisions. On top of it all, Farmer was suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season because he had illegally texted team personnel on the sideline during a game in 2014, upset over the offensive playcalling. The Browns now were breaking the rules and losing, leading to even more public mocking. The outside anger was felt inside the building. Marketing executives wanted employees to see how fans were engaging with the Browns on social media, so they projected the Browns feed onto a giant wall at the facility. It was like broadcasting talk radio over the entire building, and one day in particular, it was worse than that. One of the marketing staffers entered a search for #dp — for Dawg Pound. The problem was, that hashtag carried a few different meanings, one of which triggered an array of porn to be broadcast onto a wall for the entire office to see for more than 20 minutes, until a tech employee killed the feed.
By September 2015, many in the front office sensed that Farmer would be gone. It was perceived as an optimal time to pitch Haslam on a new vision. That fall, Haslam, team president Alec Scheiner, Sashi Brown and a few others visited executives in other sports in an effort to gain insights that might help steady the Browns, if not ultimately revolutionize football. Scheiner, Brown & Co. wanted to open Haslam’s eyes to a different way of running a team, based heavily but not solely on analytics. The executives prepared a document for Haslam titled “Football Strategy Outline”to sell him on a radical rebounding plan based on a few years of pain that could pay off in many years of reward. The idea called for the Browns to tear down to the studs and commit to a four-year rebuild, primarily through the draft, mixing sabermetrics and traditional methods — similar in many ways to Banner’s original vision. The group visited Theo Epstein of the Chicago Cubs, Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Mark Shapiro of the Toronto Blue Jays and Paul DePodesta of the New York Mets. Haslam asked the majority of the questions. One exec told him that if he were to commit to the plan, he should “not go to any games for two years.”
Haslam seemed sold. The plan appealed to his voracious appetite for bold new ideas and for bold new hires. He was so impressed with DePodesta that he brought him on as a direct report. Haslam could later articulate the nuances of the plan as if he were pitching it himself. Farmer, though, wanted nothing to do with analytics. He had declined to join the group visits to other teams. In late rounds of the 2015 draft, if a player was rated with a green dot — the highest rating — by the analytics team, Farmer would pass on him out of spite, according to others in the room. He and Pettine, who once had a good working relationship, were barely talking and their staffs could agree on only one thing: They hated the quants who seemed to have Haslam’s ear. One night toward the end of the 2015 season, Haslam invited the analytics staff to dinner. Scheiner told him to include Farmer. Haslam didn’t want to; he knew Farmer wasn’t part of the team’s future. Still, according to sources, Haslam told Scheiner — who declined comment — that he would invite Farmer, but he never did.
When Farmer learned of the dinner the next day, he told Haslam, “Something’s gotta give.” Haslam asked to meet in a suite before the Browns’ season finale against the Steelers. The conversation lasted 15 minutes, and Farmer walked out as the former GM of the Browns. Haslam never gave a reason.
“DON’T GIVE ME the job if you’re going to blow it up,” Sashi Brown told Haslam, according to Browns staffers. “I don’t need to do this.”
The same day that he fired Farmer and Pettine, Haslam promoted Brown to executive vice president of football operations and indeed pledged not to blow things up. Brown had spent years behind the scenes and now was a public face of one of the most fascinating experiments in sports, the envy of all of the NFL’s young capologists who had dreamed of implementing football’s version of Moneyball, many of whom were impressed that Browns executives had pulled off one of the toughest sells in football: convincing the owner of the plan. Brown was calm, eloquent and handsome and had graduated from Harvard Law School, which led Haslam to nickname him Obama. Haslam laughed at the nickname, but it offended many in the building as racial stereotyping — a sentiment that became even more amplified in 2018 after a secret recording of Mark Hazelwood, a person close to Haslam and a former president at Pilot, was made public. On the recording, Hazelwood used a racial slur to describe football fans in a meeting of Pilot executives at which Haslam said he wasn’t present. According to co-workers, Brown — who declined comment — didn’t think Haslam was being disrespectful with the Obama nickname, even if it caused others to cringe. Haslam has hired many minorities in senior leadership positions and often holds long conversations with staffers about race, expressing curiosity about different backgrounds and upbringings as a member of the league’s social justice committee. In a 2017 speech to the NAACP, Haslam admitted his upbringing was “as white as you can get” and said the NFL was his “first experience in diversity.”
Those who worked closely with Brown could tell that he was fueled by the hope all of those who take over the Browns share: to be known as the one who forever turned around the franchise. The analytics group authored a color-coded list of goals, labeled “Browns Guardrails.” It consisted of nine tenets, from talent retention, to ending uncoordinated leaks, to communicating more with coaches, to accumulating as many draft picks as possible, especially high second-rounders. Left unsaid in the document was the most important goal: The Browns had to stick together. This is like a roller coaster, the analytics contingent would tell Haslam. He couldn’t get off in the middle of the ride.
A few days after promoting Brown, the team set out to find a new coach. They had spent hours trying to identify the ideal traits of successful coaches, whiteboarding, crunching statistics and debating candidate strengths and weaknesses. Many executives later described the meetings to associates as among the most inspiring and memorable of their Browns careers. Haslam would eat hard-boiled eggs and leave shell shards on the floor while firing off incisive questions and offering thoughtful opinions. He was known to occasionally doze off in long group meetings, but in these gatherings he was energized and engaged, stewarding the plan, leading discussions and then telling everyone to sleep on it before diving back in the next day. The ambition was contagious. The Browns felt they were building something special.
Until it was time to commit to a coach.
After a few rounds of interviews, the brass voted. It was 4-1 in favor of Sean McDermott, the Panthers’ defensive coordinator, a coach who had crushed his interview and was known to be open to new ideas.
Haslam voted for Hue Jackson, the former Raiders head coach and then-Bengals offensive coordinator. Jackson was a respected playcaller and teacher, especially with quarterbacks. Haslam told the group he felt Jackson could relate better to players. Jackson knew how hard it was to get a second chance as a head coach, and he was nervous about the rebuilding plan. He would later tell friends the team undersold him on the extremeness of the rebuilding plan, a charge that Browns executives found absurd, given the level of detail shared during the interview process.
DePodesta wrote Haslam an email arguing that the Jackson hire went against many of the characteristics of successful coaches they had discussed. Brown met with Haslam — there’s always a race to be the last one to talk to Haslam before a big decision — and told him he thought hiring Jackson would be a bad call. “I hear you,” Haslam said.
Then Haslam flew to Cincinnati and hired Jackson, who would report directly to ownership.
In a span of 10 days, Haslam had fully committed to two opposing football philosophies, and whether he intended to or not, he had set himself up as the arbiter of future conflicts.
THE FIGHTING STARTED before Jackson had even coached a game. In August 2016, Brown had a deal in place to trade 34-year-old All-Pro punter Andy Lee and a seventh-round pick to the Panthers for 24-year-old punter Kasey Redfern and a 2018 fourth-round pick. It was a good deal that helped the Browns trade for Dolphins star receiver Jarvis Landry last year. But after learning that Lee would be shipped, Jackson “went nuts,” a source says. He stormed into Haslam’s office to protest.
Looking back, several in the building wished Haslam had drawn clear boundaries right then, ordering Jackson out of his office and telling him to focus on coaching the team. But for better or worse, Haslam will always listen — and listen to a lot of voices. In two years, Haslam had increased the number of his direct reports, between Browns business and football, from one to seven. He continued to solicit his usual array of opinions both from outsiders and from all corners of the building, leaving everyone to wonder and worry over who was in the latest iteration of his inner circle. It fostered mistrust. Those who were in the circle and those who no longer were in it studied Haslam like a psychological experiment. Why was nobody good enough for him? He had been quick to pull the trigger at Pilot also, sidelining CEO John Compton — whom he had recruited for years — after less than six months on the job. Haslam seemed well-intentioned but too easily swayed, and as a result, he often “became a mechanism that undermined his own structure,” a source close to him says.
In the end, it was Haslam’s team. He was the billionaire owner, and he could spend his time as he chose, even if it meant wasting it getting bogged down in a fight over a punter.
THE BROWNS ADOPTED a plan to lose and then warred over whether the team lost too much. The front office felt the team would win four or five games in 2016; some coaches felt it could even be seven or eight. The team went 1-15, and the lines were drawn. Jackson’s survival instincts kicked in; he fired much of his staff and vented to co-workers and privately to reporters about analytics. The Browns had the first pick in the 2017 draft, and it would be another defining moment for the franchise. The previous year, Brown had followed the plan and traded down twice in the first round, collecting picks — but also earning ridicule for passing on Carson Wentz, whom DePodesta didn’t consider a franchise quarterback. Jackson — who declined comment — later raved about Wentz to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, seemingly bemoaning that the Browns had missed out on him, a claim Haslam found disingenuous. “He liked Wentz but wouldn’t stand on the table for him,” Haslam told a friend.
Now there was debate between targeting Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett and North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Jackson wanted Garrett and one day made his case by taping pictures of Garrett on the glass walls in Haslam’s office as a joke. But Jackson wasn’t kidding when he later vowed to Haslam that he wouldn’t support Trubisky, publicly or privately. The team ended up deciding in favor of Garrett but kept Jackson in the dark about it until shortly before the draft, for reasons unexplained to him.
The Browns went 0-16 in 2017, nearly unthinkable in the salary cap era and much worse than even the architects of the rebuilding plan expected. It broke the building. The front office felt Jackson’s poor coaching cost the team wins. Jackson felt he was in an impossible position because the team had shed so much talent, including star cornerback Joe Haden. Against the advice of scouts, Brown had picked receiver Corey Coleman in the first round in 2016; Coleman was released after two years. Against the recommendation of Brown, Jackson started rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer in 2017; when Kizer struggled, Jackson complained that Brown had passed on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. It enraged the front office, given Jackson’s insistence on drafting Garrett that year.
Haslam was embarrassed and self-reflective, according to associates. Berkshire Hathaway bought a controlling stake in Pilot Flying J in 2017, making running the Browns the focus of Haslam’s efforts and identity. Dee began to assume control of the team’s business side as Jimmy oversaw football. It frustrated Dee when anyone would refer to her husband as the team’s only owner. Many around the league liked Dee and appreciated her insight on the league’s legislative and conduct committees, but some current and former team executives saw her concern over bad optics and Jimmy’s urge to start over as forces that undermined the organization and team on the field. In one meeting, Dee told staffers to cut sponsorship prices because she didn’t want to be seen by business partners as greedy when the on-field product was a disaster. It didn’t go over well with the sales staff, however, which in recent years had taken pride in moving the Browns from near the bottom in league revenue to the top half.
Haslam told the front office he was pleased with the drafts and free agency but also seemed torn, wanting a heavyweight football name at the helm. He had gone from a nontraditional hire in Banner to a lifelong scout in Farmer and then swung back to an unorthodox pick in Brown. Now he wanted to swing the other way. On Dec. 7, Haslam entered Brown’s office and fired him. According to people who saw him afterward, Haslam looked frayed when he exited the meeting, knowing he’d gone back on his word to Brown. Friends around the league urged Haslam to start over clean and fire Jackson too, but he refused. Dorsey was hired as GM that same day. The Browns were starting over again, with another arranged marriage between coach and GM.
“We just don’t know what we are doing,” Dee said in the office around that time, according to multiple sources in the building, a refrain they had heard her utter before but that she denied through a team spokesman. “If we’d known how hard it would be, we never would have bought the team.”
HASLAM BELIEVED IN Jackson. He encouraged him to delegate and be a CEO-type leader. Jackson hired former Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley for the same position on the Browns staff, with Haslam and Dorsey, who had known Haley for years, heavily involved in his recruitment. It was another bad fit. HBO’s Hard Knocks put the Browns’ issues on public display — in one viral scene, a visibly annoyed Haley stared at the ceiling after Jackson pulled rank on him by saying, “I get to drive this bus” — and left out even more drama around the building. During camp last summer, Haslam brought in a friend named Bill Hybels to speak about leadership. Hybels was a Chicago-area pastor who had resigned from Willow Creek Community Church in April. He had been the subject of claims of inappropriate workplace behavior with women; he denied the allegations. Browns staffers were in disbelief that Hybels — who couldn’t be reached for comment — was now advising the team, especially after Browns employees had sat through a daylong league-mandated annual sexual harassment meeting earlier in the year.
On the football side, Jackson felt he couldn’t actually drive the bus. The offense was struggling, even after Mayfield became the starter in Week 4. Haley had been guaranteed autonomy. Jackson felt boxed in, other Browns coaches say. He believed Dorsey wanted to fire him and replace him with Haley — who declined comment — and that the offensive staff had “poisoned” Mayfield against him. Jackson publicly suggested he might become more involved in the offense, causing a week’s worth of media drama, but then didn’t. Haley tried to shrug it off when discussing it with other Browns coaches by saying, “1-31,” referring to Jackson’s record over the first two years with the Browns. The two men would argue often in Jackson’s office.
A few days before the Browns played the Steelers in October, Haslam gave Jackson an apparent vote of confidence by telling him Haley would be let go the Monday after the game, according to people close to Jackson. A source close to Haslam says that he wouldn’t have made such a promise because he didn’t want to fire Haley. The Browns lost to the Steelers, and Haslam fired Jackson. Haley told Kitchens, who was then the running backs coach, that he didn’t want to be named interim head coach and would recommend Kitchens for the job if asked. But a few hours later, Haley was fired too; the organization felt that he was inflexible and it needed to start over. Haslam elevated defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to interim head coach and Kitchens to offensive coordinator. It looked like another wasted season, with the looming threat of another coaching search and another failed first-round quarterback on top of it.
But then something phenomenal happened, as if cosmic forces had finally aligned in the Browns’ favor: The team won five of its final seven games, and it became clear the quarterback was neither a product of his head coach nor a spreadsheet. He was his own strange force, cocky but endearing, raw but gifted. He called Jackson a “fake” on Instagram. He refused to concede an inch to anyone, and his fierce, hungry approach to the game and his world became contagious. After Mayfield led the Browns to an upset over the Falcons in November, he said, “When I woke up this morning, I was feeling pretty dangerous.” It became an instant catchphrase around Cleveland, popping up on T-shirts, lifting a city still stinging after LeBron James left for Los Angeles. All of a sudden, it looked as if Jimmy and Dee Haslam had the most important prerequisite to being premier NFL owners — a franchise quarterback — and head coach of the Cleveland Browns was again a sought-after job. The Haslams found themselves in an unfamiliar position but with a very familiar challenge before them.
They didn’t have to start over.
But they did have to not mess things up.
THE HASLAMS HAVE messed things up before. They confess as much in their all-staff meetings after announcing shifts in administration. Last year at the combine, a group of fired Browns coaches, a club both exclusive and expanding, met for dinner. Those who know Haslam well — even those who have been fired by him — admit each housecleaning probably made sense on its face. Too much fighting, too little winning. It’s the overall pattern that is baffling, the inability of Haslam to either evaluate people and plans well or stick by them. There were a lot of coaches at that dinner, but they weren’t the only casualties of Haslam’s decisions. The main casualties have been ideas. Nobody knows what will work, or what could have worked, because Haslam refuses to commit to a football ideology long enough to see it through.
It scars people. Banner and Farmer haven’t held full-time jobs in the NFL since Haslam fired them, each perceived to be too damaged to touch. Chudzinski, Brown and Jackson are currently out of the league. Pettine is the Packers’ defensive coordinator but has said publicly that after the Browns, he never wants to be a head coach again. The stakes are clear with Mayfield. He has the drive and skill set to be great, but more dysfunction up and down the organization would no doubt test the limits of what a young quarterback can transcend. When former coaches or executives talk, the conversation revolves not only around Haslam but themselves. What could we have done differently? Was it lack of communication? Too much? Should we have been more stubborn? More flexible? Did Haslam fire us because we refused to tell him to back off and stop micromanaging? There are no clear answers. The story of the Cleveland Browns has been a story of missed potential, and it eats at those who have tried and failed just as it eats at fans who have tried to find reasons to believe each opening weekend. It eats at Jimmy and Dee Haslam too, as they continue to try to manufacture hope, for the city and for themselves.
JIMMY AND DEE take their seats at still another familiar meeting. It’s the introductory news conference for a Browns head coach, this time announcing the promotion of Freddie Kitchens. The energy is palpable on a mid-January day. The Browns are holding the event at a spacious club-level lounge at the stadium. It’s standing room only. There are two microphones on the stage, and when it begins at noon sharp, Kitchens and Dorsey sit behind them. Haslam usually introduces the coach. Today, Jimmy and Dee sit in the front row, looking up at the stage.
Kitchens is in the odd position of being both the old guy and the new guy, and he’s eager to introduce himself as his own man. Beneath the lid of a Browns hat pulled low, he acknowledges the obvious in saying the franchise has experienced more downs than ups.
“That ends today,” Kitchens says.
He speaks fast in a gentle Southern accent. He comes off real and deep and earnest. The pain of having watched his dad grind at a tire factory and be laid off set the foundation for his own belief in hard work, he says as his eyes seem to turn wet and glassy. He knows he wasn’t a fashionable choice, but he was Dorsey’s choice, just as the Mayfield pick was Dorsey’s pick. For once, Haslam didn’t parade in friends to watch last year’s draft. It was a scout’s draft. The analytics team had limited influence. Dorsey was skeptical of their helpfulness when he first got the job. He told an associate that he didn’t need “f—ing nerds” to tell him how to evaluate players. He’s since warmed up, sources say. Today, Dorsey not only got his preferred coach but also his preferred structure. Kitchens will report to Dorsey, forcing collaboration and eliminating the appeals court to Haslam. Nobody knows if it will matter, given how Haslam operates. But for one day, at least, it feels good to be a Brown. As Dorsey privately told an associate: “I flexed my muscles and got what I wanted.”
Kitchens tells the media it “takes some guts” for the Haslams to hire him. “I appreciate that. I won’t let them down.” In the front row, Haslam looks pleased but also a little bored. He dips his head as Kitchens talks and rubs his eyes, as if eager to move on with the day, if not on to next season’s opening kickoff. As Mayfield’s head coach, Kitchens might be the defining hire of Haslam’s ownership, but Haslam is not basking in the glow of someone who believes he has finally figured it out. Even when he and Dee are called to the stage to pose for the typical photo with a Browns helmet and the new coach, he barely smiles. He knows the routine and the language, of both beginnings and endings. When the news conference is over, Haslam doesn’t linger. He’s done all he can do right now, which is to appear to step away. He moves quietly down the hallway with Dee as the cameras focus on his new coach, who smiles and speaks of promise and potential, having not yet lost a game.