Monday, November 9, 2009

Browns owner looks for a 'real' GM

The rumored names are intriguing: Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren, maybe others. All have the authority of success behind them. Each of these men has a Super Bowl ring, plus an aura of credibility coming with them.

But a couple of their names have been thrown around before. Not even a year ago, they were delicious thoughts for Browns fans to eat up like a mountain of Hershey's chocolate. The names sounded too surreal to be more than a maddening tease. And they were. The chocolate melted, leaving Browns owner Randy Lerner to sell Ex-Lax as an alternative.

Now, Ex-Lax might be what Lerner, the billionaire sportsman, needs for the franchise he inherited to excrete the pile of dung that runs it.

Fans here are inured to the rot inside the Browns organization, and they are hopeful, finally, that Lerner will start to sate their appetite for winning football by building an organization on a sturdier foundation. He can only do so with enlightened leadership at the top -- with a real football man to run all aspects of Lerner's football organization.

The man to do so is not named Eric Mangini, the ineffectual coach and Lerner confidant. Mangini is plunging the organization to depths not seen in the NFL since the early years of the Tampa Buccaneers. He's doing it with the openness of a KGB operative, using his players and the public as if they were pieces in a private chess match.

Nothing marks incompetence like secrecy, and with the turmoil inside the Lerner's franchise these days, transparency is the proper approach to prevent a public insurrection.

As much as Lerner and fans might not want to admit it, the Browns are starting from scratch -- again. There will be no one-season turnaround for this disaster of an NFL franchise. Its revival is a four- or five-year project, and Lerner can't count on fans sticking around if he doesn't take bold actions now.

No reason to dwell on the George Kokinis affair; the firing was a bold move, if not altogether sensible. His hiring was botched as well. Kokinis didn't look like a bad hire; by all accounts, he was a capable football man. But from what insights there are into the Browns organization, Lerner never handed Kokinis the reins. The owner left Mangini to guide the football side of the team, the same mistake Lerner made when he hired Butch Davis, a first-time NFL coach, and let him run the franchise into the turf.

Lerner made a different mistake when hiring Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel so maybe that indicates he's growing into the role of a owner. Now, however, he has no room for another mistake. He has no goodwill in the bank to rely on in a community weary of his mistakes and his team's futility. The fans in Cleveland want to see good, solid NFL football. A winning record would be nice, too.

Can winning football even be thinkable under Lerner's stewardship?

It is difficult to know what Lerner's plans are. Rumors about his intentions trickle out here and there. Most of the recent talk has been aimed at discrediting Kokinis, a strategy that might make legitimate candidates to run the franchise hesitant to consider the job. They won't want to worry about an owner with an unclear vision; they don't need a meddlesome owner in the background either; and they shouldn't be saddled with a coach who has been the problem, not a solution.

Cowher, Dungy, Gruden, Holmgren ... one of those names might be a chance for Lerner to get it right. Each person has his appeal. But to Browns fans, each promises what Mangini never could: hope for the future.

If fans don't have hope, they have no reasons to spend their cash on a lousy team. For they can watch a lousy sports franchise for a lot less money at nearby Progressive Field.


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