MOBILE, Ala. -- Bring up the Cleveland Browns to NFL people at the Senior Bowl this week and a common theme emerges.
The Browns can’t seem to get the culture right. Berea is where well-meaning people get chewed up by the dysfunction.
Recent headlines lend ammunition to those talks. In less than a month, the Browns have fined their maligned rookie quarterback for missing team activities, suspended their top receiver, let their offensive coordinator walk for a lateral job and two years left on his deal, and fielded calls from NFL investigators over allegations that non-coaching staffers suggested play calls via text to the sidelines during games.
From Mobile to Cleveland, it looks like a magma-hot mess.
General manager Ray Farmer isn’t providing details on Kyle Shanahan’s departure, but isn’t hiding from any perceived problems, either. He seems to welcome the chaos. He started that conversation when talking to Fox Sports Ohio earlier in the week, which made me wonder:
If a GM acknowledges internal friction on the record, even in general terms, isn’t in bubbling 10 times as strongly beneath the surface?
I asked Farmer whether that assumption is fair. Here’s what he said:
"I know the word friction keeps coming up. It’s not friction. It’s conversation," Farmer said. "Those exist in every organization I’ve ever been in. People want to turn that into a negative. I don’t think it’s a negative. I think it’s a positive. Part of being a good, healthy organization is people feel free to have those kind of conversations and speak candidly. At the end of the day it’s about coming out with a decision and a plan that’s best for the Cleveland Browns."
Farmer is right that healthy debate internally can help strengthen the Browns. But consider the strongest franchises in the league, either now or in the past decade. The Patriots, Seahawks, Steelers, Packers, Ravens and Giants. You would never hear about those teams losing a coordinator to a lateral job amid leaks about text messages and roster discord. What Farmer witnessed in previous employment with the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs (not exactly teams on the list above) doesn't necessarily blend with the NFL model for success.
Coach Mike Pettine’s answer to why Shanahan left salary on the table to pursue a lateral job makes some sense -- keeping Shanahan would create a 'dark cloud' over the Browns since he didn’t want to be there. Holding him hostage isn’t always effective, especially when a disgruntled employee could cause trouble.
Shanahan’s decision might have less to do with culture and more with what he sees on the Browns’ roster. Put a top-15 quarterback with the first-string offense and Shanahan’s still under contract. That simple. You are only as good as your options.
But weren’t Farmer and Pettine brought in to help curb the storylines that have plagued the franchise, to work in harmony?
Farmer says his working relationship with Pettine is healthy.
"It’s going to be our decision -- not my decision, not his decision, our decision," said Farmer about the decision-making process internally. "Our culture is a good culture. Coach Pettine and I work hand-in-hand. (Disagreements) have to happen in order for you to make accurate decisions."
That logic might explain why Farmer has a 25-person personnel staff, known as one of the biggest in the league. He’s not afraid of perceived chaos.
"Sustainable success over time. That’s what we’re focused on," Farmer said. "You can always glean something when you talk with somebody."
He might’ve gleaned something from talking with Shanahan -- the problems will persist until the Browns find a solution at quarterback.