BEREA — Browns general manager Ray Farmer isn’t going anywhere.
Owner Jimmy Haslam revealed Wednesday that Farmer admitted privately to sending text messages to the sideline during games, breaking an NFL rule against electronic communication. Despite the infraction, Haslam remains committed to Farmer as the head of his football operations.
“Ray feels terrible about it,” Haslam said in an interview with beat writers. “Ray’s a guy who has the utmost integrity. I think it is important for you all to know that Ray has the organization’s and my full support and despite the fact that he made a mistake here, it does not affect his standing with the Browns and he is totally focused on doing whatever we are going to do in free agency and more importantly getting the organization ready for the draft.”
The league prohibits cellular communication during games to prevent a team from gaining a competitive advantage. Haslam said Farmer wasn’t trying to gain an edge.
The league is investigating, and could levy penalties by the end of the month. Farmer is subject to a suspension, and the team could be fined and lose a draft pick. Haslam, who sits with Farmer at road games, said the league has told the team no decision has been made.
The texts reportedly were one of the reasons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan resigned after one season. Suggesting or questioning play calls and personnel usage during games is an intrusion on the coaching staff.
The black eye from the investigation ended a difficult first year on the job for Farmer, who was promoted from assistant GM on Feb. 11, 2014, when Haslam fired CEO Joe Banner and GM Michael Lombardi. Farmer was in charge of a draft for the first time, and first-round picks Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel had hugely disappointing seasons on and off the field. The Browns also lost their last five games to tumble out of playoff contention.
While some outside of the building have called for Farmer to be fired, Haslam’s confidence hasn’t wavered.
“At the end of the day, it’s my decision,” Haslam said. “I think you have to look at the individual’s body of work and we’re comfortable with Ray’s body of work. Very comfortable.
“Ray’s smart. He works hard. I think he understands football. He’s been in football all his life. He relates extremely well to players. He knows it not only from a personnel standpoint but how a game should be managed. I think he’s an exceptional human being. As bad as I hate this (text situation) for the organization, I hate it more for Ray Farmer. I can tell you it eats him up every day.”
Haslam answered a wide range of questions from 12 reporters for 50 minutes in a team meeting room. The conversation was prompted by a string of negative stories last week, including one by CBS’ Jason La Canfora that detailed alleged dysfunction within the organization, called it a toxic environment and pinned much of the blame on the owner.
Haslam told a much different tale, one he wanted relayed to the fans.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth. It does not at all, and I want to say at all, depict how things go here,” he said. “I don’t know everybody that works here, but the key people, I promise you, like coming to work, are here early, work late and work well together.
“Despite the public reports, this is a very cohesive organization headed in the same direction, where everybody understands their roles. We think we have the right people in the right places to succeed.”
He recently held a three-day meeting off site for Farmer, coach Mike Pettine, president Alec Scheiner and legal counsel Sashi Brown to set the course for the franchise. Haslam called it the best week in his tenure.
Then came last week, when it was revealed Manziel had entered a treatment program, receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for at least a year, Farmer was implicated in the text scandal and La Canfora ripped the team.
Haslam said he was out of town when La Canfora’s story posted, and his main concern was that it would become a distraction. The Browns haven’t had a winning season since 2007, while organizational turmoil has been nearly a constant.
“I accept that until we win and win consistently, which we have not done, we don’t have any credibility,” Haslam said. “We don’t have any equity with y’all. We accept that.”
Haslam bought the team from Randy Lerner for $1 billion in 2012. He has fired two coaches, two GMs and a CEO while compiling 16 wins in three seasons.
He’s been criticized for the quick trigger and lack of stability. He’s also been referred to as a meddling owner, although he disputed the notion.
“It’s been a steep learning curve and hopefully we will do a better job leading the organization than we have in the past,” he said, “but here’s how I see my role is set the goals for the organization, put the right people in the right place, provide them with the resources they need to do their job and then hold them accountable. That’s what I spend my time doing, OK?”
Haslam, who continues to run Pilot Flying J, said his time in Cleveland has increased to about 50 percent. He denied influencing the drafting of Manziel last year, or the decision to bench Brian Hoyer for Manziel for the biggest game of the season, a 30-0 home loss to Cincinnati.
“That’s crazy,” Haslam said of the business side pushing for Manziel to play. “There was no force from Ray, no force from ownership. The coaches make those calls. (Pettine) made the decision to change quarterbacks. Unfortunately, Johnny didn’t play well.”
Solving the quarterback situation is once again at the top of the Browns’ offseason to-do list. Haslam reiterated they will explore every option.
“We’re going to work relentlessly until we get that person,” he said. “I’m not saying that person’s not on our roster. But we’re going to continue to work and evaluate.”
Haslam said it’s “way too early” to give up on Manziel, and the front office still believes he has what it takes to be a successful starter. He also praised Manziel for voluntarily entering treatment.
Haslam reaffirmed his admiration for and belief in Pettine, who just completed his first year as a head coach.
“He was exactly what we thought he was when we hired him,” he said. “He’s a smart guy, he’s tough. I think he relates to the players well. Of all the people in the building, he was the least rattled by the events of last week. That’s Mike. That’s a true virtue.”
Haslam also said the criticism of Scheiner for interfering in the football department was “unfair.” He said Scheiner watches game film with Farmer, but only to learn, not to critique.
The positive spin only goes so far, with so many people, and Haslam realizes that.
“I don’t at all want people to think we think everything is great. OK? We don’t,” he said. “We understand that in the last five years that our division rivals have been sixth, seventh, eighth in wins and we’ve been in the high-20s. So we’re not at all satisfied and it’s not hunky-dory.
“All I want to convey is we do get along, we do work well together and we’ve got a common goal. But we understand — it’s really important — we have a lot of work to do to have the kind of football team we want to have. We’re not at all satisfied with where we are.
“I can assure you that nobody wants to win in this whole Northeastern Ohio more than me, and that’s saying a lot because we have some phenomenal fans.”