BEREA -- Owner Jimmy Haslam has been on a mission to fix the Browns since he paid $1 billion for the dysfunctional franchise in 2012.
His latest extreme offseason makeover included a new coach -- his fourth -- he loves in Hue Jackson and an overhauled and ridiculed front office heavy in brainpower but light on football experience.
Next on Haslam’s agenda is to continue ridding the organization of distractions.
Jimmy and wife Dee, who continue to acknowledge the steep learning curve of NFL ownership, addressed the team Thursday at the request of Jackson. Their focus was stopping the turmoil that has dogged the Browns for years.
Haslam said former quarterback Johnny Manziel wasn’t the impetus for the speech, but the circus was at its worst in his two seasons before he was cut in March.
“We listed three or four things that were important in preparation and one of them is eliminate all the distractions from your life, and that can run the gamut,” Haslam said Sunday in his annual training camp meeting with reporters. “We talked about what a privilege it is to play in the NFL, how they needed to set example for young kids all around the country. We have high expectations and we’re not going to put up with those kind of distractions.”
The message was particularly noteworthy considering the last few weeks.
Oft-suspended receiver Josh Gordon was reinstated by the league last week and welcomed back by the team. Running back Isaiah Crowell put the organization in a terrible spot a couple of weeks ago with an Instagram post of an illustration of a policeman being slashed in the throat. And outside linebacker/end Armonty Bryant pleaded guilty Wednesday to a misdemeanor drug charge and could face a second NFL suspension.
Haslam, who remains under scrutiny because of the Pilot Flying J rebate fraud scandal, understood the optics of the timing and addressed each case separately.
“We have a history with Josh,” Haslam said. “Everybody in the organization is going to do everything they can to help Josh be successful, but Josh at the same time ultimately has to make good decisions. If he does, then he’ll be with us a long time. If he doesn’t, he understands the repercussions.”
Haslam said he was involved in the discussions about bringing back Gordon but the front office and Jackson made the decision.
“Hue said it well, Josh deserves a restart,” Haslam said. “He understands very, very clearly what the expectations are here, what he can and can’t do. Time will tell if he can live up to them.”
Gordon and Crowell were among the last players signing autographs Sunday after practice.
“The Crow deal was terribly unfortunate. It was inexcusable,” Haslam said. “We know Crow well, that’s not who he is, he made a big mistake, he’s paid a large penalty for it. I think the true test of character for all of us is when we get knocked down -- or maybe knock ourselves down in this case -- how you get up and handle it is how you judge people. And Crow, I’m not sure he could have done anything better since he did that terrible incident. We’re proud of how Isaiah’s responded.
“Armonty understands very well our expectations. He has come in here so far and worked very hard and been a model citizen.”
Haslam praised Jackson’s energy and collaboration skills, and said his experience across the league allows him to accept players with checkered pasts.
“He knows how to deal with those people as men and make them not only better players, but better men,” he said.
The Haslams’ speech followed the players’ return to the state-of-the-art facility renovated to give them every advantage.
“The facilities are A-1,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “For them to come in and talk to us and let us know how they feel about the organization, what the direction they have us going -- I’ve never had that from an owner before. It shows how passionate they are, talking about their lives, talking about their families and how much bringing a winning team to the city means to them. We loved it.”
While Haslam believes he has the right people in place in the front office and coaching staff and sees promise in a young roster filled with draft picks, he made no bold predictions for the season.
“We’re very excited,” he said. “We’re cautiously optimistic but at the same time realistic about where we stand.”
The Browns were 3-13 last year under coach Mike Pettine, who was fired after two seasons. Haslam also mentioned the organization’s poor drafting history and an inexperienced roster as reasons the latest attempt at a turnaround could take time.
“I can’t guarantee we’re going to have a winning season after going 3-13,” he said. “I know we’ll be a better football team. We’re directionally correct. I think we’ll play hard, and I think fans appreciate that. We have unbelievable fans.”
Those fans have witnessed eight straight losing seasons and 13 straight without a trip to the playoffs. Haslam didn’t want to get trapped when asked for a realistic expectation of a good season.
“Listen, we could win four or five games and feel good about things or we could win eight,” he said. “We’ll all know when we stand here on Jan. 1 if we’re improving as a football team.”
Jackson stuck to the refrain that he’s not interested in a rebuilding year.
“Hey, he’s the owner. He can say whatever he likes,” Jackson said. “I really respect that, but at the same time, that’s just not how I’m built. I don’t know what that number is going to be. I don’t know if it’s going to be four or 14. But I know we’re chasing and I don’t want a number. I want our team to be the best we can be, and we expect to win and we’re going to continue to work to win.”
Haslam and the Browns are in an interesting spot in the Northeast Ohio sports landscape. The Cavaliers broke the city’s 52-year championship drought, and the Indians are in first place and trying to position themselves for a World Series run.
“We couldn’t be happier for the Cavs,” Haslam said. “I mean, just an unbelievable performance, and same thing with the Indians. So we’re very happy.
“When you see the love of sports that the fans have, it makes us want to win even more for these great fans.”
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