DraftBrowns.com Writer, Ryan Alton
I have long suspected that former President Mike Holmgren and former General Manager Tom Heckert were given marching orders to “fix” the quarterback position for the Cleveland Browns once and for all heading into the 2012 off-season by former Owner Randy Lerner. I have no proof of this, only a collection of facts and events strung together that might lead one to that logical conclusion. I attempt to explore that assumption with this piece. Let’s start from the beginning…
August 2011 – In the first of a series of five informal conversations with Scene Magazine Editor Vince Grzegorek, then-owner Randy Lerner shared his philosophy for his inherited football franchise, the Cleveland Browns. According to Grzegorek’s outstanding profile of the Browns’ notoriously camera shy owner, Lerner had recently decided to move to Cleveland permanently and Grzegorek requested an interview to give the fans a deeper appreciation for the reclusive man behind the city’s most-beloved sports team.
“Browns fans could benefit from getting to know the man”, pleaded Grzegorek. What they got was a lot more than he bargained for when the five informal meetings resulted in a wide-scale, rarely seen portrait of the man who owned the Cleveland Browns. It was while reading that piece that one exchange stood out to me above all others. And I’ve never forgotten it. Here’s an excerpt from Grzegorek’s piece “The Custodian” featured in the February 1, 2012 issue of Scene Magazine:
At this point, in late August, the Browns have played only two preseason games. Asked in a very general sense how he’s feeling, Lerner pauses for a considerable while, then answers. “The quarterback position is what keeps me up at night,” he says.
At the time of this statement, the Browns were heading into the 2011 season with first year head coach Pat Shurmur and second year quarterback Colt McCoy as the team’s uncontested starter. I suppose it’s worth mentioning that merely days prior to Grzegorek’s first sit-down with Lerner, the NFL finally re-opened for business after a painful labor dispute canceled the entire off-season. But with no other viable option on the roster, and with eight games of experience under his belt as a rookie, Colt McCoy, drafted 85th overall by the aforementioned Holmgren and Heckert duo, was ready to be the guy.
Apparently, this situation was not exactly conducive to the owner’s sleeping habits. Predictably, the Browns finished 4-12 that season and McCoy… well, someone was about to make sure he never got hit in the head the way he did in Pittsburgh ever again. And that person wasn’t Roger Goodell. Everyone had seen enough of Colt.
March 2012 – At some point between Randy Lerner’s comments in August and the evaluation of the incoming class of quarterbacks was being wrapping up in Berea, I firmly believe Lerner approached Holmgren and Heckert and told them to “fix” the quarterback position at all costs, no matter what. Now, I’m willing to admit I could be wrong in that exact wording because apparently that message was not received… in entirety.
On the night of Friday, March 9, 2012 details of a blockbuster trade were coming through that would send the St. Louis Rams a first and second round pick in 2012, and first round picks in both 2013 and 2014 in exchange for the #2 overall pick in the 2012 draft. With the Indianapolis Colts basically a lock to draft Stanford QB Andrew Luck at #1 overall, whoever acquired the #2 pick (St. Louis drafted Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford in 2010) was doing so to draft the electric, ultra-athletic quarterback from Baylor, Robert Griffin III. The team that made the trade with the Rams was the Washington Redskins. Not the Cleveland Browns.
But it wasn’t for a lack of trying, according to Holmgren. “I’m not sure any offer was going to be good enough,” he explained to season ticket holders a few days after the trade. “We were very aggressive and it didn’t work. Rest assured, we were aggressively involved in that.” Holmgren, in what now appears as sour grapes, went on to suggest that cronyism between old pals Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan and Rams Coach Jeff Fisher led to the deal being done long before the Browns tried to squeeze into the mix.
But Rams General Manager, Les Snead, confirmed to Peter King of Sports Illustrated that was indeed not the case. Peter Pattakos, of the witty and always entertaining Cleveland sports blog, Cleveland Frowns, broke down the fallout surrounding Holmgren’s remarks (and Snead’s rebuttal) in impeccable fashion. So much so that it seems pointless to regurgitate here.
Believe what you wish, but the fact remained that it was about five weeks from the draft and the Browns were no closer to finding a viable replacement for Colt McCoy than they had been in August. And now the top two names on the market through the draft had already been acquired. (It was later reported that Holmgren made a call to Indy to inquire about the possibility of trading up for Andrew Luck. I can only imagine how long that conversation lasted.) Needless to say, Holmgren was running out of options and Lerner was probably running out of Lunesta refills.
April 26, 2012 – Draft Night – About a half hour before the draft officially kicked off, a trade was announced. This time the Browns were involved. Perhaps emboldened by the fact they weren’t able to get their guy the last time around, the Browns sent picks 4, 118, 139, and 211 to Minnesota to move up one spot to #3 overall so that they could seal the right to draft RB Trent Richardson of Alabama. It was a hefty price to move up one spot but it was one the Browns were willing to pay to make sure they would not be left as the odd man out this time around. It was also a price the Browns, with 13 picks going into the draft, could afford.
There was much speculation leading up to the draft that Tampa Bay, sitting just below the Browns, could try to trade up with Minnesota for Richardson. Many people believed that was probably smoke from the Vikings, trying to convince Cleveland that they would have to move up to get him. It may have been. Either way, Holmgren insisted to Heckert that the move had to be made. “I said, ‘Tom, do you want to do this?’ He said, ‘I don’t think I do. I think it’s too much or too strong or whatever.’ I said, ‘well, we might have to.’ And he goes, ‘well, if we have to, then you’ve got to tell me, because I won’t do it.’ And I said, ‘OK, then I might have to tell you. Fine.”’ And so that was done.
But, about the QB… The Browns had met earlier in the month with Brandon Weeden while he was in town for a two day visit. At this point, with few other options, I believe their minds were pretty much made up. He was going to be their QB. Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill seemed like a good fit to run the West Coast Offense but the Browns would’ve had to take him at #4. The fit in Miami, sitting at #8, with his former head coach Mike Sherman now the Dolphins OC, was too convenient. They were going to take him if he fell to them. And they did. Besides, the Browns wanted Richardson.
Seattle waited until the third round to take Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson, who went on to have a phenomenal season as a rookie. Holmgren told a Seattle radio station last week the Browns considered Wilson but had concerns about his height. “Now, we [the Browns] really liked Russell Wilson as an organization. But, I said, ‘You know what, I think his size might be hard and might create some problems.’”
After all, he is shorter than Colt McCoy. Apparently, height is enough of a trump card to overlook all of the other qualities Wilson possesses to Holmgren. Ironically, Wilson is the QB most comparable to RGIII in terms of athleticism combined with arm strength and ability in last year’s draft class, but the Browns weren’t interested because of his height. So Weeden it was then.
And of course, we know the whole story about why they took him at #22 as opposed to waiting until pick #37 where many had him projected. Even that whole circumstance involving their interest in Kendall Wright at #22 cast doubt on where exactly they had Weeden ranked. What we know is that they wanted Weeden and they didn’t think he’d be there at 37, so they just took him at 22. Okay, whatever.
Summer 2012 - So now you have a first round quarterback, THE FRANCHISE, whether you planned to take him in the first round or not. What do you do with him? Well, if you’re Pat Shurmur, a loyal disciple of the Mike Holmgren/Andy Reid School for QB Gurus, you stage a faux QB competition with Colt McCoy, name Weeden the starter almost immediately, and force your long-winded, old fashioned West Coast Offense down his throat despite the fact that your boss, the owner who promised you could take as long as you needed to fix his mess of a team, just sold the team to someone else and now that security blanket you had has been pulled out from under your feet. Breathe.
I actually have to give Shurmur some credit for not panicking and doing everything he could to save his job. Most guys might lose sleep thinking of ways to accelerate the pace of the plan in an attempt to produce short-term success and maybe save their jobs. Not these guys. Everyone on down from Holmgren to Heckert to Shurmur went on operating as if nothing had changed once Lerner sold the team to Jimmy Haslam III. There was no panic, no hysteria, and sadly, no sense of urgency at all. It was a five year plan and the sale of the team was not going to deter them from their course, even if it came at the expense of their jobs. Maybe they just knew their fates were sealed and accepted it. That seems to be reflected in the way the 2012 season played out… 5-11 after a 0-5 start. Grr.
Present Day - But while all of them are gone now, the new regime still has the issue of what to do about Brandon Weeden, who finished his rookie season with the worst grade in the league (-30.0) according to ProFootballFocus.com. He was just drafted in the first round last year. Granted, no one currently in the organization, aside from Heckert’s team of scouts, is responsible for making that pick. And even that is debatable. There is a school of thought out there that believes Holmgren, once again, stepped in and convinced Heckert they had to take Weeden when they did. Either way, what’s done is done. Weeden is here and the most important job this new regime has is the same job the last regime (and all the regimes before that, since 1999) had. Fix the quarterback situation!
I think it’s safe to say that if Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi had been in charge of last year’s draft, Brandon Weeden wouldn’t be in Cleveland right now. It’s nearly impossible to project who they would’ve picked. Maybe they get the RGIII deal done. Maybe they take Russell Wilson before Seattle gets the chance in Round 3. Who knows? The point is, Holmgren and Heckert needed to do SOMETHING! They tried and failed on at least one occasion (two if you count Wilson) so they settled for the next best thing. And now they’re gone and that next best thing is the next regime’s problem.
Personally, I’m not writing off Weeden yet and I hope the powers that be in Berea aren’t either. I definitely think his skill set is more apt to be successful in Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner’s down field passing attack, combined with a power running game, than it was with what Pat Shurmur was trying to force Weeden to do. And I say “force” because it was obvious he struggled to play under center and throw the types of routes that the West Coast Offense demanded of him.
Pat Shurmur’s offense neutered Brandon Weeden. It took away his gun-slinger approach to the game by forcing him under center and taking quick drops and throwing over the middle of the field. What resulted were batted-down balls, interceptions and an inability to make proper pre-snap reads of the defense. Shurmur didn’t help matters by going through the media to give Weeden some coaching tips. “Don’t throw interceptions. Done, end of story. I want to be right to the point”, Shurmur stated. Thanks coach. Good talk.
I’ll be very interested to see how the whole quarterback situation plays out this off-season and into the regular season. But the way the whole season unfolded under Pat Shurmur and Brandon Weeden, I really have to wonder why they even drafted him. The marriage never seemed right from the start. It seemed forced. And I think that’s what got me thinking about the whole timeline and how it all played out. Why did the Browns draft Brandon Weeden? Was it because they felt he was the quarterback that could take this team to a Super Bowl? Or was it because Mike Holmgren felt like he had to do something and he simply ran out of other options? I’m leaning toward the latter.