Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Cleveland Browns Must Use Bill Walsh's Three Year Plan

In an October 5, 1998 Sporting News article, Bill Walsh insisted that it should only take three years to build a championship caliber team--provided that ownership, management and the coaching staff are all on the same page. The Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the NFL's model franchises since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger and it is not a coincidence that they have been rock solid in all three areas identified by Walsh; they have been owned by the Rooney family since 1933, the team's management has done a great job of finding (and keeping) talented players and the franchise has a proven track record of hiring the right coach: since 1970, the Steelers have employed just three head coaches--Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin--while winning six Super Bowls in eight Super Bowl appearances. Each of those three coaches led the Steelers to at least two Super Bowls and at least one Super Bowl title.

Since the Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, they have been the opposite of a model franchise; their owners have thrown around money but not spent those funds wisely, management has consistently failed to bring in quality players despite having numerous high draft picks and the team's six head coaches are distinguished only by the fact that none of them had notable head coaching success before, during or after taking the helm in Cleveland. Based on Walsh's formula, the Browns should have been able to build a contender by the early 2000s and even rebuild a second contender a few years later if some of the players from the first contender declined due to age. Instead, the inept Browns have posted just two winning records and made just one playoff appearance since 1999; they won five games or less in nine of the last 13 seasons. In year 14, the Browns are currently 5-8 but the current three game winning streak has raised some hope that perhaps the franchise is finally, belatedly heading in the right direction (though it must be noted that two of the wins were against sorry Oakland and Kansas City squads while the third win came against a Pittsburgh team starting a third string quarterback).

New Cleveland Browns majority owner Jimmy Haslam used to be a Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner, so he is very familiar with the inner workings of that organization. He must not allow himself to be swayed by a small winning streak; he must look at a larger body of evidence in order to decide whether or not General Manager Tom Heckert can build a championship roster and then Heckert (or the new General Manager) must decide if Pat Shurmur is a championship caliber head coach. Even with the three game winning streak, Shurmur's career record with the Browns is just 9-20--and Shurmur's game plans/game management skills do not indicate that he is an elite head coach. Once the Browns have the right General Manager and head coach in place, they must determine if 29 year old rookie Brandon Weeden can lead a team to a Super Bowl; if it takes three years for the new Browns brain trust to put together a championship caliber roster then Weeden will already be 32 and might be within five seasons of retiring. If it is not reasonable to expect Weeden to develop into an excellent quarterback then the Browns need to draft or sign such a quarterback during the offseason. I think that the Browns should keep Heckert and Weeden but replace Shurmur with a top shelf coach--either a proven NFL winner or else a young, promising assistant (much like Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin were before they became Super Bowl-winning head coaches).

If Haslam makes wise choices then the Cleveland Browns should be a contender--not just a playoff team but a legitimate Super Bowl contender--in three years; if he does not put the right General Manager and head coach in place (and if those two guys do not groom Weeden or someone else into an excellent quarterback) then the Browns will continue to frustrate their loyal fans by missing the playoffs. 

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