BEREA, Ohio — After Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam executed a stunning St. Valentine’s Week Massacre on Tuesday morning by ousting CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi, Ray Farmer and Alec Scheiner were the only high-profile members of the front office left standing.
Haslam promoted Farmer from assistant general manager to GM. Farmer immediately took control of the team’s football operations and will have final say on its 53-man roster. New coach Mike Pettine will have final say on the 46-man, game-day roster, Haslam said. In the meantime, Farmer is expected to hire former Kansas City Chiefs vice president of player personnel Bill Kuharich as a consultant who’ll assist him during what Haslam previously dubbed “the crucial offseason,” a league source confirmed, speaking on condition of anonymity because the team has yet to announce the move.
The timing of the shakeup is extremely rare, given the NFL Scouting Combine will begin next week in Indianapolis, free agency will start March 11 and the draft will run May 8-10.
Farmer, 39, is a first-time GM and has never run free agency or a draft. The Browns will have an estimated $45 million in salary-cap space, third most in the league, according to OverTheCap.com, to go along with 10 draft picks, including two in the first round (Nos. 4 and 26). They desperately need to capitalize if they hope to reverse their fortunes after suffering double-digit losses in each of the past six seasons.
“I believe I’m ready,” Farmer, the Browns’ seventh GM since the 1999 expansion season, said during a news conference. “Running the draft is as simple as having a process. You have to have a process that you create that answers all the questions in advance.
“I think I’m definitely solidified in that process. I’ve been involved in that process numerous times. We’ll be prepared when it’s time to select the players — players that fit what Coach Pettine wants to do.”
Scheiner, the team’s president, will remain in charge of the organization’s business operations. Scheiner, 43, will be the point man on major decisions pertaining to FirstEnergy Stadium that Banner spearheaded in the past.
Banner had been the ultimate authority on football and business operations since Oct. 16, 2012, when NFL owners approved Haslam’s $1.05 billion purchase of the franchise. Banner then hired Lombardi as the organization’s personnel chief on Jan. 18, 2013. Stripped of his power, Banner is expected to step down in the next couple of months as he transitions out of his role. In a statement, Banner called his departure “bittersweet.” He will be available to Farmer as a resource if needed, but he will not be involved in free agency or the draft. As for Lombardi, he is already gone.
Now Farmer, the seventh black GM in the NFL and the first black GM in Browns history, Scheiner and Pettine will report directly to Haslam instead of a CEO like Banner. A CEO will not exist in the new structure, Haslam said, even though he’ll essentially fill the role. As a result, Haslam, who declined to answer questions about the federal investigation into his family’s business, Pilot Flying J, said he’ll be more visible at the Browns’ headquarters.
“(Banner) and I, after lots of conversation, mutually agreed it was best for the organization if we streamlined things, where accountability, reporting lines were much clearer,” said Haslam, adding he began discussions with Banner about the structure of the front office weeks ago and decided to make changes in recent days.
“I felt like the previous setup was a little bit cumbersome. I think the way we’re organized now; it’s much more streamlined. It will be much more efficient and much more clear in terms of who’s in charge of what.”
All of the turnover came on the heels of Haslam and Banner firing coach Rob Chudzinski on Dec. 29 after he went 4-12 during his lone season on the job.
“I will accept comments and criticism about change, and I’ll accept responsibility for some of the changes that have been made,” said Haslam, adding these are the last of the “major changes” the team is going to make. “There is no primer for being an NFL owner. It is learn on the go. But I think what’s really important is for all our fans to understand that this ownership group, our family and this owner is committed to bringing a winner to the Browns.”
The Browns hired Pettine on Jan. 23 after embarking on a 25-day search for Chudzinski’s replacement. Banner gushed about the Browns’ other head-coaching finalist, Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, the day Pettine was hired, though the Browns hired Pettine instead of waiting until after the Super Bowl to interview Quinn a second time.
When asked if Banner’s desire to interview Quinn again meant Haslam and Banner weren’t on the same page during the head-coaching search, Haslam said, “I was really committed to Coach Pettine.”
Haslam sidestepped several other questions about the coaching search’s role in him dismissing Banner and Lombardi.
“I think we went through a very thorough search,” Haslam said. “Comments were made about how long it took. I would not do one thing different in the search, and I think we got the best person available.”
Farmer, who has a four-year contract, said he believes Haslam is “a reasonable man,” and he expressed confidence in his abilities to succeed despite the owner’s history of quick firings.
“It doesn’t motivate me,” said Farmer, who spent seven seasons as the Chiefs’ director of pro personnel and four as a pro scout with the Atlanta Falcons before joining the Browns last year. “(There’s no) fear or being scared or being motivated by a change could come. It’s the National Football League. Some people say it’s ‘Not For Long.’ Some people say it’s the ‘No Fun League.’ People have all kind of little anecdotal pieces that they’ll put on that. But my job doesn’t change, and I think the stress that I put on myself is really what I’m focused on — making sure that I work hard every day to get the most out of each moment. So if I do those things, I believe the results will bear themselves out.”
Farmer interviewed for the Miami Dolphins’ GM job last month and was a perceived favorite to land the gig, but he withdrew from consideration. He insisted he didn’t know he would receive this promotion when he made the decision that the Dolphins’ position “was not right for” him. He learned Monday night he would become the Browns’ new GM.
“I was genuinely excited,” Farmer said. “I don’t know if there’s ever a time when you feel again like it’s Christmas or like a kid when you wake up and things are just that brand-new and exciting. But I think there is a moment of reflection as well as to the people that helped you get where you’re at, to the people that are no longer here. So there’s a bittersweet moment, but there’s also that jubilation of this is my opportunity and I’m going to make the most of it.”