The Cleveland Browns weren't the first team to make a change to their leadership structure this year, but they may have been the most obvious choice to make an in-season adjustment.
After opening the season with a 0-12 record, last week the Browns decided to part ways with executive vice president of football operations (and, essentially, general manager) Sashi Brown, who had been working with the team in that capacity since 2013. The Browns acted quickly to replace him, hiring former Chiefs general manager John Dorsey the following day. Though no one else has been forced out yet, it's possible more changes to the Browns' top brass and coaching staff could come at season's end.
The Browns subsequently blew a lead to the Packers and are now 0-13, and the possibility of a winless season is looming ever larger. There remains a major elephant in the room: What to do with head coach Hue Jackson and his staff, now that Jackson is a one-win-in-two-years head coach (who may not get a second in the team's final three games) and Brown's rule has given way to Dorsey's.
One thing is clear: The relationship between Brown and Jackson had gotten chilly over the past month, with Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot reporting the two were "not on good speaking terms," perhaps something that was related to the Browns' botched attempt to trade for Bengals backup quarterback AJ McCarron in November. Brown may have also been the man to veto Jackson's wishes to take quarterback Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in the 2016 draft (instead opting to trade out) and to pass on quarterback Deshaun Watson in the 2017 draft. But he's also the same man who wheeled and dealed his way to the Browns making 12 picks in the 2015 draft, 14 in 2016 and 10 in 2017, and he has set them up with 12 picks in the 2018 draft, giving the Browns ample opportunity to build a brand-new, young roster to propel them into the future.
The players selected with those picks have yet not resulted in improvements in the win-loss column, though that is something more easily attributable to coaching rather than to Brown's choices alone. This is why, at least for now, chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta and vice president of player personnel Andrew Berry have not been released. It also raises the question about what will happen with Jackson and what will happen with the Browns, who are now on their sixth general manager since Phil Savage left in 2008.
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said last week that Jackson will remain the team's head coach for 2018, even if he reaches January with a 1-31 record over his two seasons at the helm. Haslam will be the ultimate decision-maker, with Jackson, Dorsey and DePodesta all directly reporting to him, according to ClevelandBrowns.com's Andrew Gribble. Jackson himself said in a Monday conference call that he trusts that Haslam spoke the truth when saying Jackson's job is safe. "[I] think what he said is what he meant. That is what I believe and that is what I know," said Jackson. Still, wrote Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, "The persistent sense in league circles is that new GM John Dorsey… will eventually make the case for making his own hire at head coach."
Should the Browns make any coaching changes -- from firing Jackson and his whole staff to making swaps at particular position coaching spots to simply hiring an offensive coordinator (Jackson has handled those duties himself over the past two seasons) -- that will be their first offseason priority. After that, it's finding a franchise quarterback, which has been the Browns' goal, never accomplished, since the team returned to the NFL in 1999.
Every year brings the same refrain for the Browns. In 2017, it is no different. Haslam said last week that the Browns "are not going to be successful until we get a quarterback. We're going to do whatever it takes to find a quarterback we need to be successful. Let me say one more thing, that will be John's No. 1 priority… I think he would tell you if you asked him, 'What did Jimmy ask you more than anything?' It was about quarterback." The Browns made an attempt at it via the 2017 draft by selecting DeShone Kizer with their first pick in the second round, but they also ignored the position when making three picks in the first round.
Kizer has struggled this year, to say the least. In 12 games, Kizer has completed only 53.9 percent of his 373 pass attempts for 2,252 yards. He has nine touchdown passes to 17 interceptions and has been sacked 29 times. Cleveland's offense ranks last in the league in points scored, has the most turnovers of any team (32) and, though it ranks ninth in pass attempts, is just 23rd in passing yardage. If Kizer is the long-term answer, the short term has yet to reveal it; backups Kevin Hogan and Cody Kessler are also not likely to be Cleveland's passing game saviors for 2018 or beyond. It's clear the Browns must add not just competition, but quality competition, to their quarterbacks room in 2018.
But this has been the case for nearly two decades now. The Browns have five picks in the first two rounds of the 2018 draft alone and could have at least five quarterbacks to choose from in USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen, Wyoming's Josh Allen, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Louisville's Lamar Jackson. Now, the question is whether they will choose any of them and, if so, whether they will pick the right one. Free agency could -- and should -- also be a source of quarterback talent for the Browns this offseason, with Kirk Cousins and, if the Bills don't pick up his roster bonus, Tyrod Taylor as two of the top options. Cleveland is carrying over more than $60 million in salary cap space into 2018, making it open for business for any veteran quarterback who hits the market. But that also assumes that a high-demand free-agent quarterback would prefer a lucrative offer to go to the struggling Browns rather than a team they view with better regard that also has the cash on hand.
One thing is certain: Jackson, Haslam and Dorsey "all know that [quarterback] is the big piece that we still have to get right." The fact that they hadn't during Brown's tenure is the No. 1 reason why Brown was replaced by Dorsey. Now, the hope is that they have put together the right brain trust to make a collective, agreeable and, most importantly, correct set of decisions to make it a reality. The next big step for the Browns isn't simply spending well in free agency or making good use of their 12 draft picks, but finding the one key missing piece of the puzzle: the quarterback.
Nothing matters more, but because it apparently didn't matter as much to Brown as to everyone else, he's the one who took the fall.