The season began with the most expectations the team had since they returned in 1999, and the Browns didn’t come anywhere close to meeting them. Head coach Freddie Kitchens was fired hours after the game ended, to the surprise of few.
There is no reason why a roster as talented as Cleveland’s should have played as poorly as the Browns did. What was a surprise was the firing of general manager John Dorsey on Tuesday. Dorsey was treated as a demigod just a few short months ago, but moving on from him is the right move.
A short-lived hope
When the Browns hired John Dorsey towards the end of the 2017 season, he brought a lot of optimism to the team. He took over a 2-14 Chiefs team in 2012 and since then, Kansas City has gone 9-7 or better in each season. And Dorsey was hired even before his selection of Patrick Mahomes became a grand slam. Dorsey was inheriting a treasure trove of draft picks and cap space never before seen in the NFL. It was his chance to completely construct a team in his image.
As soon as free agency began, Dorsey started to transform the roster. He traded for Jarvis Landry, Tyrod Taylor, and Damarious Randall. He signed Chris Hubbard, Darren Fells, and Chris Smith. He drafted Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward, and Nick Chubb. Two and a half games into the season, the returns weren’t great.
The offense, under new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, was anemic. Taylor did not play well. Then, halfway through Cleveland’s Week 3 game against the New York Jets, Taylor was injured, and Mayfield replaced him, leading a comeback to the Browns first victory since 2016.
Mayfield had some good moments over the next few games, as well as some bad ones. After getting blown out by the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 8, which brought Cleveland’s record to 2-5-1, Haley and head coach Hue Jackson were fired. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was named interim head coach, and running backs coach Freddie Kitchens took over as OC.
What followed was an incredible turnaround. The Browns finished the season 7-8-1, their best record since 2007. The offense, and Mayfield, played significantly better, so well in fact that Mayfield broke the rookie passing touchdown record, despite starting only 14 games.
Optimism surrounding the team would reach an all-time high in the next few months. Kitchens, presumably responsible for Cleveland’s potent offense, was hired as head coach, keeping him and Mayfield together. Dorsey signed Sheldon Richardson, traded for Olivier Vernon, and then traded for superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.. He followed that up by trading up in the second round of the 2019 Draft for projected first-round cornerback Greedy Williams. All of this led to Super Bowl buzz, even by some of the players, despite the team having done absolutely nothing on the field to warrant the hype.
On paper, the Browns were one of the most talented teams in the NFL when the 2019 season kicked off. But they certainly didn’t play like it in Week 1. They were punched in the mouth by the Tennessee Titans, 43-13. The team played well just three times all year; in wins against the Jets, Ravens, and Bills. To say the season was disappointing is an understatement; in many ways, it was worse than when the team went 0-16 in 2017.
To understand why John Dorsey was fired, we have to look at his exit from Kansas City. There are quite a few parallels from his time with the Chiefs to how his tenure in Cleveland went. Reports out of KC talked about his lack of discipline and iffy management style. Dorsey’s tendency to wait on extensions and end up paying more because of it put the Chiefs in a difficult salary cap situation. He took risks on talented players with character issues, which didn’t always pay off. He clashed with head coach Andy Reid, and ultimately lost the power struggle.
Surprise, many of the same issues arose in Cleveland. Dorsey’s predecessor, Sashi Brown, was heavily into using analytics to make personnel decisions. Dorsey makes decisions based on his eyes and his gut. He was quoted as saying he didn’t need nerds telling him which players to draft, and that he can tell if a man has a soul simply by looking into his eyes. A tad bit narcissistic.
While Brown was fired and replaced by Dorsey, the analytics crew weathered the storm. Chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta kept his job, as did Andrew Berry, who is now assistant GM for the Philadelphia Eagles. There was a constant rift between the two front office philosophies as owner Jimmy Haslam tried to balance analytics with Dorsey’s keen eye for talent. It was a marriage that was always headed for an ugly divorce.
Dorsey continued to take character risks, even as the ones he took with the Chiefs began to relapse, Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt (now with the Browns) in particular. He showed blatant favoritism to players whom he had drafted and signed, both in Kansas City and in Cleveland. But the nail in the coffin was the hiring of Kitchens.
John Dorsey again had the chance to do whatever he wanted. He could’ve chosen from any number of qualified candidates. But he decided on Kitchens. Kitchens, a coach whom Dorsey could control without any talkback. A coach who wouldn’t challenge his authority. It’s obvious that Dorsey was in control of the gameday inactives all season long, just by looking at players like David Njoku and Rashard Higgins, significant contributors from last season, who made next to no impact in 2019, in the little time they spent on the field.
The Haslams realized what was happening, and after firing Kitchens, first attempted to curb Dorsey’s managerial power by changing his position within the front office, to one where he would be able to evaluate talent, but not make final decisions. He would basically become a glorified scout, while DePodesta chose who would run football operations. Dorsey, as one would expect, declined. And now the Browns are in search of a new coach as well as a new general manager.
But it was the right move. Losing John Dorsey the talent evaluator hurts. But losing Dorsey the executive does not. Dorsey is one of the best talent collectors in football. But that’s all he did in Cleveland; acquire talent. He didn’t build a team. The roster as currently constructed doesn’t work well together at all. There is no synergy, no culture, no camaraderie, no trust. There was no development, only regression. And it’s Dorsey’s fault.
Reason for optimism
DePodesta, after being ignored in the past two coaching searches, is now leading the exploration, and that should make Browns fans everywhere breath a sigh of relief. DePodesta’s work with the Oakland Athletics is legendary, and well documented in the movie Moneyball. His strategies should translate even better to the NFL, as because of the prescene of the salary cap, all teams are on a level playing field.
DePodesta’s analytics department advocated for Sean McDermott back in 2016; McDermott was instead hired by Buffalo and has two playoff appearances in three seasons, with subpar talent, especially at QB. Kevin Stefanski, DePodesta’s choice last year, ran the Minnesota Viking’s offense extremely well this past season, coaching Kirk Cousins to his best year as a pro. Stefanski is again under consideration by Cleveland.
A coach will be hired first, then a GM. Josh McDaniels and Mike McCarthy seem to be strong candidates at HC, while Nick Caserio and Dave Ziegler are rumored to be options for GM, along with a possible return by Andrew Berry. No matter who ends up being hired, the most important thing is for them to have a unified vision. There can be no infighting, no bitterness, no conflict. Disagreements are healthy, but only when they can be dealt with correctly. That’s something Dorsey couldn’t do.
Some fans are worried by the return to an analytics-based approach because Brown’s regime was responsible for the team’s 1-31 record from 2016-2017. But those teams were deliberately tanking, stripping the roster to the bare metal. It was an unprecedented rebuild, one that was never able to be finished due to the Haslams’ impatience.
But there will be no rebuild this time; the team is talented enough to win now, and if Haslam trusts DePodesta to find the right people, that’s exactly what will happen.