BEREA — The first major decision Jimmy Haslam made after buying the Cleveland Browns was to hire Joe Banner as CEO and give him tremendous authority in business and football decisions.
Sixteen months later, Banner is on his way out as part of a front office overhaul announced by Haslam on Tuesday.
Haslam tried to minimize the moves by calling them a “streamlining” of the organization, but they were stunning and changed the dynamics of the franchise.
General Manager Michael Lombardi, hired by Banner in January 2013, is out immediately. Banner will stick around for a couple of months to help with the transition, but he no longer runs the organization.
Ray Farmer was promoted to general manager after less than a year as assistant GM. He becomes head of football operations and will be in charge of free agency and the draft for the first time in his career.
It’s a pivotal offseason for the Browns, who reportedly have more than $45 million in salary cap space and 10 draft picks, including Nos. 4 and 26.
“We feel that Ray is the best person to handle the personnel side of our organization,” Haslam said at a news conference.
Haslam bought the Browns from Randy Lerner in October 2012 for more than $1 billion. Haslam’s brief tenure has been marked by losses on the field and a series of firings off it.
President Mike Holmgren was dismissed when Haslam and Banner arrived. General Manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur were fired after the 2012 season. Coach Rob Chudzinski was fired Dec. 29 after going 4-12 in his only season, and now Banner and Lombardi are out.
“I will accept comments and criticism about change and I’ll accept responsibility for some of the changes that have been made,” Haslam said. “But I think what’s really important is for all our fans to understand that this owner is committed to bringing a winner to the Browns.”
Alec Scheiner, who was brought in by Banner, will remain as president and will lead the business operation. He, Farmer and coach Mike Pettine — hired Jan. 23 after a 25-day search — will report directly to Haslam. The Browns won’t have a CEO.
Haslam said he and Banner had discussed a restructuring for weeks, and the decisions were made in the last couple of days. Haslam called the old structure “cumbersome” and wanted a simpler setup with “clearer lines of responsibility and authority.”
“It’s a learning curve to be an NFL owner,” said Haslam, who added he’ll increase the time he spends at Browns headquarters. “If you want to look at me as a work in progress, that’s fair to say. I will tell you this: These are the last of the major changes we’re going to make in the organization.”
Farmer, 39, played linebacker from 1996 to 1998 with the Philadelphia Eagles before a knee injury ended his career. He worked as a scout for four seasons before becoming director of pro personnel for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2006 to 2012.
“He’s smart, he’s been around football his whole life, he’s organized, he’s an easy guy to deal with in terms of give and take, and he’s a tireless worker,” Haslam said.
Farmer is the first black GM in team history and seventh in the league currently. He’s the second-youngest GM in the NFL.
The shakeup comes with the scouting combine next week in Indianapolis, free agency beginning in March and the draft May 8 to 10. Farmer will have final say over the 53-man roster, and Pettine will decide the 46-man game-day roster.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for me to be sitting here today,” said Farmer, who has a four-year contract. “It’s a natural progression for me.”
The Haslam-Banner pairing never seemed like a natural fit, but Banner came with a strong recommendation from the league office. Banner worked for the Eagles for 19 years, the final 12 as president, and was given even more power in Cleveland.
In addition to overseeing the business side, he directed football operations and had final authority on trades and draft picks. He also led two coaching searches.
Haslam complimented the work done by Banner and Lombardi, but there were plenty of issues during their short time with the Browns.
The coaching searches led by Banner that landed Chudzinski and Pettine were sharply criticized. Neither hire was interviewed by another NFL team, while multiple candidates were reportedly reluctant to enter an organization led by Banner and Lombardi. Some of the big names in the searches — Chip Kelly, Bill O’Brien, Ken Whisenhunt, Adam Gase — chose to work elsewhere.
The player acquisitions also left a lot to be desired.
Linebacker Barkevious Mingo and cornerback Leon McFadden were the first two picks from their only draft but didn’t have the desired impact as rookies. Big-money free agents Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant were also disappointments.
Then there’s the draft-day trade for receiver Davone Bess, who was quickly given a four-year extension with $5.75 million guaranteed. He caught only 42 passes for 362 yards, dropped 14 passes and missed the last two games for personal reasons. He was recently arrested in Florida and is going through personal problems.
“I could tell you that Joe is a football guy,” Farmer said when asked if Banner was a good evaluator of football talent. “He would classify himself as a non-traditional football guy and I would say that’s a good representation.”
“I cannot thank Joe enough for what he has done for me personally and for our family in terms of teaching us the NFL business,” Haslam said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone smarter, or worked harder, or is a better negotiator than Joe.”
Banner didn’t attend the news conference but released a statement.
“It is bittersweet leaving the Browns organization,” Banner said. “I am proud of the talented individuals we brought in to help lead this team and feel that the Cleveland Browns are in good hands moving forward.”
Banner’s decision to bring in Lombardi was his most controversial. Lombardi had been with the organization in the 1990s when Bill Belichick was coach, and his return was unpopular with many fans and some members of the local media. He hadn’t talked publicly to reporters since training camp.
Farmer was pursued last month by the Dolphins to be their GM but declined a second interview. He insisted he didn’t know he would be promoted in Cleveland.
“That job was not right for Ray Farmer,” Farmer said of Miami.
Haslam has accelerated the turnover in the Browns offices, but change has been steady throughout the last 15 years of mostly losing. Haslam disagreed that the franchise is viewed as dysfunctional.
“I think that’s a perception that you all have set out there,” Haslam said. “It’s a great football area, we’re in great shape with the cap, we’re in great shape with the draft. If you talk to people around the league, they’ll say this is a wonderful opportunity. We’ve got to produce.
“This is a tremendous fan base and we’re committed to bringing a winner to this area.”