Banner forced out by Cleveland Browns
JOE BANNER sat in the lobby bar of the Arizona Biltmore Resort last March and tried to explain why he abruptly left the Eagles after 18 years as Jeff Lurie's righthand man to become CEO of the Bad News Browns.
"My strength is in building something, putting something together," Banner said. "If you were in business, I'd be the guy that you'd bring in to bring something back that was headed in the wrong direction as opposed to somebody who would continue to operate something that was doing reasonably well. That's just what I do better."
Yesterday, only 16 months after being brought in by new owner Jimmy Haslam to do his Mr. Fix-It thing on the Browns, Banner was informed that his services were no longer needed.
Mike Lombardi, whom Banner hired as the team's general manager, also was given the heave-ho, replaced by former Eagles linebacker Ray Farmer, who had been the team's assistant GM.
"Several weeks ago, Joe Banner and I started having discussions about the structure and organization of the Browns," Haslam said. "After lots of conversation, Joe and I mutually agreed that it was best for the organization if we streamlined things where accountability and reporting lines are much clearer.
"After 'Pett' [new head coach Mike Pettine] came on board, and evaluating where we are, we felt it made the most sense and was a much simpler organizational structure than we had before. Much clearer lines of authority and something we all felt more comfortable with."
Farmer, Pettine and club president Alec Scheiner, who runs the team's business operations, will report directly to Haslam. Farmer will collaborate with Pettine on personnel, but will have final say over the 53-man roster.
Banner will step down within the next 2 months and his CEO position will be eliminated.
When a reporter suggested to Haslam that it sounded as if Banner had restructured himself right out of a job, the owner said: "I think Joe would tell you that putting together organizations is what he enjoys doing. I think he felt comfortable that he had set us up for success, and it's now time for us to move forward."
Banner did not respond to an email request by the Daily News for an interview. In a statement released by the Browns, he said, "It is bittersweet leaving the Browns organization. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Jimmy Haslam and helping him set up the infrastructure for this franchise. I am proud of the talented individuals we brought in to help lead this team and feel that the Browns are in good hands moving forward."
Despite the Browns' 4-12 record this past season, despite the fact that Banner fired head coach Rob Chudzinski after only one season, despite the Keystone Kops-like search for his replacement, it can be argued that Banner has successfully positioned the Browns for a significant turnaround in 2014.
Thanks to his masterful cap management, the Browns will head into the free-agency signing period with more than $40 million in salary-cap space. They have 10 picks in the May draft, including two in the first round and three of the first 35. If Farmer makes enough right decisions in free agency and the draft, the Browns could have the same kind of turnaround the Eagles had in 2013.
But the criticism the Browns received for firing Chudzinski and then taking so long to find his replacement clearly embarrassed Haslam. He took offense yesterday to suggestions that the Browns, who have made the playoffs only once since their expansion rebirth in '99 and who haven't won more than five games since '07, are one of the NFL's most dysfunctional franchises.
"I think that's a perception that you [media] all have set out there, and I will tell you, as I've talked to people around the league, people view this as a great franchise," he said. "It's a great football area. We're in great shape with the cap.
"I cannot thank Joe enough for what he's done for me personally and for our family in terms of teaching us the NFL business, if you will. I don't know that I've ever met anyone smarter or worked harder or was a better negotiator than Joe."
Banner negotiated a $107 million naming-rights deal for the Browns' FirstEnergy Stadium and got partial public funding of $30 million for stadium renovations.
But Banner wanted to be more than a cap guy and contract negotiator. He wanted to be a "football guy." Which was why the job appealed to him in the first place.
Haslam put him in charge of everything, including the team's football operations. Banner hired Lombardi, an ex-Eagles personnel man who had been out of the league for 5 years, because he knew he wouldn't object to letting Banner make most of the major personnel decisions.
Asked yesterday whether Banner was a good judge of football flesh, Farmer, 39, who was hired by Banner, said, "Joe would classify himself as a non-traditional football guy. And I would say that's a good representation."
The Browns' one draft under Banner and Lombardi wasn't very lucrative, though they did get Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon in the second round of the supplemental draft.
Farmer was the Chiefs' director of pro personnel from 2006 to 2012 before joining the Browns. He interviewed for the Dolphins' vacant GM job last month, but withdrew his name from consideration.
He joins the Ravens' Ozzie Newsome as one of the few African-American GMs in the league.
Farmer said he likely will add a couple of people to his personnel staff. According to league sources, one of them will be longtime NFL personnel man Bill Kuharich.
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