The Browns have struggled mightily since their return to Cleveland as an “expansion” franchise in 1998, with just two winning seasons and one playoff appearance in nearly two decades. But Cleveland diehards had reason to be optimistic ahead of the 2014 campaign, with new head coach Mike Pettine's support of a workmanlike, defense-first style of play and renewed accountability among players in the team’s notoriously dysfunctional locker room. The franchise gambled that talented yet troubled rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel would overcome his hard-partying past and pair with star wide receiver Josh Gordon to form the core of the team’s dynamic new offense.
But what began with a promising 7-4 start to the season devolved into a disaster, with Manziel, Gordon and Browns general manager Ray Farmer each embroiled in scandals this week. Cleveland’s ongoing bid to regain credibility arose during a difficult year for the NFL, as various franchises dealt with the issues related to competitive balance and off-field misbehavior. The difference, experts said, is that the sustained on-field success of teams like the New England Patriots or the Baltimore Ravens overshadows any negative press they garner away from the gridiron, while the Browns are seen as perennial losers.
“Teams that don’t win…tend to take a bigger hit than the New England Patriots, who are Super Bowl champs and pretty consistent winners, who tend to be more Teflon-coated. The winning teams tend to develop a Teflon coating and the losing teams don’t,” said John Lord, director of the sports marketing program at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
For a time, players seemed to buy into Pettine’s philosophy. The rookie head coach’s decision to start veteran quarterback Brian Hoyer over Manziel paid dividends, as the team jumped out to 7-4 start behind a conservative offense and a vastly-improved defense.
Cleveland’s season went off the rails near the end of November. Hoyer struggled to move the ball in back-to-back losses to the Buffalo Bills and the Indianapolis Colts, which prompted fans to call for the electric Manziel to make his long-awaited entrance as the team’s starting quarterback.
Pettine finally acquiesced in mid-December – with disastrous results. Manziel looked lost in his first NFL start, completing 10-of-18 passes for just 80 yards and two interceptions. He struggled again in Week 16 against the Carolina Panthers, completing just 3-of-8 passes before he suffered the hamstring injury that would end his season.
By then, the Browns were in freefall. They lost the final five games of the 2014 season, finished with a 7-9 record and missed the playoffs for the 12th consecutive year. All the while, stories of renewed dysfunction trickled out of Cleveland’s locker room.
Gordon, who was once considered one of the NFL’s top wide receivers, successfully appealed the NFL’s year-long suspension for a third violation of its substance-abuse policy, only to be suspended ahead of Week 17 for an unspecified violation of team rules.
The team’s players had similar concerns about Manziel, whose purported partying and lack of commitment ahead of his starts led one Browns teammate to refer to his rookie season as a “100 percent joke,” according to a damning report by ESPN. Sources within the Browns organization described Manziel as “drunk off his a—“ the night before he missed treatment on his injured hamstring ahead of the season’s last game.
The Browns’ off-field concerns reached their pinnacle this week with a trio of negative events. First, Manziel’s representatives announced Monday that he would voluntarily enter rehab for unspecified treatment. "Johnny knows there are areas in which he needs to improve in order to be a better family member, friend and teammate, and he thought the offseason was the right time to take this step," adviser Brad Beckworth said, according to ESPN.
Then, the NFL suspended Gordon without pay for at least one year on Tuesday for yet another violation of the substance abuse policy, ESPN reported. By Wednesday night, sources within the NFL revealed the Browns faced fines and the potential loss of draft picks amid an investigation into allegations that Farmer violated the NFL’s policy on electronic communication by texting members of the coaching staff during games, Cleveland.com reports.
Farmer would text former quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains about quarterback performance and issues with play-calling, according to ESPN. Dubbed “Textgate,” the scandal purportedly played a major role in former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s decision to leave the franchise this offseason in favor of the Atlanta Falcons. These recurrent examples of dysfunction have only served to exacerbate the public’s perception of the Browns as a subpar franchise.
“The Browns have a pretty poor public relations image when it comes to football around the league. Obviously the problems that they’ve had lately feed into that, but those are on top of a general image that they have of not really knowing what they’re doing with personnel or with putting a team together that can be a contender,” said Galen Clavio, an assistant professor of sports management at Indiana University.
Continuous losing, not internal dysfunction, is the true cause of the Brown’s image problem, multiple experts said. The Patriots’ public reputation came into question as far back as 2008, when head coach Bill Belichick received an unprecedented $500,000 fine for instructing a Patriots staffer to videotape opposing teams’ defensive signals. Similar concerns about shady tactics arose ahead of the Super Bowl XLIX in the form of "Deflategate," as New England stood accused of using underinflated footballs to gain a competitive advantage in the AFC Championship game. Far worse than allegations of cheating is the ongoing case of former Patriots star tight end Aaron Hernandez, who is currently on trial for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd.
In Baltimore, former Ravens running back Ray Rice’s February assault of then-girlfriend Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City casino elevator led the public to levy unprecedented criticism and scrutiny at both the franchise and the NFL as a whole. Sponsors threatened to abandon the league unless it took a stronger stance against domestic violence. Pundits eviscerated Ravens officials for allowing Palmer to apologize in May for her role in the altercation.
But the Ravens and the Patriots are perennial playoff contenders who have won Super Bowls within the last three years. Both made the postseason in 2014. And despite the negative publicity generated by their failings, both franchises sold out every one of their home games in 2014, according to ESPN. Fans are willing to look past dysfunction, as long as they’re given a successful on-field product.
“As disappointing as the issues involving Manziel and Gordon have been, none of them lies even close to the kind of trouble that Hernandez has created for the image of the Patriots,” said Mark Rosentraub, chair of the University of Michigan’s sport management program. “They just had a parade for [the Patriots] yesterday.”
Ultimately, a winning season and playoff berth in 2015 will make the Browns' internal struggles seem like a distant memory, said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, professor of sports management and marketing at George Washington University in Washington D.C. “At the end of the day, if Cleveland ends up winning, nobody is going to care."