Randy Lerner’s last game as owner of the Cleveland Browns takes place Sunday.
His tenure as owner will end Tuesday — and it will end the way he likes it.
Quietly, with him in the background.
Since the sale of the team was announced, Lerner has removed himself almost completely from the Browns — publicly at least. This week he politely declined via e-mail to do an interview to reflect back on his and his father’s tenure.
The guy simply is not made for the spotlight.
What will be remembered from his tenure is obvious.
The Browns lost, a lot.
They followed a euphoric return by losing twice as many as they won (139 losses, 68 wins).
It also will be remembered for change, which was constant.
In a sense, the tone for the post-1999 era was set by Al Lerner and Carmen Policy after the 2000 season, when they fired Chris Palmer as coach and brought in Butch Davis.
What happened the first two years of Davis’ tenure was exactly what Palmer predicted in 1999 and 2000 would happen. Palmer steadfastly maintained the first two years would be a major struggle, but things would start to come together the third and in the fourth the fruits of the labor, so to speak, would take hold.
Which is exactly what happened.
Davis went 7-9 his first year (which would have been Palmer’s third).
He went 9-7 and made the playoffs his second (the Browns fourth).
Palmer’s “stay the course” quotes were widely pilloried, but they were right. Instead of staying the course, which presumably would have led to a more stable environment and maybe more success, the Browns fired a good man who loved Cleveland.
They haven’t stayed on any course since.
Davis grew impatient after that playoff season and blew up the team and it never recovered. Two years later there was a re-start with Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel. Four years after that it was Eric Mangini. A year later it was Mike Holmgren. Then Pat Shurmur.
The results are the results:
–68 wins in 13-plus seasons.
–seven head coaches
–nine offensive coordinators (including Shurmur his first season)
–17 different starting quarterbacks.
But oddly enough it wasn’t from lack of trying. Lerner tried different styles, coaches and approaches.
He finally found a football guy to run football when he hired Holmgren, but the first day of the third year of the Holmgren regime the sale of the team was announced, effectively blowing up the season when the regime clearly was treating things as a long-term rebuild.
Now the Browns face the prospect of another re-start, depending on what new owner Jimmy Haslam does.
Lerner may look back and wish he’d won more, but one thing he can’t do is look back and wish he’d cared more. Perception aside, he cared deeply about the team, and wanted it to succeed. He treated it as if the city owned it. He bypassed selling naming rights to the stadium and respected his father’s wish to keep ticket prices down (and took a lot of heat from other partners for doing so). He wanted Cleveland to win.
He just suddenly found himself thrust into an ownership role he never sought or wanted, and caused by the most tragic of circumstances — the death of his father. It’s tough to imagine the feelings of loss at that time, grief combined with the sudden feelings that a private person has been thrust into a very public job.
Lerner tried. He really tried.
He tried with his father’s guy, with his guy, with people the league suggested and with a football guy all as president.
He tried respected assistant coaches, and an experienced head coach.
He never balked at spending money — until perhaps cash flow issues caught up this past two years.
It never took.
Every time someone new came in he sold the owner on a new quarterback, a new approach.
His zeal and belief that he not interfere prompted him to step back and let the people he hired succeed or fail. For whatever reason, they mainly let him down. When he dove into hiring a coach on his own for the first time, he wanted an experienced guy and decided on Mangini, a coach who worked under Bill Belichick. It never got traction, with the public or the media.
No matter what was tried, the Browns results never differed. A good man simply could not get it to work.
Lerner will be off this Browns treadmill soon, and he’ll go on to have a good life as an owner of a British soccer team with a personal business office in Greenwich Village.
It’s not difficult to feel like the transfer of ownership will be as much of a relief to Lerner as owning the team was a challenge.