Four men sit around a wood table, watching three televisions simultaneously. They are talking among themselves, but only sporadically; they spend more time gazing at the wall of TVs, glancing down at speculative lists on laptop computers, checking their text messages, and then returning their eyes to the televisions. There is moderate to heavy sighing. It’s 2:30 p.m. on the last Thursday in April: In about six hours, these four men will officially decide that a relatively large, uncommonly quick man from Louisiana State named Barkevious Mingo is the person they will hire to jump-start an NFL franchise that has been relatively awful for the past 15 years. To a degree, this verdict has already galvanized in their collective brain: Mingo is absolutely the man they want to draft. They describe him as “always relentless.” They identify him as the type of player who “represents everything” they aspire to as a franchise. But — right now, as they make those remarks casually — it’s still the middle of the afternoon. The future remains unwritten. Maybe they will get Mingo and maybe they will not; all they can do right now is write his name on a dry-erase board and periodically stare at the letters whenever they grow bored of staring at the TV or staring at the computer or staring at each other.
At one end of the wood table sits Rob Chudzinski, the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns. He wears a visor and coach shorts, almost like a character from a Kevin Costner movie about who the Cleveland Browns might draft (which, as it turns out, actually exists). Sitting next to Chud is Joe Banner, the Browns’ new CEO, who has come to the club after 20 years with the Eagles (he wears a hoodie promoting an Alaska-based brewery and drinks a Pepsi). Next to Banner is Ray Farmer, a former Eagles linebacker now serving as the assistant to the team’s new general manager, Mike Lombardi, the fourth man in the room. Lombardi wears a suit and sometimes circles the table like a half-hungry hammerhead shark. Lombardi talks the most. Chudzinski talks the least. Banner runs the room. Farmer is the equilibrium (he rarely speaks first but provides the most balanced insights). None of these men worked for the Browns in 2012, which is why this particular draft is unusually meaningful: For all practical purposes, Cleveland is rebooting its entire franchise. Everything is new — the ownership, the front office, and the coaching staff. This first-round draft decision, at least symbolically, signifies the beginning of yet another new era for professional football in Northeast Ohio, a geographic region that cares about football a little too much.
The war room is tense. Its ambience falls somewhere between a maternity waiting room and an East Berlin safe house. Sometimes the cable cuts out and all three televisions flicker in unison — but before an IT worker is allowed to enter the room and check the connection, Lombardi hastily erases Mingo’s name from the white board. This IT worker is a Browns employee who (I assume) works in the facility every single day. He’s nobody. Yet he still can’t be trusted. It seems a little crazy, but that’s how this world operates. It’s crazy on purpose. I think they like it that way.
Watching the war room is like watching grown men play Risk without a board. Every so often something happens. But it’s always difficult to tell what’s really happening. Here’s an example: The Browns have the sixth overall pick in this draft. They do not have a pick in the second round, having forfeited it after the selection of wide receiver Josh Gordon in the NFL’s supplemental draft last summer (this, it is widely felt by the organization, was still the right move — Gordon is the best WR the Browns currently possess). Like most 5-11 teams, Cleveland is desperate for talent at almost every position. It would like to trade down and get more manpower. This is complicated by the fact that almost every low-end team wants to trade down in this draft (the conventional wisdom is that the difference in quality between the 15 best players and the 30 picks who’ll follow is negligible). What the Browns want to do is swap the no. 6 pick for a later selection in the first round and another selection in the second. At 2:30, such a deal is already in place. The St. Louis Rams are willing to surrender the 16th overall pick and their second-round selection (plus a throw-in seventh-rounder) to move up to no. 6. However, the agreement has caveats. The Browns will agree to the deal only if Mingo is no longer available at no. 6, and the Rams will make the swap only if the specific guy they want (dynamic West Virginia WR Tavon Austin) is still there at no. 6. Everything depends on Mingo being gone and Austin sticking around, which is impossible to anticipate this far in advance. In other words, this theoretical deal can happen only during the fleeting 10-minute window that will follow the fifth overall selection, so nothing can be etched in stone.
Here’s something else that’s transpiring: math. There’s a lot of low-level math happening. When not contemplating Mingo, the Cleveland front office considers the possible acquisition of Davone Bess from the Miami Dolphins.1 Bess was 14th among wide receivers in receptions since 2009, but it looks like he’s being phased out of the Dolphins’ future (particularly after the signing of free agent Mike Wallace for $60 million). Miami doesn’t particularly need Bess, so it’s willing to give him up for the simple transposition of middle-round draft picks. The Browns offer Miami the 104th overall selection and the 164th overall selection in exchange for Bess, the 111th pick, and the 217th pick. This requires an objective discussion about the mathematical value of average draft prospects (mostly based on data from a version of this chart) and a subjective (and seemingly less essential) debate about what Bess offers on the field. Later that afternoon, an even crazier hypothetical spontaneously emerges: The Browns consider trading tonight’s no. 6 pick to a marquee franchise, in exchange for a second-round pick tomorrow, a first-round pick in 2014, another first-round pick in 2015, and two other future selections. This would mean Chudzinski would start his coaching career with a 5-11 team that doesn’t even have a first-round draft option; it would also mean the Browns would be extremely well positioned over the next three years. Ultimately, the blockbuster does not happen. It’s possible that it was never close to happening. But this is how you rebuild a franchise that’s made the playoffs once in 14 years: You look at what the team has always done, and then you try to do the opposite.
The last time the Browns won an NFL championship was 1964. This feels distant to everyone in America except those living in Northeast Ohio. To them, it seems like last weekend. If you try to annoy a Browns fan by noting how Cleveland has never won a Super Bowl, he will tell you that they’ve actually won four titles (1950, ’54, ’55, and ’64) and that the only problem is that the term “Super Bowl” had not yet been invented. He will go on to tell you that the greatest football player who ever lived was a Brown, and that his name was Brown, and that the greatest player who ever lived is still only the second-most important person named Brown in the history of the franchise. He will tell you that he’ll always root for the Browns, under any circumstances, no matter what happens, forever.
And then he will proceed to tell you how much the Browns suck.
This is the central dichotomy of Cleveland football: No other fan base is so deeply loyal and so self-consciously negative at the same time. Locally, there just seems to be a universal belief that — somehow, either by human error or random chance — the Browns will fail at whatever they try. Longtime fanatics have code words for all the moments that have crushed their souls. “Red Right 88” denotes the fatal play call from the 1981 divisional playoff against the Oakland Raiders, when — trailing 14-12 with less than a minute to play, inside the red zone — the Browns tried to pass instead of running the ball and attempting a field goal.2 The ensuing end zone interception ended the season. That squad was (arguably) Cleveland’s best team of the modern era, unless you consider the ’86 Browns (who were killed by John Elway and “The Drive”) or the ’87 Browns (whose hopes were dashed by “The Fumble” in the AFC championship). There are no code words for things that went right, because those things never happen. In 1996, owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore, a move so devastating to the community that some citizens openly expressed glee when Modell died in 2012. For three seasons in the ’90s, there was no football team in Cleveland, although the nonexistent Browns remained just as popular as the Indians and more popular than the Cavaliers. (This three-year stint was actually an excellent era for Browns fans, since nothing bad could possibly occur.) The club was reintroduced in 1999, highlighted by a new $300 million downtown stadium and the first overall pick in the draft, Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch. In the 14 years that have since passed, the team’s record is 73-151.
Still, the team sells out virtually every home game. This is not Jacksonville. When it comes to football, Ohio is just a colder version of Texas. The Browns are always the biggest story in town: Two days before the draft, the Cavs rehired Mike Brown as their head basketball coach for $20 million; among the local media, the move received roughly the same amount of attention as the imaginary possibility of the Browns drafting EJ Manuel. Such single-minded obsession creates a unique problem for the Browns front office: How do you appease a fan base that is both highly critical and eternally infatuated? It’s like dating a woman who hates you so much she will never break up with you, even if you burn down the house every single autumn.
I pose this question to Alec Scheiner, the team’s new president and my de facto liaison during the three days I spend in Cleveland. “My feeling is that we need to present a different picture of this organization,” he says. “It’s been stale. It has not done well. I don’t think people view the Browns in a positive light. My perception from the outside was that the Browns just weren’t successful. They weren’t energetic or forward-thinking.”
Scheiner is 43. A native of Pennsylvania, he comes to Cleveland from Dallas, where he’d spent eight years as a senior vice-president and team counsel (essentially, he directly assisted Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and was heavily involved with the legal negotiations during the construction of Cowboys Stadium). “We have a long-term vision. And I realize that sounds simplistic, but a lot of teams don’t have that. They take shortcuts. Our long-term vision is sustained success over a long period of time. When you look at organizations like San Francisco and Philadelphia and New England and Baltimore and Pittsburgh, what you see are organizations that stayed consistent with their ideals. If you look at other teams, you can see where they took shortcuts. You can see where they gave up three assets for one guy, because they thought they were one player away. But you’re never just one player away.”
At this point, Scheiner goes off the record and gives examples of franchises that (in his opinion) have done this incorrectly. Over the next three days, he tells me many interesting things, but virtually none of them are eligible for attribution. He’s a very nice guy and a nuanced sports thinker, but his level of caution is profound (almost to the point of being comedic). Most of my direct queries are answered with either banal business-speak or a nondescript chuckle. He ultimately tells me only two on-the-record anecdotes that are worth mentioning here. One involved his failed attempt in Dallas to play Radiohead in the Cowboys weight room. (“All the guys were like, ‘What the fuck is this?'”) The other is that — upon his graduation from Georgetown law school — he almost became a diplomat.
“I wanted to be a diplomat in Latin America,” he tells me. “I had lived in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I guess I was more idealistic back then. I was working down there, right after El Salvador had finished a civil war. I thought I could make the world a better place. But then I realized all I was really doing was helping rich people get richer than they already were. I figured if that was all I was doing, I might as well work in professional sports.”
Back in the war room, the four aforementioned fellows continue to watch ESPN, ESPN2, and the NFL Network. I’m a little surprised by how much they rely on mainstream media outlets as a means for gathering information. I had always assumed there was an underreported intelligence gap between civilians and NFL executives, but that chasm is connected by the same rumor mill. Their personal reactions to the TV are not dissimilar from those of casual football fans: When the face of one high-profile draft analyst appears on the screen, Banner immediately says, “That guy is clueless.” Later, one of the channels runs a three-minute puff piece about Manti Te’o’s family in Hawaii. For reasons that remain unexplained, they wordlessly watch the segment with genuine interest.
At 3:30 p.m., the likelihood of trading the no. 6 pick still seems high. The discussion veers toward who they might end up taking if they fall back into the middle of the first round, a problem complicated by the utter impossibility of knowing who will still be available. On his laptop, Chudzinski is rewatching tape of a lineman he likes a little more than he probably should. He keeps watching footage from the same game, the single best performance the player had all year. Chudzinski knows the kid is flawed, but he remains intrigued by his physical frame. Banner is less bullish. “What does a bust look like before it happens?” he asks rhetorically. “It looks like four guys sitting in a room, trying to convince each other that some guy is better than we think he is.”
The main reason this deficient lineman is even being considered is because he happened to play his best game against an opponent from the Southeast Conference, the most secure pedigree any potential pick can offer. That partially explains why the Browns are so enamored of Barkevious Mingo. “The SEC is a whole different animal,” says Lombardi. “If all we did was take guys from Alabama and LSU, we’d be fucking great.”
Lombardi has a long relationship with Grantland (he’s been a guest on numerous podcasts with Bill Simmons), but this is the first time I’ve spoken with him. He’s a polarizing figure in Cleveland, solely because he’s worked there before (he was the director of player personnel with the team in the ’90s, right before it escaped to Baltimore). His name gets mentioned a lot on local talk radio, sometimes pejoratively (it’s endlessly noted that — while working as an analyst for the NFL Network in 2012 — Lombardi criticized the Browns’ first-round selection of 28-year-old Brandon Weeden, the man now positioned as the team’s starting QB). One gets the sense the Browns want to lower Lombardi’s public profile. This strikes me as a mistake. Lombardi is very good at talking. He’s a detail freak and a polymath, or at least a person successfully attempting to impersonate one. At one point, he engages me in a meticulous conversation about LBJ biographer Robert Caro, including what kind of typewriter Caro uses, his research methods, what clothing he wears while working, and the geographic location of Caro’s Manhattan office (I know almost nothing about Robert Caro, so the dialogue is pretty one-sided). He asks me what specific font I will use when I write this story. He nonchalantly talks about “the candle problem,” a hypothetical puzzle devised by Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker. The takeaway from all this is the import of “divergent thinking,” a cognitive system that focuses on solving problems by exploring nontraditional modes of assessment. Before it became a cliché, people called this process “thinking outside the box.” It’s a hard philosophy to disagree with, because nobody likes the box. That said, drafting an edge rusher from LSU doesn’t exactly qualify as divergent thinking. That’s not outside the box. That’s inside the box. It might be the box itself. But when you’re 23rd in the league in yards allowed, the box is what you need.
I‘m not afraid of transparency,” says Scheiner as he leads me around the Browns’ semirenovated practice facility, pointing at metal beams and temporary flooring and exposed electrical wiring. “Most of what we do here — there’s no secret to it.”
Well, what can I say? That statement is totally inaccurate. During the three days I visit the Browns organization, I hear the phrase “This is off the record” more often than I’ve heard it during the past 10 years of my career. The team told me I would have unprecedented access to its workplace, which (I suppose) was technically true. I could walk around the halls and peer inside the empty offices. I could hang out in the weight room and use the locker room lavatory. The only problem was that almost none of the 150 people who work in this facility were allowed to answer any specific questions pertaining to football. It was a little like being allowed inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory but being informed that no one in the building was allowed to discuss the manufacturing of candy.
Cleveland’s practice facility exists in the nearby suburb of Berea, a community of 19,000 people that’s five minutes from the airport. The community was built upon a bed of sandstone and looks like an industrial park; the atmosphere suggests an unglamorous version of the ’80s. But the Browns’ refurbished headquarters on Lou Groza Boulevard is nice (and getting nicer). There is a statue of deceased former owner Al Lerner outside the main entrance. The staff is friendly. In three months, all the major offices will be located on the facility’s second floor, overlooking the practice field. Unlike traditional NFL franchises, the Browns are not going to silo their football operations separately from their business operations; the head coach’s office won’t be isolated from the marketing department or the legal division. This is a group effort. All goals are unilateral.
I try to schedule an interview with Joe Banner,3 but it never happens (although I guess I can understand why he might be busy during the week of the draft). After a five-hour wait on Wednesday afternoon, I do get a chance to interview Chudzinski, a jovial, cherubic man who doesn’t say anything revealing or divisive (the closest he comes is this: “I know this sounds abstract, but we need to define a vision”).4 Most of my days in Berea are spent waiting in the facility’s brand-new cafeteria, the one aspect of the organization everyone insists has truly been reinvented. Judging from how the previous dining center is unanimously described, the Browns used to feed everyone slop. “This place is unreal,” says Spencer Lanning, a punter from South Carolina competing for a job. “For breakfast, you used to just get a greasy breakfast sandwich. It made you feel worse. Now we have all this great cereal.” When CEO Banner came to the Browns from Philadelphia, he hired the same caterers the Eagles employed, a company called Flik. I must admit: The food is borderline delicious. On the day of the draft, they serve prime rib for lunch and crab legs for dinner. It seems curious that the concept of nutrition had never occurred to the Browns until 2013, but maybe that explains a lot about what was broken here.
For most of Tuesday and virtually all of Wednesday, I just sit in the cafeteria and look at my iPhone, waiting for interviews that are usually canceled. For a couple of hours, a fledgling Browns publicist named Brian Smith sits at the same table and tries to make innocuous conversation. I ask him if he’s doing this to be friendly or if he was specifically instructed to make sure I don’t wander around asking questions of random employees. “Both,” he replies.
I don’t think they’re building chemical weapons in Berea. But they might be. I can’t say for sure.
Another person I try to interview is a boyish 35-year-old named Ken Kovash, the Browns’ analytics guru (his official title is “director of football research and player personnel assistant”). Kovash is the kind of guy who needs to shave only once every 10 days and is mercilessly teased by everyone in the building when he unexpectedly shows up wearing a suit on draft day. I suspect he’s the kind of guy who has been teased his whole life, simply because he’s smarter than most normal people (he used to work with Steven Levitt, the Chicago economist who published Freakonomics). Moving forward, the Browns intend to amplify their emphasis on statistical analytics. They intend to be mathematically progressive. Kovash will be key to this, so he seems like a useful person to talk to. But my interview request is denied. I am not allowed to talk to Ken Kovash in any official capacity (we have dinner in a Mexican restaurant, but I have to agree beforehand to print nothing we discuss).
In so many ways, this denial represents the grand irony of the Browns organization (and, I would assume, every other organization in the NFL). The Browns live in a state of perpetual war, endlessly convincing themselves that every scrap of information they possess is some kind of game-changing superweapon that will alter lives and transmogrify the culture. They behave like members of a corporate cult. Yet what do these cultists watch on the day of the draft? They watch ESPN. They log on to the Internet and scan ProFootballTalk. The comments they make about college prospects are roughly identical to whatever your smarter friends might glean from the Plain Dealer. I’ve never witnessed this level of institutional paranoia within a universe so devoid of actual secrets. I don’t even know what they don’t want me to know.
By 5:15 p.m. on Thursday, the sensation of chaos is starting to subside. All the war room occupants have changed into formal attire (Banner goes with a red sweater). The Browns are fixated on taking Mingo, assuming he’s still there at no. 6. There is a strong rumor that the Kansas City Chiefs have already informed Central Michigan left tackle Eric Fisher that they’ll take him with the first overall selection, which means early favorite Luke Joeckel, the left tackle from Texas A&M, will fall to the second slot.5 Lombardi suspects the Oakland Raiders may use the third overall pick on Houston Cougar cornerback D.J. Hayden, a player who suffered a bizarre (and nearly fatal) heart injury late in his senior season. His inferior vena cava is scaring many teams away, solely for undefined medical reasons. The Raiders, however, are comfortable with the risk (and though they ultimately trade the no. 3 pick to Miami, they’ll still get Hayden with the 12th selection, a relative steal).
The draft officially starts at 8 p.m. I’m intrigued by how the war room6 atmosphere will change when the picks start happening, and I’m curious about the number of last-minute trades that will be offered and rejected. I feel like I’m about to see something few people ever see. But I’m totally wrong. I don’t see anything. Because at exactly 5:30, the owner of the Cleveland Browns steps into the war room and I am immediately kicked out.
This, of course, contradicts the reason I went to Cleveland in the first place. As far as I was concerned, the machinations of draft night were pretty much the whole story. But something else is going on here — something a little more serious. It’s possible the Browns never intended to let me see the draft, and that this carrot was offered only as a way to make the story happen. It’s equally possible I misunderstood our original agreement. However, I suspect my ejection from the draft room had more to do with the owner himself. Jimmy Haslam III purchased the Browns franchise last October for $1 billion. His brother is the governor of Tennessee. But Haslam has been in the news all week, for reasons that are unrelated to football. It’s due to a possible conspiracy involving the company Haslam owns, Pilot Flying J. According to the FBI, Haslam’s company has been defrauding “unsophisticated” diesel fuel customers for the past six years. Investigators believe Pilot Flying J — one of the largest truck stop chains in the country — was offering trucking clients substantial fuel rebates that were never honored. Taken at face value, it doesn’t sound like the crime of the century. But on April 15, FBI agents raided the Pilot Flying J headquarters in West Knoxville, Tennessee. Draft night was held a scant 10 days after this raid. Haslam’s personal role in the fraud remains unclear,7 but it’s easy to understand why he might not be thrilled by the concept of spending an evening in the same room as a reporter, regardless of what the story is supposed to be about.
Scheiner escorts me out of the room without explanation (although he does apologize the next morning, via text). The rest of the night becomes a massive anticlimax. I spend the remainder of the evening with the other media members in the end zone of the team’s indoor practice field, watching the draft on television. The Browns do select Barkevious Mingo and make a point of referring to him as “KeKe.” In a press conference following the pick, Banner says, “This is the outcome we were hoping for.”
That’s true. For Banner, it probably was. But it wasn’t the outcome I was hoping for. I was hoping to see the unseen. I wanted to understand how you turn a losing franchise into a winning franchise. I wanted to be inside the inside. But that proved impossible, and perhaps it always was. At least in suburban Cleveland, the future remains a burnt-orange shade of opaque.