|Pat Shurmur and Brad Childress don't know if they'll be with the Browns in 2013. (US Presswire)|
BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns were about to embark on a training camp focused not on new coaches or team presidents or management issues, but finally just about the hopeful development of a young roster. Then all hell broke loose.
Late last week news began to circulate that Randy Lerner was selling the team to a Steelers minority owner. On Friday, team president Mike Holmgren was addressing questions about his future in Cleveland. Now everyone in the surrounding area is seemingly focused on who Jim Haslam is and how quickly he takes over their beloved, if often hapless, franchise. While the Browns take the field every day -- and in reality no ownership change this time of year would be able to impact the on-field product for 2012 -- many of those around the players here at team headquarters can't help but wonder how drastically all areas of this building could change, and brace for yet another exodus of employees in everything from football operations to marketing.
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As if young head coach Pat Shurmur didn't have enough to negotiate, trying to revive a moribund offense and prepare a rookie quarterback, running back and right tackle to be starters, and cultivate a very raw receiving corps, he is suddenly also facing more macro issues as well. Several league sources continue to anticipate that Haslam will take over for Lerner before the start of the regular season, with the league possibly calling for a special vote on it by late August. Within the Steelers front office, where Haslam remains part of the ownership group, for now, it's seen as a relative fait acompli. It's talked about in those same terms here.
Haslam has also received glowing recommendations from the league on bringing in former Eagles team president Joe Banner in the same position, league sources said, and while the issue of Banner's precise equity stake may still need to be resolved, many in the league office expect Banner to end up in Cleveland. That would spell the end of Holmgren's regime, and by the end of the season another series of sweeping organizational changes would be afoot.
It's a lot to have hanging over you, but the team's perpetual struggles under Lerner and his litany of coaches and GMs and team presidents have taken a toll on this football-rabid market, and the league office would love to see the luster of the historic franchise return. Haslam is seemingly universally well thought of, he's seen as a principle owner in waiting, and the Rooney family, of all NFL dignitaries, supports the move.
The sale price will be north of $900 million but less than $1 billion, sources said. This is going to happen. Everyone around here seems to know it. But it's also a little awkward, caught between a current owner who keeps a very private profile and has been the subject of much scorn in these parts, and not yet having even met the man primed to take over (Haslam will also have to quickly address an old declaration that he's 1,000 percent a Steelers fan when he gets to town). Shurmur broached the topic during his camp-opening team meeting last Thursday, hoping to get it out of the way before the inevitable media blitz began.
"What I told the players was," Shurmur said, "not one thing that we talked about during the team meeting in terms of what we need to do to get better, and what we hope to accomplish, not one thing has changed. And I think they absorbed it and then you talk to them and the feedback that I'm getting tells me they understand that. So it's like anything that you hear for the first time, you kind of absorb it and move on, and I think our team has done a good job of that."
Similarly, young general manager Tom Heckert had a team of scouts and staff harboring some of the same questions and concerns. They're naturally wondering what the impending change might mean for them as well.
"My guys, I told them all, 'This is probably going to happen, it's in the works,'" Heckert said. "So everybody wants to know, 'Well, what does that mean?' Well, nothing really until we meet the new owner. So really there is nothing you can do about it. So I told everyone just carry on doing what we've always done."
The reality is, at this stage of the offseason, no owner could change too much now. "You would think so," Heckert said. "That's what I told some of the players: Everything is more or less done for the season now, so it's nothing to worry about now."
Heckert has been bold this offseason, trying to rapidly upgrade what was a brutal attack in 2011. They drafted Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden in the first round, grabbed Mitchell Schwartz to be the right tackle and used a second-round pick in the supplemental draft a few weeks back on Josh Gordon. It's a foregone conclusion that Weeden will be the starter, and Gordon, whose size on the practice field is striking, is working with the starters in some packages despite not playing college ball since his sophomore year at Baylor.
"I've been pleasantly surprised by what a fast learner he is, which has allowed him to get on the field and play," Shurmur said, as the rookie missed the entire offseason with the supplemental draft just taking place in early July.
He has the body type to be a matchup nightmare if he can develop and stay away from failing a drug test.
"We know it was a little bit of a risk," Heckert said, "but he's a big physical guy. With Greg Little and [rookie] Travis Benjamin there too, we feel like we've gone from a so-so group to a really good group. We're excited about them, we really are."
If nothing else, they're physically imposing.
"It's not like Dan Marino's Smurfs out there," said new offensive coordinator Brad Childress, whose presence allows Shurmur to focus on things beyond the offense more this season. Childress said it's like old times in Philadelphia being back with Shurmur -- "We speak the same language" -- and the two of them know they must get Weeden up to speed quickly (former starter Colt McCoy has been working primarily with the second team and could be gone by the start of the regular season).
Monday's practice focused on special situations -- goal line and two-minute drill -- and it all looked new to the rookie, with Weeden getting some balls knocked down, seeming unsure. That's to be expected and Shurmur said there would be five more preseason practices in this vein to focus on those situations.
"Everything is new to him, with the two-minute drill and the speed of the game and spitting [plays] out," Childress said. "I'll be anxious to see him against a good front in Detroit in the first preseason game. He's not bad right now, but when you put all those big bodies in front of him and hands waving and the ball gets batted today. He's not too bad. He's got great innate skills, but we've got to get it to be rote. If you're thinkin', you're stinkin'. And I don't want him thinking."
Come to think of it, that's pretty much the approach of the entire organization with so much in flux: Don't think too much, focus on the next task at hand, try not to contemplate the uncertain future, and aim to prove your worth in 2012, with Haslam primed to truly put his mark on the Browns this winter.
Camp Rumblings: Benjamin, a fourth-round pick, continues to make plays and the coaches believe he could push for playing time.
• The Browns expect defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin back around the first preseason game and Heckert is confident that key lineman Phil Taylor, who tore a pectoral muscle in offseason training, will be able to play shortly after coming off the PUP list following Week 6.
• Schwartz is struggling, especially with speed rushers, but continues to get reps with the starters and will have every shot of winning the starting right tackle job. He's expected to secure it.
• Rookie linebacker James-Michael Johnson, another fourth-round pick, shined Monday in full pads, making plays in goal line, picking off two passes and continuing to impress.
• The players are off on Tuesday.