September 21, 2014

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‘It can be done’: New Browns GM Kokinis optimistic, but turning around franchise won’t be easy

BEREA — George Kokinis embarked Monday on a mission that’s humbled many men.
As he was introduced as Browns general manager, the obstacles to success were easier to identify than the road leading there.
The Browns have never been to a Super Bowl, haven’t won a playoff game since 1994 and are on their fourth head of football operations in the last eight years, coming off a disastrous 4-12 season and in the midst of an organizational overhaul.
“I’m here because I want to create a championship-caliber football organization,” Kokinis said at a news conference. “It can be done. It’s a matter of rolling up the sleeves and getting after it, and that’s what we’re prepared to do.
“When you talk about the Cleveland Browns, you want it to mean something.”
Kokinis has never held the general manager title nor similar power, never been in as bright a spotlight and never made the decisions that shape an organization.
He has that power here with control of the 53-man roster, but that doesn’t mean he’s working alone.
“In the end, I’ll have final say on the 53,” said Kokinis, who left a job as director of pro personnel with the Ravens. “But what’s important is getting together, being on the same page and making the best decision for the Cleveland Browns.”
Kokinis and new coach Eric Mangini weren’t a package deal, but it had that appearance. Mangini recommended Kokinis during an interview with owner Randy Lerner on Dec. 30, then was hired Jan. 8. While Lerner continued to conduct a GM search, Kokinis was the presumptive choice.
The relationship between Mangini and Kokinis goes back to 1994, when they shared a tiny apartment while working low-level jobs for the Browns, and Lerner was committed to making sure his new management team could work together. Unlike the final year of the Phil Savage-Romeo Crennel regime.
Kokinis even spent two days at Browns headquarters last week to make sure his connection with Mangini was still solid.
“I had to feel comfortable with what my new surroundings would be,” Kokinis said. “I came from a place I really didn’t have to leave.
“There had to be a comfort level on my side. I had to hash out things with Eric in terms of philosophy.”
Mangini said the meetings were necessary, and extensive.
“Until you actually have those hard conversations, until you’ve dealt with those issues and hashed them out, you don’t know,” he said. “There’s a difference between knowing someone over time and that type of relationship, and talking through a lot of the things we’re going to have to deal with day to day.
“We tried to go through every different aspect of the organization, to make sure we talked through ideas and felt that process out.”
Kokinis said his time at Browns headquarters and a follow-up interview with Lerner, which was attended by former Browns and longtime NFL executive Ernie Accorsi, caused the delay in his hiring. He’s ready to begin the rebuilding process.
“I’m here because I do believe in Mr. Lerner,” said Kokinis, who added the time was right for him to become a GM. “He loves the Browns, he wants them to be great and that’s important. I believe in this head coach. And I believe in the fans of Cleveland.”
It’s easy to believe he will have his work cut out for him as he tries to turn around the franchise.
He and Mangini must evaluate the current roster and decide who they want to re-sign (safety Sean Jones is the highest-profile free agent), who’s worth a contract extension (kicker Phil Dawson and special teamer Joshua Cribbs asked for one last year) and who they want to get rid of (tight end Kellen Winslow, receiver Braylon Edwards, defensive lineman Shaun Smith are possibilities). Free agency starts Feb. 27, so the clock is ticking.
“I don’t really want to go into the evaluation of the football team right now,” Kokinis said. “I am going to be grinding up my end in terms of looking at every game, offense, defense, special teams, and coming to my evaluations.”
One of Kokinis’ duties in Baltimore was scouting the other NFL teams, especially those in the AFC North. So he knows the Browns very well and was pressed for his opinion of the roster he inherited.
“There is skill level on this team,” he said. “There are capable players on this team, competitive players and there’s core talent on this team. To go into specifics would be tough at this time.”
Lerner’s decision to hire the coach before the general manager drew a lot of criticism. It seems to give the power to the coach, even though he’s supposed to report to the GM.
“In the end the owner is in charge of hiring the coach,” Kokinis said. “I think Randy acquired all of the information and I think he nailed it.”
Whether Lerner got either hire right won’t be known for some time. But at least Kokinis and Mangini have each other as they begin the arduous task of trying to get the Browns on par with the Steelers and Ravens.
“I think chemistry is important, I think respecting somebody’s opinion professionally is important,” Kokinis said. “I think having the relationship is important because when disputes come up, you still have the respect for one another in terms of walking away and giving your opinion knowing we’re going to do what’s best for this football team.
“When you have a personal relationship like that, you know you can do that.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.

KOKINIS BY THE NUMBERS

53: Players on an NFL roster. Kokinis said he will have final say on the Browns’ roster.

5: Seasons spent in the Browns scouting department (1991-95), two working with new Browns coach Eric Mangini

6: Years spent as Ravens’ director of pro personnel

0: Experience in years as an NFL general manager