September 20, 2014

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Brian Dulik: A Banner day? Only if new Browns CEO Joe Banner is the real deal

For better or worse, the future of the Cleveland Browns now rests in the hands of CEO Joe Banner.

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III made that abundantly clear Monday, when he announced the firings of coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert during a late-morning press conference.

Those moves allowed Banner to complete an impressive power grab — sweeping out Cleveland’s president, GM and coach — just four months after his name was first whispered in Northeast Ohio sports circles.

“I am relying tremendously on Joe’s NFL experience,” Haslam said. “The two of us are going to do this coaching search together. We’re both going to agree on who that head coach is. I think we’ll work extremely well together.

“I can’t speak for Joe, but I would not want to do this search without him at my side.”

While the Tennessee billionaire will have the final say on all decisions, he has placed a remarkable amount of trust in a Philadelphian whose football expertise remains a hot-button topic around the NFL.

Though Banner spent 19 years in an upper-, upper-management position with the Eagles, there is a perception that he contributed little toward their on-field success, but was eager to claim credit during the good times.

Other observers insist Banner played an integral role in hiring the right people for the right jobs — led by longtime Philadelphia coach Andy Reid — but preferred to remain in the background while allowing them to take credit.

It won’t take long for the 59-year-old to prove one of those views correct because he is front and center in the Browns’ latest rebuilding effort.

“The top quality in a coach that we’re going to look for is somebody with really strong, dynamic leadership,” Banner said. “I think there was an element of feeling the need to maybe create a fresh energy and a fresh start here.

“Sometimes something new, even if it’s not any better, can create kind of a momentum and energy.”

Indeed, it can, but it isn’t always good momentum or positive energy.

Making changes just to make changes is never a good thing, which is why Heckert’s dismissal is so disconcerting.

No fair-minded person can claim Shurmur’s 9-23 record was deserving of another season, but Heckert’s three-year draft resume certainly was. Ditto for the work he did to keep Cleveland well under the salary cap going forward.

Banner even acknowledged Heckert’s contributions by saying, “It wasn’t an easy decision (letting Tom go). Time will tell whether it’s the right decision.”

“I just think as we looked forward at where we want to be two or three years from now, we felt a change is what would put us in the best position to get where we want to go,” he added.

In the short term, that means Banner and Haslam will be inseparable, just as they have been while traveling to most of Cleveland’s recent games.

On the surface, they appear to have nothing in common — neither in background, appearance or sports business experience — but a deep bond has somehow been built.

“Joe and I are a lot alike and we’re a lot different,” Haslam said. “We’ve learned that because we’ve been working together for about three months now. Do we get into disputes and arguments? Yeah, strong personalities always do, but it’s done with respect.”

Adding a high-profile coach to the mix could make those disputes incendiary, but one wonders if Banner is even considering such a hire.

The ultra-confident Haslam is already the face of the franchise, while Banner looks quite comfortable being depicted as its football czar.

Would either of them risk being overshadowed — or publicly outsmarted — by their next GM, player personnel guy or coach?

Dallas’ Jerry Jones and Philadelphia’s Jeffrey Lurie certainly don’t, but the Rooney family in Pittsburgh and New England’s Robert Kraft gladly do.

The proof will be in the pudding, and it’s not going to take long to learn which way Banner and Haslam are leaning.

“This is going to sound self-serving, but I think you’ve got stable leadership and ownership here now — that I think is involved at the proper level — and I think you have a real NFL veteran in Joe,” Haslam said.

“It’s Joe and my job to find the right coach and GM and bring stability long term for the organization. That’s our role and we take it very seriously.”

Contact Brian Dulik at brisports@hotmail.com.