By TOM Withers
When Hue Jackson was hired less than two years ago, he was greeted in the lobby of the Browns’ headquarters by cheering team employees.
They beamed and clapped while shaking hands with their new hero, this offensive mastermind and quarterback guru. Finally, they thought, here was the coach who would restore glory to a franchise that once symbolized NFL greatness.
Jackson was supposed to fix things. They’ve only grown worse.
A civic treasure during the Jim Brown years, Cleveland’s pro football team is now a shameful mess, a historic flop.
The worst of the worst. Rock bottom.
With their 28-24 loss on Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who rested stars Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and other regulars for the playoffs, the Browns wrote their name into the annals of sports sadness by finishing 0-16 and joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams in history to go winless for an entire 16-game season — 16 up, 16 down.
In a league designed to provide parity and hope, the Browns followed a 1-15 season with one even worse and now have gone more than a calendar year between victories.
The 2017 Browns stumbled their way into the pathetic pantheon of rotten teams along with the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers (9-73), 1974-75 Washington Capitals (8-67-5) and 2003 Detroit Tigers (43-119) as some of the sorriest squads to ever hit the hardwood, ice or diamond.
And now that Buffalo is back in the AFC playoffs, Cleveland’s postseason drought stretching to 2002 is the league’s longest.
“The bottom line is we did not play well enough, we did not coach well enough and we did not get the things done that we set out to do,” said Jackson, who kept his job despite going 1-31 — the worst two-year stretch in 98 NFL seasons. “I think to make it more than that, you can’t. We had the opportunity every week to go out and play and to go win. We did not do that. That’s what it is.”
Not enough talent. Too many turnovers. Those were the main reasons behind the Browns’ continued fall from grace this season, but the team’s issues are older and run even deeper.
Owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam thought they had solved numerous problems — deplorable drafting, front-office dysfunction, fan apathy — when they revamped their football hierarchy following the 2015 season by hiring Jackson, who was considered the top coordinator available.
The Haslams promoted salary-cap expert Sashi Brown to vice president of football operations and brought aboard Paul DePodesta, a baseball executive with an analytics background, as their strategy officer to plot the Browns’ course to relevance.
Instead, they’ve descended to new depths.
For all that Brown and DePodesta provided in terms of smarts and managerial savvy, their lack of experience and football intellect was dooming. Their initial decision not to re-sign some veteran free agents in favor of younger players came back to haunt the Browns, who haven’t filled major holes.
More troubling, the Browns’ brass passed on selecting quarterbacks Carson Wentz or Deshaun Watson in the past two drafts, blowing the chance to finally find the long-term QB the franchise has coveted for two decades.
Cleveland did acquire extra picks — it has the No. 1 and No. 4 picks and three in the second round this year — through a series of trades, but the misses on Wentz and Watson were unforgivable sins.
Jimmy Haslam waited until the Browns were 0-12 in December before firing Brown and replacing him with John Dorsey, Kansas City’s former general manager, who straightened out the Chiefs.
Dorsey will be armed with up to $100 million in salary cap space to overhaul the Browns, who have recorded 15 double-digit loss seasons since 1999 and are 4-44 over the past three years and 20-76 since Haslam agreed to buy them in 2012.
The perception of the team — inside and outside Cleveland — is so poor that Jackson knows he must deliver a sales pitch of a brighter future to prospective draft picks, free agents and even the city’s loyal-as-a-dog fans.
“Being 0-16, the stigma that comes with that is that we’re going to have to do some recruiting everywhere,” Jackson said. “Not just players, we have to re-recruit our fans.
“I think we have to re-recruit everybody who is associated with the Cleveland Browns. We have to go out and do a better job with the players and get them to understand really what is here and what we are trying to accomplish and what we are trying to do. Right now is not a good time, but me talking about it or trying to explain it away is not going to change it.
“The only thing that’s going to change it is results. In order to do that, is there some convincing we are going to have to do? Absolutely. We are in a war for talent on every level right now.”
Jackson is not absolved of blame for the Browns’ fiasco. He made questionable moves with rookie QB DeShone Kizer, who led the league in turnovers. Yes, Jackson was handed the league’s youngest roster, but he couldn’t find his way to a single win and somehow survived.
It’s no wonder so many fans are outraged. They feel betrayed, ignored but mostly beaten.
And the idea that Jackson is coming back at 1-31 — he’s the first Cleveland coach to get a third year since Romeo Crennel in 2008 — has driven some Browns backers to their breaking point.
As he and his teammates cleared out their lockers Monday, cornerback Jason McCourty perfectly summarized two crazy years in Cleveland.
“You can’t keep doing the same thing and think you’re going to get different results,” he said. “That’s the definition of insanity.”