Point-Counterpoint: “Snapchat” Farmer

Earlier this week, Pat McManamon of ESPN ran two “For/Against” columns about whether to keep or dump “Snapchat” Farmer and Mike Pettine. Those columns are always difficult to write, because it’s very hard to argue both sides effectively. People usually can’t make a persuasive case for an argument they don’t believe in.

In this case, it seems pretty clear that Cleveland’s #1 football writer wants to keep the coach and ditch the GM. Well, two can play at that game. Let me take my shot at this. I dunno if I can do four each way, but I’ll make the best argument I can.

Reasons to Keep Farmer

1. If you fire him, you have to be willing to start from ground zero. In a well-run organization, the General Manager is the Chief Operating Officer of the sports operation. Everyone reports to him.

This assumes the Coach isn’t the GM. Or that the coach and GM don’t operate independently, reporting to the Team President or the Owner.

If you hire a new general manager, you have to give him the chance to hire people he wants to work with. If the scouts don’t look for the same skills he prizes– and, equally importantly, downgrade people who don’t have them– the team won’t draft effectively.

If he and the coach don’t agree on the type of players the team needs, they’ll sign the wrong free agents and the coach won’t play the draft picks. Or they’ll try to compromise, and end up with players neither one really likes.

We’ve seen this three times before– with (a) Dwight Clark and Chris Palmer, then (b) Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel and finally (c) Mike Holmgren and Eric Mangini. It doesn’t work.

So if you like any element of what the Browns already have– Pettine, John DeFilippo’s offensive system. Johnny Manziel– you have to be willing to let the new GM throw it away if he doesn’t approve of it.

If you hire, say, Eliot Wolf from Green Bay, and won’t let him replicate the Green Bay system his dad set up, then you might as well not bother.

2. A qualified GM wouldn’t come to Cleveland. The hard cold fact of life in the NFL is that coaches can almost always have 2-3 shots at running a team. Assuming he improved the team– at least for a while– he just has to drop down to coordinator, have a few good seasons with his new team and wait to be reappraised.

The only exceptions to the rule are coaches who lost consistently, or (a) are over 60 (which is now perceived as being too old) or (b) had a series of incidents that were so embarrassing or unprofessional that nobody would feel comfortable hiring him.

Joe Philbin (who had the hazing incident in Miami), Tom Cable (who punched an assistant in Oakland) and Mike Tice (who let Randy Moss manipulate him with the Vikings) probably couldn’t get hired again. I’d bet against Jim Schwartz or Rob Chudzynski. But until Chip Kelly flamed out, Pat Shurmur was on his way to getting reappraised.

It doesn’t work that way with a general manager. Occasionally you will see a GM who lost a power struggle with the owner or head coach get rehired. Typically a GM gets one– and only one–chance. If he hasn’t succeeded after 4-6 years (or two coaches), he never gets put in charge of another team.

The Browns have churned through GMs without giving them what is perceived as a fair chance:

  • Phil Savage got four years and never get to hire a coach. Randy Lerner picked Romeo Crennel and asked Savage, during his interview, if the two could work together.
  • George Kokinis couldn’t hire a coach, wasn’t even given final say over the roster– and was fired after half a season. (That upset a lot of people)
  • Tom Heckert had three seasons; he didn’t get to decide to fire Eric Mangini or hire Pat Shurmur.
  • Mike Lombardi got a year and didn’t get to pick a coach or run the draft.
  • Farmer has had two seasons as GM and was promoted after the coach was hired.

The up-and-coming personnel chiefs and assistant GMs– who’ve been in the league 10 to 20 years and follow the hirings and firings– won’t be willing to come. Their agents and their friends will quietly tell them to stay away.

Sometimes it isn’t so quiet. Before Farmer was promoted to GM, he was interviewing for the GM job in Miami. The advisory panel the NFL set up to help minorities get front office jobs actually warned Farmer to stay away, saying that owner Steve Ross didn’t give him GMs authority over personnel, and Farmer wouldn’t get a fair shot.

The Browns could hire a GM who was fired– who knows he would not normally get another chance. But unless he was fired without cause, they’d be hiring someone who failed at least once.

If they want to be able to hire quality people, they’re going to have to convince candidates that they’ll get a fair shake here. That means authority to hire and fire, and the chance to stay until the GM’s first draft class completes their rookie contracts.

3. It’s not entirely clear that Farmer has failed. When the coach won’t play your draft picks, it’s not easy for them to develop– and nobody outside the team can judge them.

I haven’t seen anything suggesting that Justin Gilbert (Farmer’s #1 pick in 2014) is a world-beater. But he has played 411 regular-season snaps in two years– nearly 100 less than a talent as modest as Armonty Bryant has played in this year alone.

In 2014, Gilbert played 361 snaps in 15 games. In five games– week 1 (59 snaps), week 2 (46), week 5 (29 snaps), week 6 (45 snaps), week 7 (42 snaps) and week 12 (49 snaps)– he played enough to let an independent observer assess his performance. In the rest, he had less than 20, which makes it hard to get into the flow and learn from your mistakes.

This season he played 50 defensive snaps: 8 in game 4 (against San Diego), 23 in game 9 (the 31-10 loss to Cincinnati) and 19 in game 11 (the loss to Baltimore). Johnson Bademosi, an undrafted free agent in his fourth season, has played 144 snaps.

If Gilbert were being benched by, say, Tom Coughlin– a veteran coach with two world championships, a winning record with two teams and a track record of developing players– that negative judgment would mean something.

Mike Pettine is a first-time coach with a 10-21 record. How can we be sure Pettine knows what he’s doing?

This comes back to a point I hit on earlier– the coach and the GM need to agree on their evaluation of players, and this GM didn’t hire the coach.

Farmer has drafted a number of players (QB Johnny Manziel, RB Terrance West, CB Pierre Desir, LB Nate Orchard, DE Xavier Cooper, WR Vince Mayle) where the scouting reports made it clear that the player would need to be developed over time. West and Desir came out of small schools, Orchard and Cooper were being converted to different positions, Manziel and Mayle didn’t play in standard NFL schemes.

If the coach doesn’t intend to develop them– if he just chants “When you play like a Brown, you’ll play”– then it’s pointless to draft project players.

Obviously Farmer shouldn’t draft more projects, but that doesn’t mean he ought to be fired. One option would be to tell him to choose NFL-ready players. Another would be to get him a coach who will commit to player development.

Reasons to Fire Farmer

 

1. His draft picks have been failures. With the exception of G Joel Bitonio (#2, 2014)– who went backwards this year and has been hurt– no one has shown that he can play well enough to start on a good team.

The next-best is probably RB Duke Johnson (#3-A, 2015), an adequate receiving back who’s averaging 3.7 yards a carry and makes negative plays 2-3 times as often as positive ones. After that, it’s maybe LB Nate Orchard (#2, 2015), who has 3.0 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble– or maybe QB Johnny Manziel (#1-B, 2014), who can make dazzling plays, but has terrible mechanics and can’t stay sober. The fifth-best player would be NT Danny Shelton (#1-A, 2015), who has shown no pass-rush skills and marginal run defense.

The list of failure begins with RB Terrance West (#3-B, 2014) and WR Vince Mayle (#4-B, 2015), who aren’t even on the team. The next worst might be CB Justin Gilbert (#1-A, 2014), CB Pierre Desir (#4, 2014) and SS Ibraheim Campbell (#4-A, 2015) who rarely set foot on the field. Or arguably the next-worst is OL Cameron Erving (#1-B, 2015), who is on the field a lot– usually lying on his back after a defender steamrollers him on his way to the ballcarrier.

One of the reasons the Browns have gone backwards is that they have had virtually no help in the draft. And it isn’t because good players at those positions haven’t been available. In the 2014 draft:

  • Gilbert (CB, pick 8): CB Kyle Fuller (choice 14), who has started 29 games at corner for Chicago and has 6 interceptions.
  • Manziel (QB, pick 22): Minnesota took Teddy Bridgewater at pick 32; Oakland got Derek Carr at pick 36.
  • Kirksey (LB, pick 71): Buffalo LB Preston Brown (pick 73) was voted defensive player of the week earlier this year.
  • West (RB pick 94): Atlanta took RB Devonta Freeman with pick 103.
  • Desir (CB, pick 127): CB Ricardo Allen has started 13 games at corner this season.

If you don’t limit yourself to taking a player at the same position, the options get broader and better. Instead of taking Gilbert in round 1, , Cleveland could have taken inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (a position they did draft two rounds later) or NT Aaron Donald (a position they spent a #1 on the following year). Both players have been to the Pro Bowl.

The Browns could have taken G Zach Martin of Dallas in round 1, rather than round two– he was named first-team All Pro. Or they might have taken a wide receiver.

It’s a little early to tell, but the 2015 draft doesn’t look substantially better.

2. His trading made things worse. There have been three successful methods for drafting:

  • Keep the picks you have and take the best player available, regardless of position. Assume other teams will make mistakes and let highly-rated players fall to you.
  • Trade down (or into future drafts) to acquire more picks. The more chances you have, the more help you can get.
  • Trade up in round one to get one player who seems truly extraordinary. If you’re desperately need help at one spot, are convinced a player can be a superstar– and know you can’t get him with your current picks– pull the trigger.

The best way to fail is to use the strategy the Browns try over and over again. In 2014, the Browns began with the fourth pick. Instead of simply using it on the highest-rated players (WR Sammy Watkins or DE-LB Khalil Mack), Farmer traded it to Buffalo to move down. In return he received:

  • The ninth selection in round one
  • A #1 in 2015 (pick 19, which became Erving)
  • A #4 in 2015 (pick 83, which became Campbell)

That could have been a wonderful deal, had Farmer had used the picks wisely. But then he started giving picks back:

  • First he panicked and thought the Vikings wanted to draft Gilbert at the eighth pick. He gave Minnesota a fifth-rounder to move up one slot. (Their willingness to trade was proof they didn’t care, by the way.)
  • Later in the first round, he became convinced someone was about to steal Manziel away, and traded the 22nd pick and a third-rounder to Kansas City to move up four slots.
  • Having given away his third-round pick, Farmer wanted it back so he could draft West. So he traded a #4 and #6 to get a #3 back.

The fourth-round pick Farmer used to get West canceled the #4 he got from the Bills. The picks in rounds 3, 5 and 6 wiped out much of the value of the extra #1.

It’s the same mistake the Browns made in 2011. GM Heckert traded the sixth pick to the Falcons (which they used on WR Julio Jones), intending to take DT Phil Taylor with the 26th pick.

But then Heckert worried about losing Taylor, so he traded the Falcons pick and his own third rounder to Kansas City to ensure he got his man. The Chiefs used the #3 on Pro Bowl linebacker Justin Houston.

Teams who yo-you up and down in the draft almost always come out on the short end. They don’t get the All-Pro player they could have had by using their original pick. They give away, in retrospect, far too much to move back up. And often the player they were convinced they had to have doesn’t pan out.

Experienced front office people– the people who have watched other GMs early in their career, or learned through painful experience– know that the draft isn’t a crapshoot. The ability to scout does correlate with results.

But veteran GMs also learn that nearly half the players they pick don’t meet expectations. About 40% will fail because:

  • They get injured.
  • Another draft pick (or a free agent) beats them out.
  • They can’t make the leap from the NCAA to the NFL (or can’t play in this scheme).
  • They have personal issues.

Farmer didn’t learn his lesson in 2015. He made three more draft-day deals in 2015. Maybe those will pan out (it’s hard to tell after one season).

3. He likes old players. I’m often accused of relying too much on complex statistics. Well, here’s a really simple one: The older a player is, the sooner he’ll go downhill.

NFL players take a pounding. Many are out of the league after 4-5 seasons. Even good ones start to decline when they turn 30. At some positions (like cornerback or running back), a 30-year-old player is finished as a productive starter. Farmer clearly doesn’t believe this is true:

  • A year ago, the Browns cut 30-year-old D’Qwell Jackson and signed 32-year-old Karlos Dansby.
  • Also in 2014, they let 27-year-old T.J. Ward leave and brought in 28-year-old Donte Whitner.

You can say that a year or two doesn’t make a difference. You’d be wrong, but I’ll concede that a player who is a little older– but much better– can do more for you. But some of the moves this season were insane:

  • This off-season, Cleveland replaced CB Buster Skrine (who was 25) with Tramon Williams (who was 31).
  • There were other factors involved, but 29-year-old Brian Hoyer was dumped for 36-year-old Josh McCown.

Cleveland also added Andy Lee (33), Randy Starks (32), Dwayne Bowe (31), and Brian Hartline (29).

Obviously some of this is Mike Pettine’s doing. But that’s part of the GM’s job– to tell the head coach that he can’t fill the roster up with veterans. Coaches or managers worry about winning the next game; general managers are paid to look down the road.

Part of the reason the Browns got worse this season is simply that they’re older. Old players don’t run as fast, and they’re more likely to get hurt. Desmond Bryant turned 30; Paul Kruger and Andrew Hawkins are 29. Age isn’t the only reason they aren’t playing as well. But it’s one of the big factors.

4. He tried to trade Joe Thomas. He didn’t do it– but coming close even shows how little Farmer understands about building a team.

There are three reasons not to trade Joe Thomas. The first is that he’s a Hall of Fame player. He’s a great player at a valuable position, who is signed to an incredibly reasonable deal (he makes less than Alex Mack) for the next three years. He never misses a play. he shows some signs of aging, but he isn’t anywhere close to needing to be replaced. Having him around until the end of the 2018 season gives you one less thing to worry about.

Second– equally important– he is both a team leader and a phenomenal mentor. Thomas has extraordinary technique, and he understands how to explain it clearly. These comments about Cameron Erving and line play were remarkable:

“A lot of times, you’ll see guys getting beat in the NFL in general on the offensive line just because their feet are out of place,” he said. “Your strength and your power come from where your feet are. I’m probably one of the weakest offensive linemen in the NFL, but it doesn’t matter if you have good feet and you’re constantly in the right positions, you’re using leverage, you’re using angles, you’re winning the science of your position.

“For young players, it’s something that it takes some time to learn, that it’s really not about weight-room strength, it’s more about the positions you can get your body in to be strong— grown man wins, leverage, angles.”

We don’t know– we never will– how much Thomas has helped his teammates on the line develop. For offensive linemen, who know they have to play as a unit, being able to play with Thomas is a huge benefit. If Mitchell Schwartz does end up staying in Cleveland (he’s making noises like he might, though Alex Mack is still gone), Thomas would be a reason.

Aside from that, Thomas never shoots off his mouth and people take his words seriously. When there is a crisis– as there often is here– he serves as a voice of sanity.

I don’t go off much about leadership because I simply don’t believe it is as important as talent. Having some old guy speak his mind is only helpful if what he says is sensible. Donte Whitner announcing that Johnny Manziel should be the starting quarterback in 2016 is, in my mind, a negative.

But there is rarely a comment Thomas makes where I don’t at least say “I don’t know if I agree with that, but I see his point.” Usually it’s just “Yup– what he said.”

Third, if you are trying to build a team, you need a sense of tradition— people you can point to and say “This is what we are trying to achieve.” A team constructed entirely of short-timers who made their reputation in another city– or draft picks on their way elsewhere– doesn’t let anyone buy in and develop roots.

You want people around the organization who live in the area (not Brian Sipe). You want people you can point to with pride– not people who behave like mental defectives (Bernie Kosar) or criminals (Jim Brown). You want people that everyone remembers (Hanford Dixon and Bob Golic are answers to trivia questions in most cities) and that people can tell stories about.

The only way Joe Thomas is deficient on this count– he has never played in a playoff game, and his position doesn’t permit him to make spectacular plays. Other than that, he’s the guy you want to keep around you as long as possible, so everyone gets what your franchise is about.

You never sever ties to a player like that away unless it is absolutely unavoidable. That Ray Farmer was willing to do it for a low #1 and #2 shows he doesn’t understand how to build a team.

Bottom Line: Thumbs Down

For me, it’s an easy choice. The risks of letting him go pale beside those of keeping him. You want to give a GM who doesn’t have one clear win the second pick in the draft? You want to let him trade or cut people and bring in more old guys?

Farmer’s failure to negotiate contracts promptly and sensibly has cost the team Mack, possibly Schwartz. Looking at how Skrine, Jabaal Sheard and Ahtyba Rubin have played, you don’t want him making “Stay or Go” decisions about Craig Robertson or Tashaun Gipson.

The concern about firing him and trying to get someone in is real. If there were some element where Farmer had shown progress– or the situation were less dire– it might be desirable to give him one more year.

But the risk that he might trade Thomas and Joe Haden, sign a few more guys in their 30’s and blow another slate of picks– maybe saddling you with the 2016 draft’s Ryan Leaf at QB– is too high to tolerate.

If I were in charge, I’d fire Farmer and see if I could get a GM who needed a second chance. Scott Pioli, for example, made a hash of many things in Kansas City, but he left Andy Reid a very talented roster. As long as I could extract a promise that he wouldn’t hire Josh McDaniels, I’d consider him.

If not him or some of the others, then hang out the “Help Wanted” shingle and hope that someone gifted is in a hurry.

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