It started with an apology.
In the immediate aftermath of a disappointing season, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam addressed the news media following the team's regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers and offered something of a mea culpa.
That moment in January struck legendary Cleveland broadcaster Jim Donovan.
Donovan, the voice of the Browns since 1999 who on Tuesday filled in on the Cleveland Browns Daily show, talked to ClevelandBrowns.com about the direction of the franchise, his impression of first-year coach Hue Jackson, the signing of Robert Griffin III, and more.
ClevelandBrowns.com: When you look at the direction of the organization, some of the new hires, the new strategy, what do you make of it all?
Jim Donovan: I really think the most important day was the last day of last season because sometimes, you know, in the past when you're going to make sweeping changes and they have certainly done that, you end the season and then you go into this month to two month period where things are trying to get done and you're trying to interview guys and you're trying to hire coaches and sometimes you're wondering are there going to be changes. But this was, here it was the last game, and it was 4 p.m. and they lose to the Steelers and by 7 p.m. you know you're going to have a new general manager, a new head coach, which means you're going to have a new coaching staff and then suddenly you're going to have Sashi Brown step into the spotlight. I thought that when Jimmy Haslam, when he came out and said, 'Hey listen: this hasn't worked, I apologize for it.' I thought that was very revealing. I don't think they had bottomed out, but I think it was an admission that, hey, this is a tough job being an owner. And there's no book, you don't take a four-year course in it and go and get a master's in it. You kind of take your lumps and he certainly has. So I kind of think it was a declaration of we're starting all over again. But I think it needed to be said to make it official. And once it was, I was impressed with the speed and thoroughness that they started to take care of things. They went and they targeted the people they wanted to talk to, they did it in an expedient fashion.
They know it's a competitive pool because there are other teams waiting to hire a coach. So then when Hue Jackson walked through the doors after he had done the deal and had not gone to visit with the Giants and had not signed with the 49ers and had selected us, I think that was a really good feeling. I certainly had a really good feeling. And then when you heard Hue talk, you had a really good feeling that this is big to him and he selected us because he wanted to be here. We've had a lot of guys to earn us down but he didn't. And that was a win.
CB.com: When you hear Hue talk, he seems to project a lot of confidence and optimism about the organization, I'm wondering if you've gotten that sense and I'm wondering if that's something that's contagious?
Donovan: I definitely think so. My first kind of look at Hue and exposure to Hue was when he was coaching the Raiders, and that was very interesting and it had a bad taste to it at the end because I don't think he deserved what happened to him. I mean he had seemed to have them up and going and I watched them kind of get rejuvenated and suddenly he's out of a job. And then my next exposure to him is in Cincinnati, and they're on Hard Knocks, and he's on Hard Knocks a lot and I was watching him deal with players on the offensive side and I was very very impressed with him. And then when I watched the Bengals play, I remember thinking, wow, it would be really something if that guy came here and coached. And then when came in here last year for the second game and they were really rolling, I just said this guy is gonna be a head coach because he's got this rolling and they're fun and they look like they're having a lot of fun and I look at our sideline and we didn't look like we were having a lot of fun.
Through the years with new Browns QB Robert Griffin III.
CB.com: Something that we've heard a lot is this concept of building the team through the draft — the front office hasn't been coy about saying, 'Hey, this could be a long rebuilding process' and that they want to do it the right way. I guess, how do you go about doing that and how does signing a player like Robert Griffin III work within that plan?
Donovan: The fascinating thing about that is Hue certainly knows about quarterbacks and he's done great things with quarterbacks. So if he's excited about Robert Griffin III, then I'm going to be excited about him too because he must see something there that he can really make into a great QB. It's good for Robert, it's good for Hue and it's good for us. So you look at that and you say, that's interesting. And the quarterback position for us has been the definition here, it's the reason we've struggled since 1999. And we've tried every avenue to (get a quarterback) — draft a guy high, get a backup quarterback to get him a starting shot, get a veteran quarterback to come in here and try and rejuvenate his career. I mean, all different plays, get a quarterback later in the draft and give him a shot, get a smaller school quarterback, all different ways to do it and it just hasn't clicked. But I'm a firm believer that you need to keep trying to do it and you need to keep taking your shot at it, it's that important of a position. So I think the RGIII thing, it's very intriguing and exciting. I think it's a good deal for him, a good deal for the Browns, a good deal for the head coach. But I still think definitely the path leads to a young quarterback who becomes your quarterback who you grow right from the very start, that's the ideal thing. That's what Tampa's feeling now, Oakland, Tennessee, maybe Jacksonville. I think that's what they're feeling now, and that's where we want to be in a year — here's our guy. And we're gonna go through some tough times, but when we have a good day, it's going to be a better day.
CB.com: You can certainly see some of the optimism those QBs (Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, David Carr, Blake Bortles) have injected into those teams
Donovan: Right, on the draft part, I think it's really important for everybody — fans, play-by-play guy — you have to realize it's easy to say, 'We're going to build through the draft.' It might be a little bit difficult to watch at times because it takes time to go in there and acclimate to the NFL and be a contributing player right away. It takes time. You'd love to hit it right out of the park and have all of them score, but that doesn't happen to any team. But it's obvious to me that's what they're going to do, more so because of what they didn't do in free agency and that is spend goofy money on players that might be on the back nine of their career. So I can see, people say, 'What are they doing? Four starters walk out the front door on the first day and visually that's tough to watch. It's tough to watch those guys walk out.
CB.com:And there was some blowback to that from the outside.
Donovan: Yeah, absolutely because that's why you have to take a step back and say, 'OK they walked, which wasn't totally unexpected, but what are they gonna do? They didn't go out and buy old players who might have one year left in them or maybe not. They're turning the age clock to young and they're going to try and build the roster together. And then maybe when they get a little bit better, you can pick and choose in free agency. But I don't think you can stock your roster, you can fill in your roster and that's interesting. But you have to be ready to watch that. That's what people have to be realistic with.
CB.com: Along those lines, do you feel like the organization showed some resolve in making those hard decisions despite the criticism and staying on that path of, 'We're going to build through the draft' and use free agency as a supplement to that?
Donovan: Absolutely, you have to have resolve. And everybody in the building has to be on board. So when they set their mission out and bring in as far as what their front office is concerned, you obviously set a plan in place and they're sticking to the plan. You can't let headlines or talk shows or social media make your roster up. You can listen to it, but you have to be able to turn the volume down and stay on that path … on the first day, it would've been easy to sign two guys and bring them in here but they weren't going to do that if they didn't want to. I think this organization in the past has — and I'm talking way back — has spent goofy money on quick fixes that just didn't work out and they were old players who had seen their better days. I think you have to stick to your plan. But I think it shows you how passionate the people are. I mean, they're in it with you on every move. If you sign a long snapper here, the fans are going to break down the film on that because that's how much they care. You don't want them to become unplugged.
CB.com:No apathy here.
Donovan: Apathy is a disease that any pro team in pro sports — whether it's the NFL or the Arena Football League — doesn't want to have happen.