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Haslam Leading Browns With Confidence Amid Federal Probe

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Browns team owner Jimmy Haslam's recent handling of his off-field business has allowed the team to concentrate its focus on improving last season's 5-11 finish. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images.
Browns team owner Jimmy Haslam's recent handling of his off-field business has allowed the team to concentrate its focus on improving last season's 5-11 finish. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images.

The face of the franchise is putting on a good face – a strong, unwavering, confident face – in the face of some troubling issues. And that’s great news for the Cleveland Browns, who need it – and then some -- from their still-new owner, Jimmy Haslam.

Haslam – whose purchase of the Browns for a staggering $1.1 billion from Randy Lerner was ratified by NFL owners last Oct. 16 – had been on a real honeymoon of sorts since then with the fans, who appreciated his openness, honesty, energy, visibility, leadership and hands-on approach. Finally, here was the man who was going to put the team on his shoulders and restore it to its former glory after a mostly-nightmarish 14 seasons in the expansion era.

Forget RB Trent Richardson, LT Joe Thomas, CB Joe Haden or anyone else – even the great Jim Brown, the Pro Football Hall of Fame running back. Haslam had become the unquestioned face of the franchise.

But four months ago, Haslam was knocked for a loss when his Pilot Flying J travel centers corporate headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn. was raided by agents from the FBI and IRS wearing bullet-proof vests. They swooped in, seized nearly a FirstEnergy Stadium-sized collection of documents, and swooped right back out, leaving everybody there – and back in Northeast Ohio as well – with their jaws dropped. Right from the outset, this appeared to be some very serious stuff and it has played out as such as the FBI continues to investigate alleged fraud by Pilot concerning rebates due some of its customers.

Who knows how – or when – all of this will finally play out. But what is painfully obvious is that it has cast a huge shadow over the Browns, especially in the eyes of the fans. Cleveland very much wants the likeable Haslam to continue to own the club but fear another management change could eventually be in the offing.

Haslam is certainly embarrassed by the unwanted attention and has admitted as much on any number of occasions. But if he is truly worried that his ownership might become the shortest in NFL history, he isn’t showing it – at least not in public. He has maintained his personal innocence, saying he did not know the alleged practices were being carried out by Pilot. He insists the investigation has not – and will not – affect the day-to-day operations of the team and believes he will own the Browns for a long time.

Whether he turns out to be correct regarding those statements remains to be seen but, in the meantime, his ability to push forward and not let the issue swallow up the club and become the daily storyline has allowed the Cleveland players and coaches to push forward as well. Every time he’s seen, he appears to be upbeat. In fact, Haslam threw out the first pitch recently at a Cleveland area minor-league baseball team that was having a Browns-Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry promotion.

If there’s a team in the NFL that doesn’t need any more distractions, it is the Browns, who have had just two winning seasons and one playoff appearance – 11 years ago – since returning to the field in 1999.

The only hint of any trouble comes with a report that Haslam has already set up a line of succession with his 83-year-old father, Jimmy Haslam II, assuming temporary ownership of the club if the federal probe forces him to step down for a time.

But other than that, it’s full speed ahead for Haslam, whose reassuring smile and ability to say and do all the right things with this controversy swirling about him has restored some of the fans’ confidence and calmed a portion of their angst. The only problem is the unpredictability of when the investigation will come to a head with some findings. If it occurs during the season, then it will be a distraction even if it’s good news. And if it’s bad news, then it could be catastrophic.

So with all that uncertainty, everyone – management, coaches, players, fans and even Haslam – just has to sit back and wait in the interim. Whatever happens, though, will make for an interesting fall in Cleveland.

What would help immensely would be for the Browns to get off to a fast start and take the focus off the investigation. But can they do that? Afrer all, this is a team that has won just one opener in the expansion era – nine years ago -- and has started slowly in most seasons beyond that, going 0-5 a year ago and pretty much sealing the fate of former coach Pat Shurmur and his staff.

Furthermore, Cleveland will be without its best pass-catching threat, WR Josh Gordon, for the first two games after he was suspended by the NFL for taking a banned substance. After opening at home against the Miami Dolphins, the Browns play in Baltimore in Week 2 when the Ravens celebrate their Super Bowl victory by handing out their championship rings. That’s not exactly a recipe for success, so rookie coach Rob Chudzinski, his staff and their players definitely have their work cut out for them.

If he has assumed control of the team by the Baltimore game, then maybe the elder Haslam can help in some way. Keep in mind that he played – along with former Cleveland coach Sam Rutigliano – on the University of Tennessee’s 1951 national championship team.

The Browns will take all the good karma they can, from whomever they can get it from.