Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam on Deshaun Watson, expectations, stadium and Bucks
PHOENIX — Jimmy and Dee Haslam had been relatively quiet.
The Browns owners last spoke to the media last Aug. 18, when they addressed the 11-game suspension quarterback Deshaun Watson had settled with the NFL. Since then, the two have been seen plenty — either at the team's Berea facility or at Browns games home or away — but had said very little.
The Haslams broke their public silence Monday evening. They sat down with a small group of Northeast Ohio media, including the Beacon Journal, for a 25-minute conversation while at the NFL's annual meetings at the Arizona Biltmore Resort.
The couple discussed Watson a year later — both the trade for the quarterback and the fully guaranteed deal they gave him to complete the trade — as well as their expectations for the team and, specifically, general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski. However, those topics weren't the only ones that have arisen over the last eight months.
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The Haslams also addressed the dispute currently swirling in Cleveland regarding the future of FirstEnergy Stadium and whether or not they want a new stadium built for the team. They also talked about their pending purchase of a percentage of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Here's a look at some of the bigger points the Haslams hit during their conversation.
Jimmy Haslam stands behind Deshaun Watson's fully guaranteed deal
At last year's meetings in Florida, the Haslams' decision to hand Watson a fully guaranteed $230-million contract was the thing that seemed to rile up other owners more than any of the quarterback's off-the-field allegations. Most notably, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti took aim at the deal, saying it would "make negotiations harder with others."
Others, in this case, no doubt included Bisciotti's own quarterback, former MVP Lamar Jackson. A year later, the Ravens and Jackson are in the midst of a contentious negotiation that led Jackson to put out a trade request Tuesday at the same time Baltimore coach John Harbaugh was speaking to reporters in Arizona.
Jackson, who was given the non-exclusive franchise tag by the Ravens as he enters free agency, has been reportedly seeking a fully guaranteed deal similar to the one Watson received a year ago. Jimmy Haslam declined to talk about the Jackson-Ravens dispute, saying it was "inappropriate to comment," but did stand by the contract his own quarterback received.
"Every team, every business, has to look and do what they think is in the best interest of their team," Haslam said. "We did what we thought was in the best interest of our team. We still feel that way. So, we’re excited to, if you will, have the stuff behind us. This time last year, how many games is he going to play? Is he going to play? Is he not going to play? He’s going to be there the whole season [now] and barring injury, heaven forbid, he’s going to play all 17 games and hopefully more. That I think alone is a bigger leap to the organization, to Deshaun, to all of us."
Dee Haslam believes Deshaun Watson's 'diligent' about counseling
Dee Haslam was outspoken on one major point when she and her husband joined Berry at a press conference when Watson's suspension was finalized. She stressed the importance of counseling for the quarterback after more than two dozen women made allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct during massage appointments against him while he was still in Houston.
“He is making progress, but it is not going to happen overnight," she said at the time. "He is 26 years old, and he is just getting into counseling. It is going to take some time."
Seven months later, Dee Haslam believes those words were right. That's even though she hasn't personally dealt with his clinical team.
"I don’t talk to his counselor because that’s pretty private information," Dee Haslam said. "But he’s diligent about the work he’s doing. I know counseling works. My daughter’s a family counselor and she can tell you that it works. I feel confident he’s in good hands and I know he’s working hard."
It's not necessarily 'playoffs or bust' for Andrew Berry, Kevin Stefanski
The Browns have not had a head coach and general manager remain together for four years since Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage did so from 2005-08. Berry and Stefanski will be just the second combination to do so since the franchise's 1999 rebirth.
Jimmy Haslam said there was "no consideration" to potentially firing either of them after the Browns' 7-10 season last year. While choosing his words carefully, he also expressed support for the decisions to replace defensive coordinator Joe Woods with Jim Schwartz and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer with Bubba Ventrone.
That said, the Browns have followed up 2020's 11-5 regular-season record and trip to the AFC Divisional round with an 8-9 2021 season and last year's one-game regression from that mark. Haslam was asked point-blank if it was a "playoff or bust" season ahead for his coach and general manager.
"I don't want to say that, but I think that we have expectations to go to the playoffs," Haslam said. "But I'm not going to say if we don't make the playoffs, X, Y, Z happens because that'll be the headline tomorrow, OK? Listen, the AFC is tough. You all been around, our division is tough."
Haslam also declined to comment on the potential for a contract extension for either Berry or Stefanski. Both were originally signed to five-year deals.
Jimmy and Dee Haslam insist renovation, not new stadium, is their first choice
The subject of FirstEnergy Stadium and its future has been a topic of conversation even dating back to when the Haslams first purchased the Browns in 2012. The stadium was renovated, which included the installation of new, high-definition video scoreboards, escalators and a reduction of 3,000 seats, as part of a two-year $120-million project that was announced in November 2013.
Ten years later, talk is swirling about the future of the stadium again. This time, with the Browns' stadium lease with the city set to expire in 2028, the talk is about building a brand-new stadium, most likely with some kind of roof on it that would allow for events such as the NCAA men's basketball Final Four, WrestleMania, major concerts during winter months and, potentially, a Super Bowl.
Both Haslams insist their first goal is to renovate the stadium as part of a larger plan to develop the lakefront. However, they did leave themselves some wiggle room for a new stadium when they were asked what their reaction would be if Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb were to come back and say, after extensive studies, the best course of action was to build a new one.
"Depends on how much he wants to fund," Jimmy Haslam said. "Listen, construction costs have gotten very high lately. And so I think everybody has to be practical and Dee said it well. Cleveland would benefit tremendously from the development of the waterfront. Having the stadium down there seems to be in everybody's best interest. So we're committed to redoing the stadium. In all likelihood, it's not going to have a dome, but it'll be a substantial remodel of the existing facility and we're probably 3, 4, 5 years away from that happening."
Milwaukee Bucks part of Haslam Sports Group's continued growth
Word came out in February that the Haslam Sports Group, which is owned by Jimmy and Dee, had agreed to buy the 25% of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, owned by Marc Lasry. The reported cost would be for a $3.5 billion valuation.
The Haslams discussed the deal in some broad strokes, including the fact that Wes Edens — who bought the Bucks with Lasry in 2014 for $550 million — would remain as the team's governor, at least as they got their feet wet in a new sports league. However, due to the fact the NBA's Board of Governors have yet to formally approve the sale, they didn't wish to talk in specifics.
If and when the sale does get approved, it will be the third sports team in which the Haslam Sports Group has ownership. They purchased the Browns in 2012, then bought Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew in 2018.
"It's opportunistic," Jimmy Haslam said. "I mean, listen, we never thought we'd own 10% of the Steelers. Never thought we'd own the Browns. Dee and I had never been, beside watching (daughter) Whitney play high school soccer, had never been to a soccer game. So it's just opportunistic. It was straightened set of circumstances; we were called on this opportunity. Business, sports, you tend to be optimistic. I have no idea what will happen next. First thing's first — let's get this done and then let's get the Browns winning games."
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This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam speak for first time since August