BEREA — Browns CEO Joe Banner would prefer training camp be met with unbridled enthusiasm. Especially his first one with the team.
But Banner realizes plenty of fans are uneasy because of owner Jimmy Haslam’s unresolved legal troubles with Pilot Flying J. Banner tried to calm those fears on the eve of camp.
“Jimmy is here and incredibly supportive and a huge asset to us,” he said Wednesday. “I think he’s made it clear and I’ve tried to make it clear without any ambiguity at all that he’s not going to sell the team. But I understand why until that actually happens and this thing plays itself out that it’s a legitimate question.
“And I understand why that doesn’t give everybody total peace of mind, believe me. But I don’t know what we can say more than we’re operating the team exactly as we would whether this had happened or not.”
Haslam plans to attend practice this afternoon as Rob Chudzinski opens his first camp as coach.
Banner admitted to being surprised by the FBI/IRS raid of Pilot Flying J’s headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn., in April. The federal investigation of the fraudulent rebate system is ongoing and a string of lawsuits have been filed by trucking companies. Haslam is CEO of Pilot Flying J, the nation’s largest truck stop franchise.
“It really hasn’t affected us at all,” Banner said of the Browns. “We have a team we put together here of really, really good people, whether we’re talking the coaching staff, the business side, even our foundation.
“Jimmy really had a vision. He spoke here about what his priorities were around creating a phenomenal fan experience and being focused on winning fans again. Nothing has happened to impact our ability to do that or, frankly, given us any reason not to be successful.”
Banner said Haslam has been open with him in private discussions. Banner was handpicked to build Haslam’s organization after he bought the Browns from Randy Lerner for $1 billion last year.
“I have a lot of confidence in him. I wouldn’t say I had to be reassured,” Banner said.
But he acknowledged the legal troubles of Pilot Flying J have forced Haslam’s ownership and the Browns, in general, to be viewed in a different light around the league.
“Well, I think it’s not as pure as it was, but I don’t think it’s spoiled,” Banner said.
Commissioner Roger Goodell summoned Haslam for a meeting, but the NFL has kept its distance and hasn’t intervened.
“I think the league feels really good about the way things are going, but they have a wait-and-see attitude as well,” Banner said. “But I think they feel very good about Jimmy. They have a lot of belief in him, he’s been very open and transparent with them and I think they feel confident in the way they see him leading and the team that we’ve all put together to operate things.”
When Haslam arrived at the beginning of camp last year, he was viewed as the anti-Lerner. He was going to be more involved, out front and vocal. He’s maintained a presence since the raid, but his short-term priorities have shifted.
“He’s high-energy, he’s as intense, he’s got as many questions as he usually does about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and how we could do it better,” Banner said. “The things we’ve needed him to do with questions or sponsors or relationships or people we’re trying to recruit to come here that we wanted him to reach out to, he’s done and done well.
“He’s either in or he’s not and he’s in, so I’m still experiencing that same thing.”
Banner said the investigation hasn’t appeared to hurt business. He said the team sold more season tickets than during any offseason since 1999, and more suites, club seats and new marketing sponsorships than in previous years.
“So there’s a lot of optimism and positive feeling about where the franchise is heading and I think it started with him taking over, leading the team and the vision he had and the team we’ve put together to run it,” Banner said.
In addition to the new sales, Banner said season tickets were renewed at a 94 percent rate.
“So that’s very exciting,” he said.
Banner spoke on a number of other topics.
• Improvements to the stadium this season.
Banner said the full plan will be revealed soon, but gave some of the basics — an upgrade in cleanliness, painting the restrooms in Browns colors and larger trash cans in the concourse that are emptied more often. There will also be full cell phone service and partial iPad service.
• Future improvements.
An architecture firm has been hired to study and plan renovations to FirstEnergy Stadium that reportedly will cost more than $100 million. Banner expects construction to begin in January and said information on the project should be available around the start of the season.
• The two-game suspension of receiver Josh Gordon for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
“He’s got to do some work and he understands he’s going to be held accountable and he gets the rope that’s left isn’t long,” Banner said. “In working with the coaches they need to see that commitment, that work ethic. Obviously, off the field he needs to make good choices.”
• His impressions of quarterback Brandon Weeden after questioning his work ethic at the scouting combine.
“He has worked real hard and he’s done everything that they’ve asked him to do,” Banner said. “He’s got obviously a lot more work. But he’s gotten in here and he’s gotten a chance to progress on the mental aspect of the position.
“So I think everyone is encouraged on how hard he’s working and how bad it seems he wants to do well.”
• The Browns have discussed installing FieldTurf at the stadium but are leaning against it, even if it requires replacing the sod more often during the season.
“Our strong inclination is to play football outdoors and on a grass field,” Banner said. “It’s something we have talked about and we’ll continue to review so that could change, but I think we have a strong inclination to do it that way.”
** The next players to receive contract extensions after guard John Greco signed one Tuesday.
“I’m going to stay out of who we’re talking to and where things stand until hopefully at various points we can make some announcements,” Banner said.
The Browns added fullback Brock Bolen and linebacker Justin Cole on the eve of camp.
To get down to the roster limit of 90, the Browns waived offensive lineman Dominic Alford and receiver Kennan Davis.
Bolen (6-foot, 232 pounds) is in his fourth NFL season and has appeared in 20 games, all with Jacksonville. He has two rushing attempts for 14 yards, three receptions for 21 yards and 16 special teams tackles.
He is a native of Germantown and spent last season on injured reserve.
Cole (6-3, 243) is in his third season and has appeared in 20 games with the Rams. He has two tackles on defense and seven on special teams.
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