BEREA — Jimmy Haslam was in full Cleveland Browns mode Thursday afternoon. He stood on the sideline between practice fields and watched intently, from stretching to 11-on-11 drills. He wore a gray Browns T-shirt and brown shorts and chatted with Jim Brown and Trent Richardson.
“I’ll tell you, it’s exciting,” Haslam said of his first training camp practice as owner. “You will probably laugh when I say this, but it was all I could do not to come out here at 3:30 (a half-hour before practice). If you like and care about football, you can’t help but be excited about it.”
But even on the opening day of camp, when the full attention of Northeast Ohio is on the Browns, Haslam’s presence and seven-minute news conference shifted the focus from the field, at least temporarily. The federal investigation of Pilot Flying J continues and the ramifications for Haslam are uncertain, despite his optimism.
So coach Rob Chudzinski’s first camp practice as a head coach, running back Trent Richardson’s burst in his return from a muscle strain in his shin, quarterback Brandon Weeden’s erratic start and strong finish and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson’s sincere talk of making the playoffs for the first time were muffled by Haslam’s off-field issues.
“I understand in Cleveland there’s a great deal of uncertainty because of past history, but the fans should not worry. Our family is going to own this asset for a long, long time,” he said. “There’s absolutely no worry about cash flow.”
Haslam is CEO of Pilot Flying J, the largest truck stop franchise in the country. The headquarters of Pilot Flying J were raided April 15 and it remains under federal investigation. Despite some of his employees pleading guilty and more than 20 trucking companies filing lawsuits, Haslam has maintained he didn’t know about a fraud program to cheat trucking companies of their proper rebates.
Indictment remains a possibility for Haslam, who was asked if there’s a plan in place for ownership of the team if that happens.
“One of the very first calls we made was to the NFL,” Haslam said, referring to the FBI raid. “We’re in constant contact with them, they have been very supportive in working with us and I’d say we’re very optimistic on the outcome.”
Opening Day is all about optimism, and it carried over to the football. The fans barked and hollered, Chudzinski mingled with the crowd and Jackson spoke like a wide-eyed rookie rather than a veteran beaten down by five straight seasons of double-digit losses.
“I’m excited as I’ve ever been,” Jackson, 29, said. “I think this year is going to be special.”
Does special mean playoffs?
“Yeah, why not? I’m not afraid to talk about it,” he said. “We’ve got a good group of guys on both sides of the ball. We’ve still got to go out and play the game. But if we stay committed and stay on top of what we’re doing, I can really see a difference between this team and any other team I’ve played for since I’ve been here.”
Weeden is trying to make a big jump in his second season. He must if the Browns are going to have any hope of reaching the postseason for the first time since 2002.
“That’s our goal,” he said. “But we’ve got a long road ahead of us. We have to keep this tunnel vision.
“I’m excited about our team.”
Haslam calls himself one of the most impatient people in the world, but he’s trying to manage expectations for the team this year, including his own.
“What really counts is how we perform in the last three games versus how we perform in the first three games,” he said, declining to predict a win total. “I think that’s important to all teams and particularly for young teams.
“We view this as a long-term project and I don’t mean to say that that doesn’t mean we’re not going to be really good this year or improved this year, I think we will be. But I think it’s important for everybody to keep in mind that we’re in this for the long run. So we’re going to be focused on winning games, No. 1, and winning consistently and providing our fans great excitement, great value over an extended period of time.”
The 2,692 in attendance Thursday didn’t seem distracted by Haslam’s legal troubles — some even chanted his name — but there’s a segment of fans worried that more bad news will come.
“I apologize for the negative attention this has brought to Cleveland, the Browns and the NFL, and I mean that sincerely,” Haslam said.
But he insisted he isn’t distracted, and the Pilot Flying J problems aren’t a distraction to the Browns organization.
“I’m going to stay very focused on two things,” he said. “One, making sure we correct the activities at Pilot Flying J that led to some of the accusations that have been made. But secondly and more importantly, to do the things we talked to at Cleveland.”
Jackson said some young players don’t even know who Haslam is, so they can’t be distracted. And the veterans have too many other concerns.
“I’ll tell you what, he’s here a lot,” Jackson said. “And not one time has he shown any sign of weakness. And we’re only going to worry if he’s worried. And he doesn’t seem to be worried.”
Jackson has lived through a series of soap operas during his seven-plus seasons in Cleveland, so he’s an expert in distractions. According to him, the Haslam “sideshow” Thursday was nothing compared to last year’s opening day of camp when news broke that Randy Lerner was selling the team.
“That was a big hit. First day everyone is excited and you get news like that, you never saw it coming,” Jackson said. “No one saw it coming at all. Everyone was affected.
“Hopefully no news like that will be happening anytime soon. It’s a good thing right now.”
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