BEREA, Ohio (AP) – Mike Pettine drove his pickup truck behind the team’s headquarters, backing the vehicle up to a rear door to load his belongings.
Gone after two seasons as Cleveland’s coach, Pettine packed up and said goodbye.
The Browns are starting over.
One day after owner Jimmy Haslam fired both Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer following a miserable 3-13 season, the Browns cleaned out their lockers amid uncertainty, speculation and anger from some fans.
This team remains the NFL’s poster child of nearly constant change, unable to stick with a plan long enough to see if it will work.
And as he stood in the locker room towering over empty boxes following an empty season, Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas sounded as if he had had enough.
“Well, it doesn’t make you happy when you have to go through another coaching change,” said Thomas, who has played for five coaches since 2007.
“It’s tough on everybody. Coaching changes and organization changes always set you back. It’s a tough process to go through. Nobody is happy about it and it’s never easy.”
The Browns should be used to it. No team in the league has experienced more transformations than Cleveland, now searching for its eighth coach since 1999 and undergoing yet another front-office makeover.
Haslam has already fired three coaches in four years. For Thomas, Black Monday was nothing new. But the prospect of more change has the nine-time Pro Bowler re-assessing his future in Cleveland.
“As you get older, the tomorrows become fewer and far between and you become more reflective on your own football mortality,” Thomas said after the season-ending loss to Pittsburgh.
“Who knows who’s going to be back in this locker room next year? It becomes harder every time it happens because you realize you’re closer to your end.
“And every time there is a reset, it puts you further away from achieving that goal of making the playoffs and once you’re in, making that push for a Super Bowl, which is every player’s dream.”
For second-year offensive guard Joel Bitonio, seeing Pettine leave was harder than he imagined.
“I just feel bad,” said Bitonio, who spent a few minutes in the hallway speaking with Pettine. “I feel like we didn’t do enough as a team to keep him around.
“He’s one of the people who brought me in and I think you always remember your first NFL coach. He has a heavy place in my heart today. I know it’s part of the business, and I know you’ve got to win NFL games. But it was tough.”
Haslam and newly appointed football operations head Sashi Brown met with Cleveland’s players on Monday to explain why they intend to hire a coach before getting a GM.
Haslam’s plans to give full control of the team’s 53-man roster to Brown, a virtual unknown who previously worked as the team’s general counsel, created a stir with Browns fans concerned that the owner had already made an unwise move.
However, several Browns players seemed comfortable with Brown’s new role.
“He’s very impressive,” wide receiver Andrew Hawkins said. “I’m a fan of Sashi Brown and the way he approaches things and I think he has the knowledge. If he’s been in it long enough to understand everything, I’m all for it. I’m on the side of putting Sashi Brown in charge.”
As for the coaching search, the Browns have scheduled an interview with Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who was a candidate last year in Chicago and Cleveland. Austin got a glowing recommendation from Lions coach Jim Caldwell.
“He’s been exceptional,” Caldwell said. “He’ll be an exceptional head coach. He’s a motivator. He knows football inside and out.”
Later this week, Haslam is expected to interview Chicago offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Jacksonville offensive assistant Doug Marrone, Buffalo’s former head coach who interviewed with Cleveland three years ago.
Haslam knows the Browns’ track record could scare away candidates who might be leery of the lack of continuity. However, he’s confident someone will want to try and fix the Browns.
“I still think it is an extremely attractive job,” he said. “It is a great franchise, great fans and there is only one way to go with the franchise – 11 draft picks this year, some talented young players and we are totally committed to winning. Do I think it is easy? No, but do I think for the right person this is a great job? I absolutely do.”
On Monday, the last coach he felt that way about pulled away in his pickup truck for good.
(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)