CLEVELAND - On the surface it appears that it's business as usual for the Browns as training camp officially opens today.
To assume that all aspects of the organization are running smoothly might seem impossible when considering the tumultuous offseason encountered by owner James Haslam. It began when the FBI conducted a surprise search of Haslam's Pilot Flying J headquarters in Knoxville, and the mystery hasn't stopped growing more tentacles since then.
Haslam has claimed no knowledge of a scheme to cheat trucking companies out of rebates. He has since negotiated contracts to repair the damage with the involved companies, but there's still the matter of legality that could play out in the courts.
The controversy hasn't hindered president and CEO Joe Banner from doing his job to resurrect the team's long-sagging fortunes.
"It really hasn't affected us at all," Banner said during a press conference Wednesday. "We have a team we put together here of really good people, whether we're talking the coaching staff, the business side, even our foundation. We're really excited about the team we put together.
"Jimmy really had a vision. He spoke hereabout what his priorities were around creating a phenomenal fan experience and being focused on winning fans again. He hired me. We put together a team on a day-to-day basis to accomplish that. We're free and clear to do all that. Nothing has happened to impact our ability to do that or frankly given us any reason not to be successful."
Banner admitted surprise when the FBI conducted its raid of Pilot Flying J. He's kept in close contact with Haslam concerning matters of importance to the Browns and, according to Banner, Haslam continues to be a hands-on owner.
"Obviously, it wasn't anything anybody was anticipating, so I was surprised," Banner said. "But I got the chance to know Jimmy and we talked about how we were going to run the Browns. The focus of his was doing things the right way, doing things with integrity from the first moment I met him. We've been free to operate the Browns exactly the same way, whether this happened or not."
There's been speculation that Haslam's legal problems and loss of business because of the rebate scandal might force him to sell the Browns. Banner believes that Haslam is in for the long term, which is why plans for a major renovation of First Energy Stadium next year are still in the works.
"Jimmy is here and incredibly supportive and a huge asset to us," Banner said. "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."
Apparently Haslam's legal issues haven't hurt the financial side of operations. Banner estimated a 94 percent renewal rate for season-ticket sales and said the number of new season-tickets sold is the most since the team's return to the NFL in 1999.
Haslam and Banner weren't pleased with what they saw of the stadium and its operation last season. They've begun plans to improve the situation, beginning with minor changes this year that will include re-painted bathrooms, larger and more trash cans and uninterrupted cell phone service.
Plans for major renovations are expected to be unveiled near the start of the season. Banner indicated it's doubtful field turf will be put down.
Another big change was the decision to cap the sale of personal seat licenses (PSLs). Some PSL owners were upset, but Banner said the number wasn't significant.
"We did that because we view that as something that was very friendly," Banner said. "I know some people misinterpreted and didn't get that. So it did open the door for some people. But I also think there's increased energy and optimism about what things we're doing now and where the franchise is headed."
Banner wouldn't delve into the world of predictions but expressed a belief that the football product is improving. He likes what he's seen of quarterback Brandon Weeden and believes free-agent acquisitions like linebacker Paul Kruger will help the building process.
"My focus is really on wanting to see the shift in the culture that we've talked about," Banner said. "The effort and wanting to see the schemes that the coaches are putting in. Seeing the young players develop and hoping that they're all what we think they could be.
"That's really my focus, wanting to see the work ethic and the pace that you saw in the spring stay through the whole season. I think if we see those things then we're on the right track."