The speculation is over. With the exception of a few positional assistants, the Browns have their personnel and are sculpting out their direction for the next few years as we speak. Some of the hires made by owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner have been overwhelmingly popular while others are decidedly not. With a shift in offensive and defensive philosophies and the corresponding personnel changes required to fit them, there’s no shortage of topics surrounding our Browns right now. Here’s my point of view on just a few of them.
If you guys followed me on Twitter over the last several weeks, I was pretty firmly in the Chip Kelly camp. I thought his innovative offensive schemes and tempo had a chance to change the climate of not just the Browns but the entire NFL. I’m sure he will do well in Philadelphia and be around for a long time. I also liked, above all, the idea of a young, offensive mind fitting the bill for this team in whatever form it materialized. With that being said, however, I was ready to make a decision to between Mike Zimmer and Bruce Arians after being spurned by Kelly. I realize that contradicts a bit, because Zimmer is a defensive coordinator, and both older candidates (Zimmer 56, Arians 60). Zimmer sounded like the guy who had earned his stripes and people were strongly questioning why he wasn’t already in one of those 32 seats. That’s why I was as floored as everyone else when Rob Chudzinski got the job the same day after Ken Whisenhunt received a second interview.
I was initially a little disappointed, but I kept going back to some of the successes with which Chud has been associated. He ran that 2007 Browns offense like clockwork as the stars aligned and Derek Anderson, Braylon Edwards, and Kellen Winslow Jr. all had career years, and we got one last high-level season out of Jamal Lewis. In fact, I said exactly this in our roundtable the following morning.
“He took Derek Anderson, Jamal Lewis in his second-to-last effective season, Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow, and Joe Jurevicius and made them the 8th highest-scoring offense in the league that year. In Cleveland in ’07 and Carolina last season, Chud’s teams averaged nearly a touchdown per game more than last year’s Browns. How many close games did the Browns lose where one TD made the difference? Five by my count. Sure, he had Cam Newton in Carolina, but he also helped Greg Olsen have a breakout year (843 receiving yards after no more than 612 in any other season). I think Trent is an upgrade over the Williams/Stewart backfield that Rob had in Carolina, and our receiving corps may be deeper than Carolina’s (granted without a stud like Smith). My point overall is that Chud’s been tied to some good offensive success. This is a unproven commodity and a risk, but so was hiring Reid, McCarthy, and Tomlin”
Then, Chudzinski went out and won the press conference, which I think we all agreed that he absolutely had to do. His passion for this team and confidence in his plan shined through in that presser. His desire for a vertical passing game and power run game with an attacking style on both sides of the ball was music to my ears.
Another thing that needs to be said is how refreshing was this coaching search compared to past ones? Eric Mangini didn’t even have his office cleaned out in New York (though Lerner did speak with Steve Spagnuolo, Mel Tucker, and Josh McDaniels), and Holmgren had keyed in on Shurmur pretty quickly over Perry Fewell as well. The Browns looked at college coaches, coordinators on both sides of the ball, former head coaches, and a CFL coach. There were multiple candidates who got a second interview. The PR certainly could have been handled better by being up front with who was being interviewed, but overall, I felt like Haslam and Banner were doing their job in a thorough search.
One of the biggest things Haslam and Banner both discussed was Chudzinski’s ability to hire good coaches and coordinators as something that set him apart. After seeing Norv Turner and Ray Horton added as the coordinators, I couldn’t agree more with the selections and the strong need for that type of support system for a first time head coach. We saw the massive failure that was Pat Shurmur without an offensive coordinator in year one and with an offensive coordinator while still calling his own plays in year two. With Norv Turner, someone that has such expansive experience as a playcaller and head coach, I’m hopeful that Chudzinski will relinquish play calling responsibilities as it’s just one more thing for a first time head coach to handle. Perhaps in time if Chud shows he’s got a handle on this head coaching thing, that could change. Norv is an experienced head coach who has that working relationship with Chud and can hopefully help him develop whatever quarterback is under center next season. The strong opinion of yours truly is that he’s not on the roster right now. Chud said this about his vision for his defense the day he was hired.
“We’re going to be an attacking style defense. We’re going to create turnovers. That’s what we want to do. We want to get after the quarterback and affect the quarterback’s play. That’s the number one thing you want to do as a defense. Whether that’s a 4-3 or a 3-4 and nowadays there’s a lot of hybrid systems out there, it will tie in more with the coordinator that I hire. I think we have the versatility of going either way.”
In addition, given our last coach’s ineptitude in key situations, I was nodding in agreement with this statement. The Cardinals defense was 12th in yardage and 17th in points, but they forced a lot of turnovers (33, in fact, good for third in the league) and were T-11th in sacks1 without having a lot of standout players on defense. Patrick Peterson with his 12 takeaways was the team’s only Pro Bowl representative.
Chudzinski had this to say too about his style.
“We’re going to focus on critical situations in games. We’re talking about third down, we’re talking about red zone, two minute, four minute because those things are the things that games come down to.”
How many times did our gripe and moan sessions with Shurmur center around his inability to get his team to execute in the final minutes of the game or half or on third down2
With Horton, the Browns will have that flexibility and attacking nature. As we found out with a little video evidence this morning, Horton wants to blitz and play a lot of zone schemes. He even said that in Pittsburgh in 2010 they only ran “12 or 13 snaps” in what you would call traditional man coverage. The Browns interviewed Horton for the head coaching gig, so the front office got a thorough look at how he would go about building his defense. I’m very surprised that the team shelled out a whopping $2 million per season over four years to gain his services. My hunch is that if the Browns defense makes great strides, he will get more interviews next year and within the next two years get a head coaching gig of his own. But, as many others have said, that doesn’t mean you skip over him. You hire good positional coaches at D-line, linebackers, and secondary, and perhaps one of them can step in and keep the same culture and scheme going. Think of Baltimore and the cast of defensive coordinators over the years (Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Rex Ryan, and Chuck Pagano) and how the Ravens were able to not miss a beat.
I’m not crazy about a shift to the 3-4, but as long as it’s an incredibly longterm shift (i.e. a franchise cornerstone like it is with Pittsburgh where Haslam came from) where we won’t be flipping back and forth every two or three years, then I can live with another transition there. That first pick almost HAS to be a linebacker though, no? Not to mention another free agent signing to go with the likes of D’Qwell Jackson, James Michael Johnson, Chris Gocong, Craig Robertson, and (hopefully) Jabaal Sheard.
Consensus. That’s what Joe Banner says that the organization will have. That’s a good thing, because it models the plan that Banner and company had in Philadelphia for so long that was successful. Now, do I like the Mike Lombardi hire? That would be a firm no. In fact, I’ve never been more confident of failure instantly since the Ubaldo Jimenez trade in 2011. In fact, I think it’s so clear this was Banner’s guy from the beginning that if it doesn’t work out, I hope Haslam rids the organization of Banner as well. I’m trying to remain optimistic and give everyone a chance, because you just have to do that. But, I’d be lying if some of the stuff being reported about Banner right now has me concerned (Whisenhunt disagreement on assistants, the feud with Philly, the perceived thought that he has final veto over personnel decisions, and so on). In the past, this organization has been plagued by power plays that ended with someone losing their job (Manigni-Kokinnis, Butch Davis, etc.). Let’s hope with the roles clearly defined (at least internally) from the outset, that can be avoided. If anything else, I hope that what Lombardi says below is true.
“I think what we said earlier about building a team, when you look at our team in ‘94, I think we had a lot of good players on it. We made mistakes in the draft, there’s no mistake about that. It’s funny, when you scout, if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re going to make them again. We did that. Trust me, we’ve all looked at the draft of Cleveland. Belichick and I sit together, we look at it and we talk about it, but we learn from it.”
Let’s hope that Lombardi utilizes the college scouting staff that Heckert had in place as he should as he adjusts back to the decision-making process. Without that, we could be in for more painful drafts. There’s no doubt that Lombardi’s been a part of some successful front office structures, but to what degree is a little clouded from Cleveland (To what degree was Belichick involved?) to Oakland (how much was Al Davis directing his hand?).
While I’m not thrilled with everything that Haslam and Banner have put in place, I think it’s irrational to not let this play out before massive criticism. They need a free agency period, a draft, a preseason, and a regular season to get schemes on both sides of the ball implemented and acquire players that fit those schemes.
Kirk Lammers grew up on the Marblehead Peninsula and is a graduate of THE Ohio State University. He now lives in Northeast Ohio, and you can find him at the ballpark, at the Q, or far too often on Twitter (@WFNYKirk)."