When the Browns began their pursuit for their new head coach, they talked confidently about attracting a top candidate and a visionary leader. The Browns explained that they wanted to hire a head coach first because he was going to have a bigger role in personnel matters.
Owner Jimmy Haslam and chief executive officer Joe Banner promoted this search as if they were going to get Nick Saban, Chip Kelly, Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden. Instead, late Thursday night, the Browns announced they hired "Chud."
Rob Chudzinski, the Panthers' offensive coordinator, will be introduced as the Browns' head coach on Friday. You can read that last sentence again and it's still not going to change. It's a surprise and a letdown all rolled up into one confusing announcement. I'm not guaranteeing that Chudzinski will fail. I'm not saying he's a bad choice. Chudzinski simply wasn't the coach that the Browns were talking about when the search began 11 days ago. That's where the disappointment comes from.
The Browns' top priority, as Haslam put it, was hiring a strong leader. Chudzinski has as much head coaching experience as Pat Shurmur did before he joined the Browns. In talking to a people who have worked with Chudzinski, no one knows if he will be able to command an entire team. Once again, the Browns find themselves with an inexperienced head coach overseeing an inexperienced team.
Chudzinski has the reputation of being an innovative offensive mind who is decent with personnel. The Browns can sell a heartwarming story of Chudzinski being a Toledo native and a long-time Browns fan. They could sell Chudzisnki better if he is able to bring Norv Turner along as his offensive coordinator (it's merely a rumor at this point). Still, Browns fans must feel like they're getting a consolation prize.
Part of the problem is Chudzinski was a hotter candidate last season, when he helped Cam Newton set all of the rookie quarterback records. The Panthers offense dropped in 2012, and so did Chudzinski's stock. He wasn't interviewed by any other NFL teams until he met with the Browns on Wednesday. Zero. Were the other teams looking for a head coach missing something?
If the Browns wanted experience, they could've gone with former Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who had a second interview Thursday. If the Browns wanted a hard-nosed leader, they could've hired Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. If they wanted an outside-the-box candidate, they could've gone with Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman.
Those in the AFC North know better than to write off Chudzinski just because he wasn't a big-name candidate. The Steelers hired a 34-year-old Mike Tomlin who had no head coaching experience at any level. Pittsburgh has been to two Super Bowls with him and has one ring. The Ravens went with John Harbaugh despite the fact that he was never a head coach or an offensive/defensive coordinator. Baltimore has won a playoff game in Harbaugh's first five seasons.
But, as everyone knows, the Browns' situation is much different than that of their division rivals. The Steelers and Ravens had veteran teams and a tradition of winning. The Browns are a team looking for direction.
Chudzinski's track record is an inconsistent one. Good the first year and not-so-good the next. When he was the offensive coordinator in Cleveland, he guided the Browns to the No. 7 ranking in yards and No. 8 in points. In 2008, the Browns offense was No. 28 in yards and 30th in points. At Carolina, Chudzinski had the Panthers ranked No. 5 in points in 2011 and then No. 18 in 2012.
The Browns are closer to turning things around than their 5-11 record indicates, which is why the biggest fear is Chudzinski turns into Shurmur Part 2. Five of the Browns' losses were by seven points or fewer. Three losses came after the Browns had the lead in the fourth quarter.
The Browns' search obviously didn't go as planned. Oregon's Chip Kelly was indecisive. Bill O'Brien wanted to stay at Penn State. Doug Marrone took the job with the Bills instead of going to a second interview with the Browns. Haslam and Banner were forced to reboot their search and ended up with Chudzinski.
Haslam certainly placed his stamp on the franchise with this hire and it's a big ol' question mark. If you didn't know better, you would think this was a hire by the old regime, not the new one. Maybe that's the biggest surprise of them all.