At this point in the Cleveland Browns' coaching search, it’s worth asking whether the team had a clear plan as far as what to do when it fired Rob Chudzinski. Or did the Browns merely decide that they’d figure it out as they went along?
Perhaps the plan was to take their time and be methodical. Owner Jimmy Haslam wrote this to the fans in his letter of Jan. 15:
"We have purposefully been very methodical in our approach. We believe it is very important to stay disciplined to this process and to interview all of the candidates on our list. We are strongly committed to finding the right person to coach the Cleveland Browns."
That is absolutely admirable.
But at this point it certainly seems that the Browns are considering only one candidate they reached out to when the search began, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn of the Seattle Seahawks. A search that seems to add names in the third and fourth weeks doesn’t come across as focused. And most in the league will say that a good alternative should be well-known before any move is made.
The original people the Browns focused on dropped off quickly. Adam Gase decided to concentrate on his duties with the Denver Broncos. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels took himself out of consideration. Former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin evidently preferred to go to Penn State. Bob Stoops stayed in Oklahoma. Former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien never talked to the Browns. And Gus Malzahn is still in Auburn.
For McDaniels and O’Brien, it’s the second year in a row they either withdrew from or did not talk with the Browns.
The national media have taken turns calling the Browns job anything from “radioactive” to “a challenge.” That doesn’t mean the Browns can’t and won’t hire a good coach, but one league coach who knows the candidates well said this when asked why folks were backing away: “It’s the Browns.”
Former Browns and Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Fox, went on record with The Plain Dealer, saying, “It seems like they are a rudderless ship.” And even Jay Leno took a shot at the Browns in his monologue (third joke, the 35-second mark).
Quinn will receive a second interview. If he’s the man, the Browns can say they got the first guy they interviewed, which would be a positive sell.
If he’s not the hire, the Browns are looking at folks like Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and former Titans coach Mike Munchak and Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter or someone else they come up with as the search goes on. All could be good head coaches, but all entered the search as it progressed and others dropped out. Koetter is willing to talk with the Browns after not doing so last year; he was fired at Arizona State in 2006, the same year Ohio State was 12-1 and played in the BCS National Championship. The coach of the Buckeyes that year was Jim Tressel, a guy the Browns chose not to interview -- or if they did have kept under tight wraps.
Jimmy Haslam has conducted one other coaching search. He undid that after one season. CEO Joe Banner has conducted two -- when Andy Reid was hired when Banner was part of a group that chose him, and when Rob Chudzinski was hired a year ago.
It seems they are treating the coaching search like they would the hire of a CEO. Which means cast about, use a search firm, talk to lots of folks and pick the best one. Most of those work because business executives are moving up the ladder.
In the NFL, the traditional way is to have an idea ahead of time and do key legwork before the interview. Form a pecking order, have back-channel discussions to find where they stand and have an idea what it will take to hire their guy. It’s the business. And it works, because the coach has an idea of where he wants to work, and with whom. The team then acts quickly before the coach goes elsewhere.
Maybe the Browns thought O’Brien would change his mind.
Maybe they felt more confident about McDaniels than they should have.
Maybe some guys caught them off guard.
Or maybe the job isn’t as attractive as they believe. For all the obvious reasons.
But the clear picture being painted is that there is great trepidation in the league that the structure the Browns have keeps people away. That structure has a GM who is essentially a player personnel director who has not been in Mobile for Senior Bowl practices because the assistant GM is in Mobile. It has a CEO in charge of personnel. It gives the coach input but no say in player matters.
Then management fires the coach it touted and the coordinators it touted more while saying guys signed in the offseason who were backups with their previous teams were “excellent additions.”
The Browns had as many wins in 2013 as player arrests, and one of the guys the team deemed a mentor and leader has had significant off-field issues. Yes, Davone Bess is owed $3 million guaranteed this season.
The coach who will take a job in those conditions is one who is either at a point where he feels he has to take the job because it’s Cleveland (like Chudzinski) or a guy who simply is so eager to be a head coach he’ll work in any environment or structure.
The structure simply does not seem to have room for a strong-minded, independent coach.
That doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t be a good coach, but he comes into an interesting situation. And he does so late in the game, when many assistant coaches already know their destination.
Say this for the Browns, they are sticking to their word: They are being methodical.