Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
A painful look back: The morning of his first draft as Cleveland Browns coach in 2014, Mike Pettine knew the team would take a quarterback with its second of two first-round draft picks.
“The two guys we felt good about were [Derek] Carr and [Jimmy] Garoppolo,” Pettine said Tuesday. “Just projecting the guys we thought would be there, we all thought [Teddy] Bridgewater would be gone.”
But in one of those epic draft-day surprises that changes the fortunes of a franchise, and alters the lives of so many others, the Browns wound up taking Johnny Manziel after a trade up from No. 26 to No. 22.
In recalling his tumultuous two-year stint as Browns coach in an exclusive interview with ESPN Cleveland, Pettine cited the selection of Manziel as one of his biggest regrets.
Former GM Ray Farmer has taken accountability for the controversial pick, but he recently said in an interview that choosing Manziel was the result of a “groupthink methodology.”
“He was high on our board, but the opinions were mixed,” Pettine said. “He was not our No. 1. But he was a guy we felt we could do some things with. He clearly had an NFL skill-set and leadership ability. But the unfortunate part is for him to be successful in the NFL, as we all came to realize, if you have some limitations -- in his case, size -- you have to be elite in all other areas, and that includes the off-the-field stuff. That ultimately was his undoing.”
Manziel hit a new low on Tuesday when he was indicted by a Dallas grand jury on a misdemeanor assault charge stemming from an incident involving his former girlfriend on Jan. 30.
During Pettine’s two years in Cleveland, Manziel also was disciplined for missing an injury rehab session, admitted himself to a 73-day stay in a substance abuse clinic, had another incident with his ex-girlfriend that did not result in charges, was benched for lying about his partying during the team’s bye week, showed up unfit for work and then complained of concussion symptoms and then skipped the team’s final game for a gambling trip to Las Vegas, on which he reportedly wore a disguise to hide his identity.
Manziel was released by the Browns on March 11 -- more than two months after Pettine was fired.
“It’s sad,” Pettine said. “I have concern for the kid first. It was all stuff that we all kind of knew on the inside, that these problems are deep-rooted.
“He’s a likable guy when you’re around him. But we’re not with him when he’s with that group that he runs with when the demons come out. It was sometimes hard for us to understand.
“Outside of that one day that was documented, when he came in in the morning [and was removed from a quarterbacks meeting] -- Was it a concussion? Was he hung over? What was it? -- I can’t recall one day when it was like he was just mailing it in on a bender. That wasn’t the case. He came to work, especially in Year 2.”
Regrets? He had a few: Asked to name other things he wish he could do over, Pettine quipped, “Where do I start?”
If he started at the beginning, it would not be the Manziel selection but the choice of cornerback Justin Gilbert with the team’s first draft pick in 2014, at No. 8 overall after a trade down, and then a trade up.
The Browns’ vetting process of Gilbert was remarkably lax -- they did not meet with him at the NFL combine, invite him to a pre-draft visit or privately work him out -- until a visit by Farmer in the last days before the draft. Gilbert’s development has suffered from what some have described as a lack of love and passion for the game of football.
“I think a lot would have been different had we taken somebody else there,” Pettine said.
Pettine’s first season was marred by occasional game-day interference from Farmer, who subsequently was suspended by the NFL for four games in 2015 for violating league electronic device rules for texting coaches in the coaches box and other team personnel on the sidelines. Pettine let the counter-productive interferences roll off his back, but they led to the resignation of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan after the 2014 season.
Pettine said that Farmer texted a message intended for him one time -- the message actually was sent to a trainer -- and Pettine “nipped it in the bud and that ended very quick.”
But he was unaware Farmer continued to text other coaches until Shanahan spoke of it as a reason for wanting out.
Although some of the texts were said to be about playing Manziel, Pettine said he “never felt direct pressure” from Farmer or owner Jimmy Haslam or former team president Alec Scheiner to play Manziel. He said discussions early on were “if we get an opportunity, are we going to play him?”
Pettine shot down the perception that he and Farmer sparred over the signing and subsequent lack of playing time for veteran receiver Dwayne Bowe.
“I know a lot falls on Ray with that one, but as a coaching staff we evaluated [Bowe’s] 2014 tape and then ending the spring we were pleased with the signing,” Pettine said. “When he came back in the fall, he was a different guy. Got hurt, was carrying a lot of extra weight, and never recovered. There was not that commitment from him from the standpoint of being ready to play.”
Going forward: Pettine said he wasn’t blindsided by his firing after losing 18 of his last 21 games for a two-year record of 10-22. He said his first experience as an NFL head coach “beat me up a little bit.”
He said he needs this year away from coaching but does not want to sit out a second year even though he’ll be paid by the Browns through 2017. He intends to spend the 2016 season staying involved in the NFL by doing some projects for unnamed coaches in the league.
Pettine lamented the lack of time given him by Haslam and said the new Browns’ regime has to commit to his successor, Hue Jackson, for its new analytics approach to work.
“That’s a big part of it. Do they have the commitment of time? That’s the issue,” Pettine said. “There were a lot of decisions we made last year about younger players. If I had known truly our jobs were on the line, would I have coached little bit differently? Probably.”
Ultimately, though, Pettine knows that his fate was tied to the selection of his quarterback, which turned out to be not the choice of him or his top offensive coaches.
“When you look at rookie coaches that take first-round quarterbacks, you’re immediately tied to him,” Pettine said. “Your whole future is, if this guy works out, you’re set. If he doesn’t, you’re out. It’s easy now to regret that one.”
Two years later, the coach and his quarterback are out. Jackson is in and is completing the process to select the next quarterback hopeful in this weekend’s draft.