Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of it All, Again--Reading the Room Edition

The Cleveland Browns are now a few weeks or so into the Mike Pettine regime.  Most of the ancillary hiring is complete.  In short, the Browns are far down the road in their latest reboot.  How do you like it so far?

Entering the 2013 season, the Browns had a rookie head coach in Rob Chudzinski and two experienced, respected coordinators to back him up.  Entering the 2014 season the Browns again have a rookie had coach and back him up with a rookie defensive coordinator who won’t be allowed to call defensive signals and an experienced offensive coordinator who had been fired this past season for fighting with the team’s quarterback.  It certainly makes you want to place an order for season tickets right now, doesn’t it?

I guess owner Jimmy Haslam was right.  The Browns are a desirable place to coach, just look who they attracted.  It’s the media creating these perception problems.

Clearly Haslam and Banner felt Chudzinski wasn’t very good as a head coach.  He didn’t bring enough of something to the mix, though Haslam and Banner haven’t quite specified what.  We just know that the team that Banner by design deprived of key talent in an effort to go all in for 2014 didn’t completely respond to Chudzinski.  The end of beginning was likely the dispiriting loss to the New England Patriots.  The beginning of the end was the loss to the New York Jets.  The end was the zombie-like performance against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Whether that team was capable of responding to anyone, from Bill Belichick to Vince Lombardi, is the fairest of all questions but one that doesn’t matter at this point.  Haslam and Banner decided they had a big enough sample to conclude that Chudzinski did not and would never measure up to being a successful head coach in this league and made a change.  And with that baby pretty much all the bath water went as well.
The only significant body remaining is that inhabited by Chris Tabor, the special teams coordinator.  At this point he must feel like a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, not charged with a crime but still not eligible for release.  He’s now on his third head coach in three years and yet his career still hasn’t advanced and either has the special teams.  But hey, consistency.

Where the real difference comes is measuring the loss of offensive and defensive coaching talent.  Whatever else one thinks about Chudzinski as a head coach, he at least had a solid supporting cast.  Norv Turner, for his part, was a very average head coach but no one doubts his abilities as an offensive coordinator.  Paired with Chudzinski, it was easy to see the possibilities of their offense when guided by a quarterback who was at least competent. 

Brian Hoyer seemed to grasp quickly what Chudzinski and Turner wanted and implemented it effectively.  The offense that had previously put the “more” in “moribund” suddenly was able to score points and win games.  Then Hoyer got hurt and the combined efforts of Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell set about proving that systems matter but players matter even more.

Kyle Shanahan, as if by default, is the new offensive coordinator.  Charitably, he comes with a mixed reputation.  Two former quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III and Donovan McNabb aren’t exactly on Facebook friend status with him.  On the other hand no less than Sage Rosenfelds, one of the 643 quarterbacks who have been on the Browns’ roster the last decade, came to his defense in Tuesday’s Akron Beacon Journal.  Rosenfels likes Shanahan’s approach with quarterbacks.  It’s certainly worked out for Rosenfels.

The other thing about Shanahan is that the Browns ended up being the third place he applied this off season.  The Ravens and Dolphins took a pass leaving Cleveland as the difference between working in the NFL or watching it from his easy chair for the 2014 season proving once again how prescient Haslam was.  Cleveland is a desirable place to work as a coach, particularly when unemployment is the next best alternative.

On defense, Ray Horton was someone with a great reputation throughout the league at least on par with that of Pettine.  If the Browns had merely swapped out Horton for Pettine it would have been viewed as a wash, perhaps a slight upgrade given how Horton’s defense faded over the last two months or, more precisely, exactly when he opened his mouth to tell everyone just how great it was playing statistically if not on the field.

The addition of O’Brien adds nothing significant to the mix other than a body to fill a title, the duties of which are really being handled by Pettine.  In either case improvement hinges on personnel not schemes.

The point is that despite the assurances of Haslam and Banner, it’s simply preposterous to assert that the coaching talent at the top of the Browns right now and heading into next season is better than last season. 

 It’s the same to slightly worse.  It also begs another question I hadn’t really thought of until I considered the impact not so much of the loss of Turner and Horton but their loss as measured against their replacements: why didn’t Haslam and Banner just elevate Turner as the head coach? The answer lies in the simple fact that it actually doesn’t matter.

Haslam can wish it away but the Browns really are a radioactive franchise and will remain so until there is stability at the top that is measured in years instead of months.  There’s no other conclusion to be drawn.

The Browns were the first team with an opening this off season and the last to fill it.  When it finally was filled, it was by someone whom the Browns could have hired that first week.  Instead they spent the next several either being avoided or getting turned down by top tier candidates.  In the end they turned to someone they could have hired within hours after firing Chudzinski because, frankly, he was the last man standing.  The story is that he wowed Banner and Haslam with his approach not to defense but to offense as well.  He wants a team that looks to score and not shorten the game. It’s as if that never occurred to them.  With that kind of novel approach it is fascinating to ponder who the Browns would have turned to next had they overplayed their hand with Pettine, which they almost did.

The assistant coaches on this team are a further reflection of the poison that envelops this franchise.  O’Brien wasn’t being elevated to Pettine’s former job in Buffalo so he had effectively two options, stay as the linebackers coach in Buffalo or take the promotion in Cleveland.  No other coordinator jobs were available.

The O’Briens and Pettines of the world are mercenaries.  They move around because teams unwilling to change the head coach still want to impress their fans with the illusion of action by changing out what are essentially very interchangeable parts.  Buffalo is essentially Cleveland, in geography and accomplishment.  Taking the promotion was a no-brainer.

As for Shanahan, hiring him is like hiring Jon Gruden’s son.  Maybe he can build an identity away from his dad, but it won’t be easy and it hasn’t quite happened yet.  With no healthy credible quarterback on the Cleveland roster just yet, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to do anything different than Turner did and achieve materially better results.  As for what it will do for Shanahan, let’s just say that given the 3-year contract the Browns signed him to (why?  Was he in demand? By whom?) the odds are staggeringly high that he’ll not be around to see it through and it won’t be because he’s been elevated to a head coach somewhere.  The chances of him leveraging his current job in Cleveland into something bigger approaches those faced by the President in getting Congress to adopt immigration reform.

This could all work out well for Haslam and Banner and if it does then we’ll praise them as evil geniuses.  But for now they look like their predecessors: rank amateurs without any ability to read the room.

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