AFC North: Rob Chudzinski

Jimmy Haslam’s remake (i.e. streamlining) of the Cleveland Browns front office was a major bombshell.

But according to league sources familiar with the way things went with the Browns in 2013, the decision was a culmination of Haslam, the Browns' owner, coming to grips with several factors, primarily that the structure CEO Joe Banner convinced him to build was not working.

Whether that was because of the personality of the people involved or because of the structure itself is a matter of opinion.

Haslam spoke highly of Banner even as he was announcing his departure.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Haslam
AP Photo/Tony DejakTrading star WR Josh Gordon would likely have been a PR disaster for the Browns and owner Jimmy Haslam.
“It’s been a pleasure to work with him,” Haslam said. He then called former general manager Mike Lombardi a great friend who has “great football acumen.” Haslam added that he and Banner had been discussing this streamlining for two weeks. It would be tough to find a higher road for the owner, which is admirable.

The sources said the change in the team’s structure with both coach Mike Pettine and new GM Ray Farmer reporting directly to Haslam is a fallout from the former system, which had everyone providing information to Banner.

The owner prefers more direct channels.

The sources also addressed several reports of what happened with the Browns last season:

• One source said Lombardi favored trading Josh Gordon. On the day Gordon was selected in the second round of the supplemental draft in 2012, Lombardi -- then an analyst with NFL.com -- criticized the selection. Former coach Rob Chudzinski, aware his receiving corps would have been left with Greg Little and Davone Bess and who knows, worked hard to keep Gordon. Eventually, Banner did not like the offers he received. Gordon went on to lead the league in receiving yards. He averaged 97 yards per game before the trade deadline in late October, 133 after.

Lombardi would not comment on his position on Gordon, and declined comment on other matters related to the team and season. Chudzinski now works for the Indianapolis Colts, who make their assistants available only at certain times of the year. Now is not one of those times.

• Banner did not ask Chudzinski to cut Little and guard Shawn Lauvao. However, Banner’s personnel moves did leave Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner frustrated. Bess was brought in by Lombardi to be the dependable third-down guy. He was anything but. At one point the Browns had Bess starting ahead of Little, an indicator of the coaches’ frustration and “what are we supposed to do” thinking. There was ongoing frustration about the running back position. Farmer was asked Tuesday if Banner was a good judge of football talent, and he thought a moment before answering: “I could tell you that Joe is a football guy. He would classify himself as a non-traditional football guy, and I would say that is a good representation.”

• The only time the team seriously discussed acquiring a back after the Trent Richardson trade was when the possibility of trading Gordon was discussed. When Richardson was traded, there was no other immediate plan to acquire a back.

• Banner tried to exert control over much -- from personnel to offensive system, which galled the former coaching staff given the experience of Turner.

• The coaching staff considered the draft a near waste. Barkevious Mingo at the sixth pick was a situational pass-rusher, and Leon McFadden was drafted two rounds earlier than the team’s scouts projected. The team also traded two picks in 2013 for picks in 2014. Those picks will benefit the new coaching staff at the expense of the old. “Ridiculous,” said one NFL coach.

• The mesh between the scouts held over from former GM Tom Heckert to Lombardi was difficult. No scouts were in the Browns' draft room during the ‘13 draft. Many transitions with a front office and scouts are tough; this one seemed tougher.

• The free agents and acquisitions were much touted, but league insiders point out that only Paul Kruger started with his former team. Quentin Groves, Desmond Bryant and Dion Lewis were backups. Quarterback Brian Hoyer played well and earned the respect of everyone, but there were very few coaches in the league who saw him as a starter when the Browns acquired him.

• In the news conference after Chudzinski was fired, Banner called Groves, Bryant and Lewis “excellent additions.” Haslam sat to Banner’s left as he spoke. All six of the team’s Pro Bowlers, though, were brought in by either Heckert, Eric Mangini or Phil Savage.

• Haslam gained much of his insight on the team from Banner, who was the voice between Lombardi, the coaches and Haslam.

• There is a belief that Haslam’s eyes were opened to how his team was viewed around the league as the 25-day coaching search took place. In talking with people from other teams, Haslam learned firsthand of the reluctance of some coaches to work in the Browns' old structure, and of the difficulty in dealing with the Browns in terms of trades. Peter King wrote on SI.com that the first question Ken Whisenhunt asked when the Browns interviewed him this year was why he was not hired a year ago. Banner told Whisenhunt he did not believe Whisenhunt was putting together a championship staff. “Who are you to tell me what makes up a championship staff?” Whisenhunt snapped.

• It may have meant something or nothing, but one of the last things Haslam said Tuesday was: “I think we got the best coach we could get.”

Piece everything together and it’s evident why Haslam preferred a more streamlined operation.

He wants people working together, reporting to him, with no filter between the voices.

The structure seems almost as clear as the reasons that prompted it.
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Good for Rob Chudzinski.

The one-and-done Cleveland Browns coach wound up with a good team, a great young quarterback, a good coach and a good organization when the Colts hired him as a special assistant Saturday.

He deserved it after what he went through this past season, where he was hired in his dream job, then given all the support of the bottom row of a deck of cards. Chudzinski won’t be the last guy blindsided in the NFL, but it’s not pleasant to see.

Among the less palatable elements of the way the move went down were the leaks to national reporters during the Browns' final game. Among them -- which nobody has stood up and taken responsibility for -- was the claim that lack of effort from players did in Chudzinski as Browns coach. That claim was a farce. The Browns played for their coach; they had one stinker of a game against the Jets, something that happens to every team in the league. But to say there was a lack of effort from the Browns was simply not true.

Could Chudzinski’s decisions be questioned?

Of course.

Every coach has head-scratching moments. To think a first-year coach would not have them would have been ludicrous. Chudzinski made some decisions that didn't help him (like the timeout before the two-point conversion in New England).

Is it fair to wonder why the Browns didn't play better as the season went on?

Absolutely. And the coach bears some responsibility for that, but so too does the front office who built the team he was leading. Consider that every key free agent signed before 2013 was a backup with their former team. Consider the roster littered with guys who were signed for 2014, not 2013. Consider the complete absence of a running game and the mess at quarterback. (None of these are going to magically solve themselves for 2014, either.)

Then, too, consider the draft choices traded and choices acquired. The Browns gave up on the 2013 draft for picks in ’14. They made what looks like a smart move with Trent Richardson, but they did it for ’14.

Mike Pettine and his staff will benefit from all those moves, at Chudzinski’s expense. Pettine deserves a fresh slate and clean start, but to scapegoat one guy for all that happened in 2013 was simply wrong. And unfair.

CEO Joe Banner said the move to make Chudzinski one-and-done was not that unusual when he spoke the day Pettine was hired. It has been done before. Jim Mora was let go in Seattle, Mike Mularkey in Jacksonville, Hue Jackson in Oakland, Cam Cameron in Miami and Art Shell in Oakland, among a few others.

It happens. Not often, but it happens.

One of the guys it happened to was Pete Carroll way back in 1994. That stung Carroll badly. But he went on to win at USC and win the Super Bowl in Seattle.

Who knows where Chudzinski’s path takes him.

But he winds up in a good place, which he deserves.

He just deserved better in Cleveland.

Tracking AFC North coaching changes

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
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PITTSBURGH -- Staggering might be a bit strong when looking at the amount of coaching turnover that has taken place in the AFC North.

But there has been a lot of it in the last six weeks, which leads me to a story even if it does poke fun at yours truly.

I decided to recap all of the coaching changes in the division, reaching out to the other ESPN.com AFC North reporters about the comings and goings on their respective teams.

Here is the response I got from ESPN.com Brown reporter (and noted nemesis of mine) Pat McManamon: Um ... Scott ... except for special teams coach, they've changed the entire staff.

Uh, yeah, would make sense that a new head coach hires his own staff. I appreciated Pat not calling me stupid though I'm pretty sure he implied it (Pat, I must be getting too much sun here in Pittsburgh).

But I digress. Here is an update on the coaching staffs in the AFC North (teams in order of 2013 finish).

Cincinnati Bengals
Jackson
Jackson
What has changed: The Bengals have two new coordinators, Hue Jackson (offense) and Paul Guenther (defense), after Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer left for head coaching jobs.
Most significant hire: Guenther. Zimmer, who left for Minnesota, had been a widely respected coordinator. The Bengals finished no worse than seventh in the NFL in total defense in each of the previous three seasons, Guenther, who was promoted from linebackers coach to take over for Zimmer, has said he will call plays with the same aggressiveness that defined his predecessor.
Skinny: Head coach Marvin Lewis stayed in-house to replace both coordinators, and Jackson is expected to emphasize the run more, something the Bengals got away from in their playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers. Look for Jackson to take better advantage of Giovani Bernard, who flashed as a rookie and should get more touches after splitting carries with the plodding BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2013.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Munchak
What has changed: Mike Munchak is the new offensive line coach, and the Steelers essentially traded running backs coaches with the Vikings with Kirby Wilson joining Zimmer's new staff in Minnesota and James Saxon replacing Wilson.
Most significant hire: Munchak. The Pro Football Hall of Famer becomes the third former head coach who is now an assistant on Tomlin's staff, and there are incredibly high hopes for him. His credentials as a player and an offensive line coach make this one of Tomlin's best hires -- and one that Steelers' fans appear to be unanimous in applauding.
Skinny: Tomlin's staff for 2014 appears to be set. Defensive assistant Jerry Olsavsky was a candidate to become the linebackers coach in Buffalo but that position has been filled. Munchak is expected to institute a zone-blocking scheme and there may not be a more qualified person on the planet to teach it. I've written how Le'Veon Bell could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the zone-blocking scheme. Here is what former Titans tight end and current radio talk show host Frank Wyche told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Bell in that scheme: "He's going to run the ball like Eddie George did for us."

Baltimore Ravens
Kubiak
What has changed: John Harbaugh made plenty of changes after the Ravens went 8-8 and missed the playoffs a season after winning the Super Bowl. Gary Kubiak is the new offensive coordinator and Rick Dennison, has followed Kubiak to Baltimore. Dennison, the Texans' offensive coordinator for the previous four seasons under Kubiak, will coach the Ravens' quarterbacks
Most significant hire: Kubiak. The former Texans head coach wasn't among the three finalists for the offensive coordinator job, but Harbaugh convinced him to join his staff. Kubiak's biggest challenge is reviving a ground attack that mustered just 3.0 yards per carry in 2013, the worst in the NFL. The Texans always seemed to be able to run the ball during Kubiak's tenure in Houston so he is probably the right coach to fix the Ravens' broken ground game.
The skinny: Harbaugh now has two former NFL head coaches on his staff with assistant head coach/secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo joining Kubiak in that distinction. There are still openings at running backs coach and wide receivers coach to fill. When Harbaugh has finished rounding out his staff he will have made six changes to it. The previous high as far as coaches Harbaugh had to replace in an offseason was four in 2011.

Cleveland Browns
Pettigrew
Pettine
What has changed: Well, just about everything and yet not much at all to jaded Browns fans. Cleveland dumped Rob Chudzinski after just one season. What seemed like an interminable search for his successor turned up former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who didn't appear to be on any other teams' radar as far as head-coaching candidates. Former Bills linebackers coach Jim O'Neil is the new defensive coordinator while former Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan now holds the same position in Cleveland.
Most significant hire: After Pettine, it is Shanahan. The former will be tasked with grooming the quarterback of the future and getting more out of an offense that has a legitimate star in wide receiver Josh Gordon but is lacking overall at the skill positions. The Browns have two first-round draft picks, including No. 4 overall, this year and they figure to take a quarterback with one of those selections.
The skinny: The Pettine hire didn't inspire much hope among Browns fans so add that to the list of things working against him in Cleveland. The Browns might have been able to lure defensive coordinator Dan Quinn away from Seattle had they waited longer to hire Chudzinski's replacement. That too will loom over Pettine's first season in Cleveland, especially if his results are similar to the ones that got Chudzinski fired.
BEREA, Ohio -- The first thing CEO Joe Banner said when he spoke at the news conference to introduce Mike Pettine as the Cleveland Browns' 15th head coach was a Three Stooges joke.

And it was funny.

“Since Mike Lombardi and I were Moe and Larry, we set out to find Curly, and we succeeded,” Banner said Thursday.

He referred, of course, to the infamous question at the Dec. 27 news conference where Rob Chudzinski’s firing was discussed, when a Cleveland-area TV reporter asked owner Jimmy Haslam to promise the fans the Three Stooges were not running the team.

[+] EnlargeMike Pettine
AP Photo/Tony DejakNew coach Mike Pettine will be looking to end Cleveland's skid of six straight seasons with 11 or more losses.
That was 25 days ago, and Banner was able to laugh about it -- even though an exhaustive search had the Browns taking barbs from everyone from the NFL Network to Deadspin to Jay Leno. Banner referred to it as a “pummeling.”

“It never burnt,” Banner said of the Stooges question. “It didn’t feel justified.”

Then he chuckled.

“But there’s still humor in it,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being able to poke a little fun at yourself from time to time.”

Pettine comes from the Buffalo Bills, and Banner said he, like everyone else the team interviewed, asked the Browns about job security in light of Chudzinski getting just one season. Banner said the team explained its thinking to everyone.

“It’s not unnerving,” Pettine said.

He said it with quiet force.

“Sometimes it’s the cockiness of a coach, but I’ll always bet on myself,” he said. “I don’t want to back away from a job because of a perceived lack of security.”

Banner said the Browns had Pettine on their radar for the defensive coordinator spot a year ago, but he chose to go to Buffalo. The Browns' CEO said it didn’t matter that Pettine was the sixth or seventh person to interview, that the schedule came down to logistics, who was where and who was working.

Pettine promised a mentally tough team that would not fall into old traps of thinking “same old Browns.” He promised players would be held accountable. He said he’d adjust his systems to the personnel, not force personnel into a system.

And he said he’s a pretty straightforward guy who isn’t afraid to be critical. He even admitted his nickname at one point was BFT -- Blunt Force Trauma.

“The days are too short to dance around subjects,” he said. “I think guys appreciate that. You have to do it in ways that are not demeaning. You can’t be that way as a coach anymore. It can’t be that military-type model.

“I think you have to understand we’re all in this together.”

Which means Pettine enters the same player personnel structure as a year ago, with Ray Farmer and Lombardi providing input on personnel and Banner making the final decisions. Banner said that system won’t change.

But Pettine also enters an environment when the perception of the Browns is not great -- with six seasons in a row of at least 11 losses and a coaching search that Banner admitted was so exhaustive it “caused people to question and wonder.”

“We wouldn’t have wanted to take 10 more days of pummeling,” Banner said.

Banner said the pummeling was “not pleasurable” and was “somewhat unjustified” while still admitting that he understood the questions and skepticism about firing a coach after one season.

“It wasn’t fun,” Banner said. “And it was also hard to not be in a position to respond to it.”

Haslam said he never watches TV, so he didn’t know the Leno jokes.

“I think that’s a perception that you all have generated,” he said to the media. “That’s not the perception among the candidates. That’s not the perception among football people I’ve talked to around the country.”

Haslam also said the Browns might never have had a first choice.

“You have a list of individuals we were going to talk to,” he said. “This is a fluid process and it changes all the time.”

Pettine was just glad the process ended with him. The son of a high school coaching legend in Philadelphia, a guy hired by Brian Billick in Baltimore and Rex Ryan in New York, he was just happy for the chance because he believes in the people who hired him and he believes in himself.

“There’s only 32 of these jobs in the world and these opportunities don’t come along often,” Pettine said. “People ask me, ‘Why didn’t you wait? There will be chances next year.’ I don’t know if I believe in that. When you put all the factors together, this franchise is in position, given the right leadership, to win.”
 

Mike Pettine has many positives, and the Buffalo Bills loved him.

He is a forward, direct, blunt, attacking coach who improved the Bills' defense in several categories this past season.

He learned under Rex Ryan and coached under him. He brings attitude and intensity and an in-your-face style to the Browns, who ended the coaching search that did not want to end Thursday by naming Pettine the team’s 15th coach.

[+] EnlargeMike Pettine
Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SportsEx-Ravens coach Brian Billick said Mike Pettine "is as good a defensive mind as I've been around."
There is much to like about him.

But ... there was much to like about Rob Chudzinski a year ago.

And there is much that Pettine has to prove, just as CEO Joe Banner and owner Jimmy Haslam have much to prove, starting with showing that this search was not a wayward effort that simply wound up crashing to earth in Buffalo.

Former Ravens coach Brian Billick brought Pettine into the league in 2002 as a video assistant; Billick wanted a video guy with football knowledge, and Pettine connected to Billick through Matt Cavanaugh, a Ravens assistant who knew Pettine from Pitt. Pettine stayed on Billick’s staff through 2008.

“Mike Pettine is a good football coach and is as good a defensive mind as I've been around,” Billick said. “He will do a good job. The thing you wonder about, I understand you have to go through a process but you could have hired Mike Jan. 3 and had a leg up on putting together a staff.”

The Browns did not, though, reach out to Billick to get his feedback, which seems to indicate that the organization clearly did not have a plan in mind when it fired Chudzinski. At least the Browns didn't have a plan they could count on.

Their leading candidates seemed to drop like dominoes. Adam Gase declined to interview. Bill O’Brien went to Houston. James Franklin chose Penn State. Josh McDaniels preferred New England.

As time went on, the search grew wider, to the point that the day before they hired Pettine, they interviewed Dirk Koetter of the Falcons and former Bucs coach Greg Schiano. Koetter 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 (that we know of).

Whether Pettine is a legitimate head coach or merely a coordinator rising past his level has to play out. Pettine has proved much, but still has much to prove.

The Bills loved his approach and how he improved the defense, but Buffalo still finished 6-10 and still gave up 388 points and still had the league’s 28th-ranked run defense (128.9 yards per game). Even the Browns' woeful running game -- with Willis McGahee the feature back -- was able to run on Buffalo’s defense.

Too, there isn't a team in the league that does not think the passing game wins and that bringing along a quarterback isn't vital.

Pettine has never worked on the offensive side of the ball.

He went from a high school coaching position to an entry-level job with the Ravens, where he became close with Rex Ryan and eventually became Baltimore’s linebackers coach.

Pettine followed Ryan to the Jets, where he had the title of defensive coordinator even though Ryan ran the defense. To say Pettine didn't have a role in New York isn't fair; he did. But the defensive side of the ball was Ryan’s baby. And there was tension between Pettine and some players, specifically cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

When Pettine’s contract expired, he went to Buffalo with Doug Marrone. There he had complete autonomy with the defense for the first time in his career, and the Jets players were pleased to have Ryan back.

Pettine clearly will need a strong presence on the offensive side of the ball, a guy such as ... oh ... Norv Turner. What’s that? Oh. Never mind.

Haslam said when he started the search he wanted a proven winner. Pettine has worked with proven winners, but to say he has a record as one is ignoring the fact he has no record of his own.

It’s really kind of weird.

The Browns had an attacking defensive coordinator who believed in disrupting the passing game with different fronts and blitzes.

They just hired a head coach who was an attacking defensive coordinator who believes in disrupting the passing game with different fronts and blitzes.

At this point there is so much uncertainty and negativity swirling about the Browns that nothing they do short of bringing back Paul Brown would be welcomed with open arms.

Pettine takes a job knowing the previous coach didn't even get a calendar year, and knowing the previous coach beat the new coach’s defense on a Thursday night game when the starting quarterback hurt his knee not five minutes into the game and the Browns scored the game’s final 20 points. Remember those complaints about finishing?

Pettine might wind up the greatest coach in Browns history.

But it sure seems as though there’s a lot of grass between that point and where he is now.
The Browns provided results of a 20-year study they did on coaches who struggled in their first season.

Some of the numbers are interesting.

In the past 20 years -- the salary cap era -- 28 coaches were hired (not counting Rob Chudzinski) who won four or fewer games in their first season. Among them were Chris Palmer and Pat Shurmur in Cleveland.

Six were fired after just one season -- Mike Mularkey in Jacksonville, Romeo Crennel in Kansas City, Cam Cameron in Miami, Art Shell in Oakland, Joe Bugel in Oakland and Richie Petitbon in Washington.

Of the 22 who returned, only five (23 percent) had a winning record in Year 2.

Sixteen of the original 28 were given a third season.

Only four lasted four years or longer.

Only six (28 percent) reached the playoffs at any point in time. And only two (nine percent) had multiple playoff appearances -- Jim Mora in New Orleans and Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville. Coughin was .529 in eight years, Mora .500, and Dom Capers .281 in four years in Houston.

The combined won-lost percentages of the coaches did not make great strides over three years. Coaches won 19.6 percent the first year (91-373), 41.1 percent the second (135-194-1) and 38.5 percent the third (92-147-1).

Five of the six teams that fired their coach after one bad season improved the following season, and two improved by at least nine games (Tony Sparano at Miami in 2008 and Andy Reid this past season with Kansas City).

This would be the argument for making a change when a team feels it’s needed; the evidence would indicate that sticking with a struggling coach only makes him struggle longer.

However, it does not take into complete account the quality of the team the coach inherited. In some cases, though not all, the team-building mirrored the struggles of the coaches.

What it also does not take into account is if the coaches took over bad teams in their first season. It would seem a coaching change was made for a reason.

What’s interesting is they generally took over bad teams and did worse.

Eighteen of the 28 coaches coached their teams to worse records than the year before they were hired, including Dennis Allen taking Oakland from 8-8 to 4-12, Raheem Morris taking Tampa Bay from 9-7 to 3-13, Cam Cameron taking Miami from 6-10 to 1-15 and Marty Mornhinweg taking Detroit from 9-7 to 2-14.

What might be most interesting is that the Rams were 2-14 the year before Steve Spagnulo arrived, and 1-15 his first year.

Of the 28, 18 took a step back, three stayed the same, three were expansion coaches and four had better records than the year before they took over -- albeit to four wins or fewer.

Teams won 32.2 percent of their games the year before the new hires, 19.6 the year after.

Poll: Who's the Ravens next OC?

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
10:30
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The Baltimore Ravens are going to hire their third offensive coordinator in 13 months. This comes after Cam Cameron was the play-caller for quarterback Joe Flacco's first five seasons in the NFL.

SportsNation

Whom do you want to see as Ravens' new offensive coordinator?

  •  
    10%
  •  
    9%
  •  
    20%
  •  
    49%
  •  
    12%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,559)

So, who is going to be the Ravens' next offensive coordinator?
  • Rob Chudzinski, the former Cleveland Browns head coach, is considered an innovator after bringing the read-option offense to the NFL in Carolina.
  • Jim Hostler, the Ravens' wide receivers coach, is the top in-house candidate who is the most familiar with the Ravens' personnel and would deliver the most seamless transition.
  • Gary Kubiak, the former Houston Texans head coach, has the proven track record with seven top-10 offenses in his past 11 years of coaching.
  • And Norv Turner, the Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator, is considered one of the brightest offensive minds in the game.

After you have voted for one of these candidates (or you have someone else in mind), tell me why you made that decision by dropping me a line in my mailbag. It could be used on the blog later in the week.
Some words from Freddie Mercury seem strangely appropriate at this point: Another one bites the dust.

Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles informed the Cleveland Browns Tuesday that he was removing his name from consideration to be the team's head coach. Bowles interviewed Jan. 2, and simply did not want the job, according to a source close to Bowles.

The reason: The situation with the Browns is not perceived as a strong one, in part because of the team's constant flux and in part because Rob Chudzinski was fired after one season. The Browns insisted they could find a strong candidate -- and they still may -- but the perception is things are not going swimmingly.

Bowles had coached in Cleveland before, and he's a good coach. But he, like Josh McDaniels of New England, withdrew.

The team is being patient, and insists it is not flailing -- a picture painted by many.

But at this point, the team's coaching searches the past two years have hardly been smooth. Nick Saban and Chip Kelly turned the Browns down a year ago, and Kelly went to Philadelphia where he led the Eagles to the playoffs. The Browns were negotiating with Ken Whisenhunt a year ago when those talks fell apart; this offseason Whisenhunt interviewed with the Browns and Lions before taking the job with Tennessee. The Browns also could not lure McDaniels and now Bowles has withdrawn. Bob Stoops did not interview -- though it's not known if the Browns interest was serious in Stoops. Jim Tressel also has not been contacted. It all follows the decision to hire Rob Chudzinski, then fire him less than one year later.

The Browns still seem focused on Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase, 35, the first person they requested permission to interview. He is expected to talk with the Browns once Denver is out of the playoffs, but with the Broncos in the Super Bowl that interview might wait three weeks. Also, Gase is not believed to be itching to get out of Denver, where he works with Peyton Manning and where his stature should only improve next season.

Other candidates interviewed include former Tennessee coach Mike Munchak, Green Bay quarterback coach Ben McAdoo and Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. None of the remaining names have generated much buzz and excitement in Cleveland.

In a separate matter, the Browns have given former defensive coordinator Ray Horton permission to pursue other jobs. Normally a coach would have to take a promotion to leave, but the Browns have given permission for Horton to pursue any job. That information comes from ESPN Insider Adam Schefter.

Which of course means the team will have a new defensive coordinator, and most likely a new system, in 2014. Again.

When they hire a coach. Any coach.

Weeeee are the champions, my friend.
At the risk of developing a relationship with everyone in the Twitter-sphere -- admit it, it's a scary thought -- today marks the debut of the (drum roll, please) Browns Mailbag, named partly in honor of David Letterman.

Post your Browns questions on Twitter. Just send them to me @PatMcManamon with #BrownsMail on the post. I'll sort through and find the best and give as honest an answer as I can, time and space and legalities permitting. Your tweets will be embedded in the post, so please, keep them appropriate.

This wouldn't be me if I were entirely serious, so quirky questions are welcome, provided they pass the personal taste test, standards enacted by Sir Laurence Olivier and me.

On to the first edition of the (drum roll, please) Browns Mailbag.

A look at the AFC North

January, 7, 2014
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The lone AFC North team in the playoffs made another early exit Sunday when the No. 3 Bengals lost to the No. 6 Chargers, 27-10, at Paul Brown Stadium. With all four division teams now in offseason mode, here is a quick look at them by order of finish in the AFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals

2013 record: 11-5, 3-3 in division

Key free agents: DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins

Biggest question: Have coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton taken the Bengals as far as they can?

Biggest reason for hope: Despite losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season, the Bengals have a very good nucleus. Rookie Giovani Bernard showed enough to think his time splitting carries with the plodding BenJarvus Green-Ellis is over.

Why they might disappoint: Dalton has faltered too many times in big games to think he can take the next step, and just making the playoffs is no longer good enough in Cincinnati.

Overall state of the franchise: The Bengals find themselves at a crossroads, but they have little choice but to stick with Dalton -- for now -- unless they want to draft a quarterback in the first round and hand over a veteran team to him.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2013 record: 8-8, 4-2

Key free agents: OLB Jason Worilds, WR Emmanuel Sanders

Biggest question: Will the Steelers re-establish themselves as Super Bowl contenders while re-tooling their defense?

Biggest reason for hope: The offense will be able to mask some of the issues the Steelers have on defense if it builds on its strong second half of the 2013 season.

Why they might disappoint: The defense could get worse before it gets better if younger players don’t emerge in the secondary and Worilds signs elsewhere.

Overall state of the franchise: The Steelers are facing a lot of uncertainty, but a 6-2 finish and the way the offense has come together point to them returning to postseason play in 2014 after missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

Baltimore Ravens

2013 record: 8-8, 3-3

Key free agents: TE Dennis Pitta, LB Daryl Smith

Biggest question: Did the Ravens suffer through the dreaded Super Bowl hangover or are they in decline?

Biggest reason for hope: Joe Flacco is a franchise quarterback, and there is still plenty of talent on both sides of the ball.

Why they might disappoint: The Ravens, like the Steelers, are clearly in transition on defense. Two cornerstones of that defense -- outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata -- no longer dominate on a consistent basis.

Overall state of the franchise: Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh are as good as any general manager-coach tandem in the NFL, and they have to be given the benefit of the doubt even though the Ravens slipped this season.

Cleveland Browns

2013 record: 4-12, 2-4

Key free agents: C Alex Mack, S T.J. Ward

Biggest question: Will a new coach and a quarterback finally stabilize an organization that has floundered, often spectacularly, since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999?

Biggest reason for hope: There are some pieces in place, most notably wide receiver Josh Gordon, cornerback Joe Haden and left tackle Joe Thomas, and the Browns have a pair of first-round picks, including the fourth overall selection.

Why they may disappoint: Tim Couch, Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden are the quarterbacks the Browns have drafted in the first round since 1999. Why should Browns fans think they will get it right in this draft?

Overall state of the franchise: The Browns dumped coach Rob Chudzinski after just one season, and unless they find the right replacement and, oh yeah, a quarterback in the draft, the Browns will continue to bottom feed in the AFC North.
Cleveland Browns CEO Joe Banner said at the team’s last news conference that he understood the feelings of the team’s fans.

“We’re not in their shoes,” Banner said as he explained the firing of Rob Chudzinski. “We haven’t experienced it all. So in reality, I can’t tell you that we know exactly how they feel, but we certainly have a sense of it.”

If he has a sense, then he’ll know that fans have gone beyond being disappointed or frustrated.

The fans have spoken the past week, and one clear feeling comes through: disgust.

And it’s been seen in many ways and places.

There was the very public question to Haslam about whether the Three Stooges were running the Browns. That question followed Dan DeRoos of 19 Action News reading comments from the station’s Facebook page, all of which ridiculed the Browns.

DeRoos said the statements were a fair example of what the station had heard since Chudzinski was fired, and as he read the comments, it prompted Haslam’s expressions to change several times in what looked like uncomfortable ways.

On Sunday, DeRoos told the Akron Beacon Journal that the reaction he’s heard since he asked the question has been “overwhelming positive,” with nine of 10 thanking him for being the voice of the fans.

DeRoos shrugs off criticism of the professionalism of the question, saying he was speaking for the fans and because he was a news reporter, he had nothing to fear in asking.

His selection of comments did reflect the overwhelming opinion that fans seem to share. Several letters to the Cleveland Plain Dealer have been critical of the team, and a letter to the Akron Beacon Journal on Jan. 2 pointed out Chuck Noll went 1-13, 5-9 and 6-8 his first three seasons.

[+] EnlargeRob Chudzinski
Winslow Townson/USA TODAY SportsMany fans do not believe Rob Chudzinski was given a fair opportunity to turn the Browns around.
Plain Dealer editorial cartoonist Jeff Darcy also has had fun, with a drawing about “Bannardi Time” in which Haslam scolds Baby New Year. Darcy printed the cartoon he drew a year ago making what he thought was a sarcastic reference to Chudzinski getting at least two years.

And yes, less than a week after the news conference, a Cleveland T-shirt company called Teespring had a “Three Stooges” shirt for sale.

None of this involves scientific study or polling, of course. But gauging reactions isn't tough in this case -- the feeling is decidedly one-sided.

In the end the move may become popular with fans. A few winning seasons, after all, go a long way. If that happens, Banner and Haslam can stand on their decision.

But at the moment, the Browns have a large public relations problem on their hands.

It’s not all this management team’s making, of course. They’ve only been around for one 11-loss season. But they also can’t divorce themselves from the past.

Purchasing the team means purchasing all that goes with it, from the good memories of Jim Brown and Otto Graham and the 1964 title to the many bad ones since 1999.

It doesn’t help a lot when Haslam defends the move as “expensive.” It was, of course, but it wasn’t like fans petitioned him to spend $10.5 million to fire a coach. Too, fans know how lucrative it is to own an NFL team, and proportionally speaking, the fans have shelled out a good portion of their income to watch losing teams.

While a few may agree it was the right move, hardly anybody agrees it was a fair move. And Cleveland is the kind of area where fair still matters.

Haslam rightly referred to people being skeptical, and the team deserving all of it.

But in this instance fans have gone through skepticism with the speed of a luge on a straightaway. They are sick and tired, and it almost seems that they are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

As the Browns rebuild the coaching staff and the team, they also have much work to do toward winning back the goodwill of a fan base that in the past six years has had its exceptional loyalty rewarded with little more than empty promises and words.
One of the many points of contention in the Joe Banner-Jimmy Haslam press conference explaining the firing of Rob Chudzinski was whether the Browns were focused on winning in 2013, or building for 2014 and beyond.

To think a team would intentionally lose is silly. No team makes moves to lose. But a team can have a focus that says it understands it’s not an immediate playoff team, and build for the future.

By not adding any significant additions to the offense other than Brian Hoyer (who played well, but was a late addition in the offseason) and by trading for future draft picks, the Browns sent the message they were building for the long-term.

[+] EnlargeRob Chudzinski
David Richard/USA TODAY SportsLess than a year after introducing Rob Chudzinski, left, as his next head coach, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is looking for Chudzinski's replacement.
As far back as March, Haslam said this: “We’ve won 23 games in the last five years, won 14 games in the last three, so we’re not going to go 13-3 next year.”

At the same time, he also said the goal was “only to improve.”

“What’s the definition of improve?” he said. “I think we’ll all know. ... I think by Dec .30 or 31 we’ll all know if we’re a better football team.”

The lack of improvement was cited as the main reason a change was made.

Which begs the question: Did the Browns fade as the season went on because the coaching was lacking, or did they fade because the front office did not give the coaches the tools and personnel necessary to improve?

Clearly the coaches would argue the guys they were given were lacking, and it’s the reason offensive coordinator Norv Turner asked what happened to the long-term build the coaches were sold when Banner and Haslam met with the coaches.

Offensively, three quarterbacks started, as did five running backs. There was no dependable and productive second or even third receiver. Davone Bess was acquired and given a new contract. Turner talked all season about the patchwork approach he had to take -- and how he had to depend on asking guys like Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden to throw excessively.

Defensively, the Browns did acquire new players in Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant, Quentin Groves, and draft picks Barkevious Mingo and Leon McFadden. None were impact players. Kruger and Bryant are solid, but they were backups for their former teams who were made rich and starters in Cleveland. Groves is a backup, Mingo has room to grow, and McFadden was a big disappointment.

The Browns did have five Pro Bowlers and one alternate in Joe Haden, Alex Mack, Joe Thomas, Josh Gordon, and Jordan Cameron. T.J. Ward was the alternate. Banner referred to the Pro Bowlers as a “strong nucleus” to sell to a new coach.

The common denominator for all six: They became Browns before Haslam bought the team. This would no doubt be a key point for the coaching staff: The players acquired since Banner took over were not key contributors, the holdovers were.

Clearly Banner and Haslam feel the issue was coaching. If they didn’t, they would have kept Chudzinski. But Banner also is not going to sit and admit that any of his decisions were wrong at an explosive news conference with his boss sitting next to him. He made a pretty impassioned defense of personnel moves, and directly challenged the notion that the Browns were geared toward the future by mentioning his free agent signings.

“We were one of the most active teams in free agency in the entire NFL,” Banner said. “That’s not something geared toward 2014; it’s geared toward making progress and improving as the season went on.”

The Browns did add players, but nobody can say there was a difference-maker brought in. Banner then said the personnel moves needed to “be judged over time.”

“I’m very optimistic that over time, whether we are dealing with undrafted free agents, the players we claimed or the free agents we signed, that it will prove to have been a year in which we moved the needle forward in terms of the talent level on the team," he said.

Which pretty obviously means the personnel side gets the time the coaches did not. This also came up when Banner discussed injured players.

“I think there are a lot of names we could add to the list if you talk about some of the people who got injured. The (Brian) Hoyers, Dion Lewises, Desmond Bryants, (Quentin) Groves,” he said. “Some of those I think were and will prove to be excellent moves.”

The jury is out on Hoyer, who played very well. But there are very few personnel folks in the NFL who would call the other additions “excellent.” Nor would they say Kruger was “excellent.”

And Haslam added this:

“I think that we said all along that we felt like the draft of 2013 did not compare to the draft of 2014. We like the talent in the draft of 2014. We have 10 picks: two firsts, a second, two thirds and two fourths. We think that free agents, both free agents we signed and free agents we’ve picked up along the way, have considerable talent and ability. Do I think we’re where we need to be talent-wise now? No, I don’t. Do I think we can get there over the next couple three years? Yes, I do.”

On one level the statements are a logical defense of a team’s moves. On the other though, they clearly indicate that there is a feeling that everything the front office did was right and just about everything the coaches did was wrong. And the focus for the future seems clear -- with Haslam calling this offseason “the crucial offseason for the Cleveland Browns.”

Yet with this crucial offseason looming, the coaching staff was fired. Which Haslam admitted made it even more crucial.

Which indicates a deeper disconnect between front office and coaching staff existed than anyone really understood.
Most of the reaction to the Cleveland Browns' decision to fire Rob Chudzinski after one year as head coach has come from fans, and much of it has been negative.

Cutler
But one prominent player in the league weighed in this week.

Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler does a regular show on ESPN-1000 in Chicago (appropriately dubbed "The Jay Cutler Show"). This week he was on the air with John Jurkovic, the ex-Packers and ex-Jaguars defensive lineman who spent a year in Cleveland on the 1999 expansion team.

Jurkovic mentioned on the show he played for the Browns, and Cutler immediately chimed in: “I can’t believe they fired Chud.”

To which Jurkovic responded: “Shocking. They are the new worst franchise in the NFL, replacing and supplanting the great Dan Snyder for the Washington Redskins.”

Cutler continued.

“They had a good team,” he said. “Obviously they didn’t win as many games as they wanted to. Defensively, they looked good. I thought J-Camp (Jason Campbell) came in and did a nice job quarterbacking. They had some talented receivers; that tight end is really good.

“It wasn’t an easy win to play them by any means.”

Cutler’s comments on the defense are kind given the Bears scored 21 in the fourth quarter, but the point was made.

It’s also something similar to what Bill Belichick said after the Patriots' win over the Browns. The Patriots produce their own show called "Patriots All-Access," which mikes players and coaches. After New England’s win, Belichick said (at about the 5:00 mark):

“Give them credit. They’re the team we thought they’d be. Young, aggressive, fought their [butt] off, gave us all we wanted and more.

“That’s a win none of us will forget, I’ll tell ya.”

Of course it’s easy for a coach who wins to be complimentary, especially when the win was as dramatic as that one was.

But typically if a coach or player feels like a move was proper or a team isn’t competing, they will talk in innocuous ways about a move or loss being unfortunate or sometimes being time for a change.

Cutler and Jurkovic were a little more direct.

Joe Thomas said it best,” Jurkovic said. “He said every time you hit the reset button, you set your organization back.”

“It’s hard,” Cutler said. “It’s hard to get a new regime, new offense, new defense, new way of doing things, new way to practice. ... It’s not easy.”

Cutler could be a free agent after the season, and if he is he’ll be the best quarterback on the market.

Where it went wrong for Chudzinski

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
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Rob ChudzinskiJason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsRob Chudzinski, who never had the final say on personnel, finished the season on a seven-game losing streak.
Where did it go south for Rob Chudzinski?

The cynical answer is to say when he took the job knowing he was working in a structure where CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi had more input or as much input on personnel as he had.

Chudzinski knew the structure when he took the job, but clearly the marriage didn't work.

The cynical view is not the Cleveland Browns' view though.

Banner said at a Monday news conference that the working arrangement with Chudzinski, Lombardi and Banner went well, that any disagreements were of the normal kind. He said he was "unequivocal" on that subject.

To Banner and owner Jimmy Haslam, the team simply did not progress or improve. Haslam mentioned he said in July that he would judge the season by whether the team was better in the final three games than the first three. He said he did not see that improvement.

Chudzinski did not finish well. The Browns lost seven in a row to end the season, and dropped 10 of their last 11. A loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars was bad, and the effort against the New York Jets was worse.

But he was also done in by circumstances that he knew of when he was hired, but probably couldn't fully appreciate until he was in the job.

In the Browns structure, Banner runs football, which means he runs personnel. He discusses consensus but he also is the final say on personnel. He also has a certain operating style. Lombardi evaluates and finds personnel.

The tension between the front office decisions and a coaching staff trying to win immediately seemed to increase as the season wore on. The strain showed in various ways, and Chudzinski would not win that struggle without victories on the field.

Barely a week went by in which offensive coordinator Norv Turner did not -- directly or indirectly -- state that he was making do under less than ideal circumstances.

Chudzinski had five different running backs, three different quarterbacks, a third receiver who missed the final two games and a veteran corner placed on injured reserve who finished the season playing for Miami.

Monday, Tony Grossi of ESPN-Cleveland.com reported the front office wanted to shake up the locker room by cutting a starter -- receiver Greg Little or guard Shawn Lauvao, and Chudzinski balked.

If that happened, the coach is in a bind. If he disagrees he's not a team player and he doesn't demand accountability. But if he agrees, he loses the locker room and operates out of fear, which has never been Chudzinski's style.

The Browns, incidentally, deny the request/mandate to cut a player ever happened.

Banner also disputed any notion that the team was building for 2014 and not for this season.

"We were one of the most active teams in free agency in the NFL," Banner said. "That's not something geared toward 2014. It's geared toward making progress."

He continued.

"I think it you took the players that we added, and if you took them comprehensively -- undrafted free agents, people we claimed, people we drafted and free agency -- and you look at the teams we played over the last five or six weeks I think we'll stack up OK in terms of who we added in 2013," Banner said.

The flip side: More than $20 million in salary cap space went unused and the starting running back was traded and never replaced with a credible back. Cornerback Leon McFadden wound up playing after being drafted in the third round, a round or two ahead of where scouts had him projected. And though first-round pick Barkevious Mingo had moments, he did not make a significant impact.

While Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron and Joe Haden improved, Little did not and Davone Bess, one of the front office's offseason acquisitions, wound up AWOL for two games.

A bad game against the Jets led to the decision to fire Chudzinski regardless of what happened against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"It galls me when you all write -- and you have the right to do it, and people have the right to say it -- same old Browns," Haslam said. "It's our single mission to change that."

Except the change has started with two head coaches fired within one day of the final game in consecutive seasons.

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