What in tarnation are the Browns doing?
A little more than a year ago, when Jimmy Haslam bought the Browns from Randy Lerner, the most sensible thing he said concerned the coaching merry-go-round the team had been on. Haslam was a minority owner of the Steelers when he bought the Browns, and stability, obviously, was the Pittsburgh way of doing business. As he told me of the Browns: “They’ve averaged a new coach once every 2.8 years [since the franchise returned to Cleveland in 1999], and that’s just not a good recipe.” He was right. Excluding interim coach Terry Robiskie in 2004, Cleveland had five head coaches in the 14 seasons between 1999 and 2012, and that’s 2.8 seasons per coach.
More Haslam, from October 2012: “One thing I learned from watching the Steelers is the importance of consistency in coaching, and how much it sets you back when you’re always making a change. When you change coaches, it can be a three- or four-year deal to get back.”
That brings us to Rob Chudzinski. The new regime led by Haslam and president Joe Banner went through a battery of interviews, clearly preferring Oregon’s Chip Kelly. But Kelly wasn’t ready to commit, and then he committed to Philadelphia, so the Browns turned to Chudzinski, a Browns fan since his youth in Toledo.
The Browns have battened the hatches this year, preferring all information to come from Chudzinski and Banner. GM Mike Lombardi rarely speaks, on or off the record, and so the news that began to leak Sunday afternoon was stunning: Chudzinski’s job was in danger. Actually, it was more than endangered—the team had decided to fire him Friday, after less than a full year on the job, and tell him Monday. But when speculation following the season-ending 20-7 loss at Pittsburgh ran rampant, the club decided to move up the timetable, telling Chudzinski when he returned on the bus with the team from Pittsburgh Sunday night. By 9:15 p.m., it was done.
The Browns will meet the press today at 12:30 to explain themselves. I doubt it will go well. And it shouldn’t. If you give a man a four-year contract to coach your team and fire him after 11-and-a-half months, clearly you have either misjudged the man severely, had a shoddy coaching search in the first place or panicked. Or all three.
I expect Cleveland brass will say, politely, that the team simply wasn’t improving. The Browns looked like a strong defensive team in the first month (Cleveland started 3-2) and disintegrated into one that lost 10 of its last 11. The team that spent $40 million to import Paul Kruger in free agency and drafted Barkevious Mingo high in the first round was supposed to use those two as cornerstones of a ferocious pass rush; but Cleveland had only two more sacks this season than in 2012, and Kruger and Mingo combined for only 9.5. If Banner and Haslam tell the truth, maybe they’ll say not everyone is cut out to be an NFL head coach, and maybe Chudzinski was one slot above the job he does best: offensive coordinator.
And if they kept Chudzinski, they’d be asking him to develop the next quarterback, along with offensive coordinator Norv Turner. What if there was a disconnect between the quarterback the front office wanted (I hear Cleveland really likes Johnny Manziel, who is not the Aikmanish pocket passer more to Turner’s liking) and the one the coaches preferred? If they made a clean break now, they wouldn’t be delaying what they felt was inevitable.
The front office will definitely have to sell the players on the move. Because the players Sunday night were not happy. At all. The ultimate team guys and longest-serving Browns, D’Qwell Jackson and tackle Joe Thomas, were both upset by it.
Jackson told me: “On the bus back to Pittsburgh, [defensive teammate] Jabaal Sheard showed me a text from his agent that said Chud could be fired. I said, ‘No way. No way.’ After the Trent Richardson trade and our quarterback injuries, I thought for sure he’d get a pass. Not one year. Come on. One year? There’s no way. Chud was good for us, good for the team. He came in and did everything right, I thought.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to trust Banner and company know what they’re doing, and have something planned for us.”
Today, I hope someone asks Haslam about his statement to me 14 months ago. If I can talk to him, I certainly will. And about this: Pittsburgh has had three coaches since 1969. Cleveland will be hiring its 17th coach since 1969 in the coming weeks. Is that any way to run a railroad?
“Three since 1969?” Jackson said. “That’s incredible. Next year will be my ninth season here—and it’ll be my fifth head coach.”
Jackson sighed. “We’ve had some crazy things happen since I’ve been here. This is actually the second time a coach got fired after we bused back from our last game in Pittsburgh. It happened to Romeo Crennel too. But this one, this tops the list. This is just crazy.”
It’s going to be a crazy day in Cleveland. And the craziness isn’t over there.
* * *
Five things all over the map.
1. Miami sounded Sunday night like a place of change. I wouldn’t be surprised to see coaching staff changes, and I’m hearing mixed messages about GM Jeff Ireland. Stay tuned. Owner Stephen Ross seems like he was ready to make some changes when he left the stadium after eight disappointing days for the Dolphins.
2. Be careful about making Josh McDaniels the next coach of the Browns. There is no doubt the Browns will be interested in northeast Ohio native and New England offensive coordinator McDaniels, even after his failed tenure in Denver. But those who know McDaniels tell me he’ll only take a job he’s convinced can be a winner. Right now, the Cleveland job has a moat surrounding it, with alligators swimming in it, so I think Cleveland will be hard-pressed to convince McDaniels it’s a great job for him. Maybe Detroit, if it opens, with a good quarterback who needs to be coached and some very good defensive talent, would be more up McDaniels’ alley. But he’s not the kind of guy itching to be a head coach, I’m told. He’s happy coaching Tom Brady and working under Bill Belichick, I’m told.
3. Once a Eufaulan, always a Eufaulan. As Rams GM Les Snead (a native of Eufaula, Ala.) sat in a Seahawks luxury box Sunday, watching the early games to see where his team would be picking in the May draft, he saw an unknown wideout, Jerrel Jernigan, lead the Giants to a win over Washington … and hand the Rams Washington’s No. 2 overall pick. Jernigan’s a Eufaula kid too, and had six catches for 90 yards and a touchdown, plus a 49-yard touchdown run. “He went to my high school,” said Snead. “He was the quarterback on the team, and I’m watching him, and here he is, helping us get the No. 2 pick.” Snead made it clear that, with the second pick, the Rams are open for business. He’d like to get an extra first-rounder out of the deal if possible, and with a major bargaining chip like Jadeveon Clowney or Teddy Bridgewater (if the Louisville quarterback comes out, as expected) in play, he may be able to reach his goal. “There are going to be some teams that want to pick a quarterback,” said Snead, “and that could increase the value of our pick. I have told people I’m not sure I know how to draft without multiple first-round picks, so I’m always going to be interested when it comes to making sure I can continue to do that.”
4. Fletcher and Gonzalez say goodbye. Any doubt Gonzalez could keep playing? His first year with Atlanta, at age 33, he caught 83 balls for 867 yards and six touchdowns. This year, at 37, he finished with 83 catches for 859 yards and eight touchdowns. He’ll go into the sunset to a TV job. As will Fletcher—or so he hopes. After his final game against the Giants Sunday (and it is final, unless he’s sitting around unemployed next fall and some team calls), Giants tight end coach Mike Pope, who has coached against Fletcher for years, found him on the field and told him, “I appreciate the way you play the game. I’ve been a fan of you for years.” Said Fletcher: “The key to my career was I never got complacent, and I always studied the great ones.” Talk about two players, and two people, who will be missed.
5. Remember this about being the top seed. In the last 19 seasons, only once (2009, New Orleans and Indy) have the two top seeds entering the playoffs advanced to the Super Bowl. In the last generation, home-field advantage has become decreasingly important. My two low seeds to watch this year: No. 5 San Francisco and No. 5 Kansas City.