Patience Is a Virtue in the Head Coach Hunt

January 15, 2014 by Don Banks
(Tony Dejak/AP :: Ed Zurga/AP)
(Tony Dejak/AP :: Ed Zurga/AP)

I don’t even care if it’s an intentional display of patience on their part, or in reality a byproduct of not being able to give the job away, I’m still convinced the sometimes clueless Cleveland Browns are taking the right approach when it comes to conducting their latest head coaching search. By taking their time.

Yep, I just typed the words “right approach” and “Browns coaching search” in the same sentence. It stunned me, too.

As quaint as it might sound in the instant-gratification world in which we live, the Browns deserve kudos for actually showing some restraint in the pursuit of their next coach. Because the speed dating that passes for the NFL head coaching interview and hiring process these days is growing more frenzied all the time.

It has been only 17 days since Cleveland surprisingly lowered the boom on first-year head coach Rob Chudzinkski, but that clearly is an eternity in today’s NFL. For a team that couldn’t even wait until the league’s so-called “Black Monday” to make the move—announcing Chudzinski’s firing just hours after its regular-season finale on Dec. 29 after the news started leaking out—the Browns are proceeding considerably more deliberately in the hiring phase of the proceedings.

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam on Wednesday even felt compelled to issue a letter to his team’s panicked fans, offering an explanation for the perceived hold-up in the search, which has included a few candidates removing their name from consideration. After all, six of the NFL’s seven head-coaching openings have already been filled, with only the Browns still interviewing candidates. You snooze, you lose, right?

The Browns, Haslam wrote, intend to “stay disciplined to this process and to interview all of the candidates on our list.” They are being “very methodical” in their approach, and “are prepared to wait as long as necessary because this is a very important decision.”

Well, roger that. Maybe if the Browns had taken a little bit more time to make their coaching decision last year, they wouldn’t have felt it necessary to can Chudzinski one year into a four-year contract. Live and learn, I guess.

“We understood from the beginning that if we wanted to speak to all of the coaches on our list that we may need to wait until they have completed their participation in the playoffs. We are prepared to wait as long as necessary because this is a very important decision. Everyone in our organization is committed to finding the right leader for our team.” —Jimmy Haslam

As novel an idea as it passes for, Cleveland wants to interview all of the candidates on its list, and that means quite possibly waiting until after the Super Bowl to do so, when a bevy of assistant coaches from Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and New England (pretty, please Josh McDaniels?) will become available.

Quite the concept. But why isn’t it more common? Why is it in the NFL that most teams will spends months preparing for the draft, and weeks and weeks diving into free agency research and preparation, but then feel the need to invest only a handful of days into a critically important head coaching search? Isn’t picking your next coach at least as important as picking your next crop of players?

But that’s the current system the patient Browns are bucking to a certain degree, with the NFL’s rules on the interview windows for head coaching candidates during the postseason making a sprint out of some teams’ searches. Hiring a head coach has become a furious game of musical chairs, and teams desperately don’t want to get caught without one of the most sought-after chairs once the last notes are played. Houston got the game going this year, firing Gary Kubiak with three weeks to go in the season, and getting the desired head start on the rest of the field with the hiring of Penn State coach Bill O’Brien by Jan. 2.

That’s the way the hiring-season game is played now, but that can’t possibly be the best solution. While there will no doubt be issues to overcome no matter when the interview window falls, the most equitable thing to do is to make teams wait until after the Super Bowl is played to interview and hire a new head coach. Revolutionary, I know, but it would remove some of the biggest problems that exist in the current NFL system, even if it didn’t serve to dramatically slow the pace of the hirings once the window opens.

For one, assistants coaches on teams that make deep playoff runs or go to the Super Bowl won’t be disadvantaged any more. Those are usually some of the most attractive candidates on the market, as they are again this year with Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, and 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Yet many times those still-in-season candidates never get the chance to land a job because teams are too anxious to find their new coach and fill out a new coaching staff, and are thus unwilling to wait for the completion of the five-week postseason.

Last year at this time, San Francisco’s Roman was considered a strong candidate for the opening in Jacksonville, where new Jaguars general manager David Caldwell was shopping for a coach. But when Seattle lost in the divisional round, and coveted Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley came free, he wound up getting the Jaguars before Roman even had the opportunity to interview. Why? Because the 49ers were Super Bowl-bound. And the same scenario has probably played out this year, with Washington (Jay Gruden), Tennessee (Ken Whisenhunt), Detroit (Jim Caldwell) and Minnesota (Mike Zimmer) all making their coaching hires in the past six days. Three of those four coaches were on teams that just finished playoff runs in the past two weekends.

Taking more time to sort through the interview and hiring process would perhaps help teams avoid the pitfalls the Browns think they encountered last year, when their pursuit of Chip Kelly failed, and they responded by quickly landing Chudzinski. The urgency to hire someone, and not be seen as having been spurned by your top candidates, is a real and powerful motivator that can prompt clubs to short-change the decision-making process and all of its long-term ramifications.

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Gone too would be the onerous practice of making head-coaching candidates on playoff teams schedule interviews in clumps, just a day or two before they work the most important game of their club’s season. The divided attention span issue is a thorny one for playoff teams to contend with, but needlessly so, since it could be eliminated.

No more need for an offensive coordinator like Whisenhunt to interview with three teams and prepare a game plan for San Diego’s divisional-round playoff game at Denver, all within the span of a few days. And no more team officials like Vikings general manager Rick Spielman flying to Charlotte last weekend to interview the 49ers’ Roman and his fellow San Francisco assistant, defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, at a hotel less than 24 hours before the 49ers’ road playoff game at Carolina.

Is anyone capable of doing their best possible work under those circumstances? It’s not ideal for the coaching candidates, the teams they currently work for, or for team officials who are forced to jet around the country and jam some pretty crucial job interviews into tiny windows of time.

And if every team searching for a head coach has the potential of the same hiring season start date, then everyone has the same pool to build an assistant coaching staff from, and doesn’t have to make premature or hasty decisions based purely on pressure to compete for the best assistants. There would still be mad competition on that front, but there would at least be a leveling of that particular playing field.

A post-Super Bowl start to head coach hiring season would get push-back from those who think it’d be the end of the world to not have a fully operational coaching staff in place and scouting at next week’s Senior Bowl workouts in Alabama. But a team’s personnel and scouting staff doesn’t get completely wiped out in a coaching change and that assignment could be handled. With the lighter offseason programs in today’s NFL, you don’t desperately need a head coach in early to mid-January any way, and you’d still have months to make up for any draft prep that might be missed by conducting a February coaching search. After all, the draft this year has been moved to the second weekend of May, so there’s still all the time in the world for a new coaching staff to set its board.

I’ve never thought of them this way before, but the Browns might be the smart ones here. They’re taking their time to find a head coach. At least this time. They’re determined to find the right guy. Even if he’s not available right now.