Rob Chudzinski was raised as a Browns fan, and now he’ll get a chance to lead the franchise he idolized growing up.
The Browns hired Chudzinski as their 14th full-time head coach and sixth since 1999, the team announced late Thursday night. Chudzinski’s introductory news conference will be held at 11 a.m. today at the team’s headquarters in Berea.
Chudzinski spent the past two seasons as the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. He replaces Pat Shurmur, who went 9-23 in two seasons as the Browns’ coach before being fired Dec. 31 along with General Manager Tom Heckert. The Browns have yet to hire Heckert’s successor.
Chudzinski, 44, has never been a head coach before at any level. But he convinced owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner that he’s ready for the next step in his career. Chudzinski, a former Browns offensive coordinator, interviewed with the team’s bigwigs on Wednesday.
Haslam, who struck a deal Aug. 2 to buy the Browns from Randy Lerner for about $1 billion, and Banner said they wanted a strong, dynamic leader to guide the team. Chudzinski must fit the profile in their eyes because he beat out a long list of candidates.
The Browns interviewed Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman on Tuesday, Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer on Wednesday and met with former Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt for a second time on Thursday. Last week, the Browns interviewed University of Oregon coach Chip Kelly, Penn State University coach Bill O’Brien, former Syracuse University coach Doug Marrone and Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who satisfied the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams with head-coaching vacancies to interview at least one minority candidate.
Kelly and the Browns reportedly came close to striking a deal, but he and O’Brien ultimately chose to remain in the college ranks. The Buffalo Bills hired Marrone, whom the Browns reportedly interviewed twice.
In the end, Chudzinski emerged the victor. His return to the Browns will signal more changes. He’ll bring a new approach to the offense — he might hire ex-San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner as the Browns’ offensive coordinator — and possibly switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme.
During his time with the Panthers, Chudzinski employed a spread option offense, using concepts quarterback Cam Newton was familiar with from his days at Auburn University. He’s considered an innovative offensive mind.
“He’s really just a genius,” Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart told the Charlotte Observer in September. “He spends a lot of time with the offense trying to create ways for players to be successful. That’s what a good offensive coordinator and coach is all about. He does a good job of explaining what he wants, and what he expects out of us individually and collectively.”
After Chudzinski joined the Panthers in 2011 and took control of the play calling, they ranked seventh in offense (389.8 yards per game) and tied for fifth in scoring (25.4 points per game) in his first season with the team. In 2012, the Panthers ranked 12th in offense (360.7 yards per game) and tied for 18th in scoring (22.3 points per game).
“There’s usually two kinds of [coaches],” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen told the Charlotte Observer. “The grinder who guts his way through because he just outworks everyone. And then there’s just the smart guy who just naturally has a mind for putting things together and anticipating defenses and tendencies. Chud is the combination of both.”
Chudzinski entered the NFL as a tight ends coach for the Browns in 2004 and was promoted to offensive coordinator for the final five games that season after coach Butch Davis resigned. He then joined the San Diego Chargers in 2005 as a tight ends coach.
Chudzinski, a former tight end at the University of Miami, returned to the Browns in 2007 as a full-time offensive coordinator, a job he held for two seasons in Cleveland.
In 2007, the Browns compiled a record of 10-6 and ranked eighth in offense (351.3 yards per game). During that season, he orchestrated the team’s best offense of the expansion era in terms of total yards (5,621), passing yards (3,726) and points scored (402). The Browns also sent six players, including left tackle Joe Thomas, quarterback Derek Anderson, wide receiver Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., to the Pro Bowl.
But in 2008, the Browns stumbled to 4-12 and ranked 31st on offense (249.1 yards per game). Coach Romeo Crennel was fired at the end of the season, and Chudzinski moved on to his next stop.
Chudzinski, who has two sons, Kaelan and Rian, and one daughter, Margaret, with his wife, Sheila, returned to the Chargers and served as their assistant head coach/tight ends coach for two seasons. He is close with Turner, who was fired Dec. 31 after coaching the Chargers for six seasons.
Last year, Chudzinski interviewed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to the Charlotte Observer. Still, he hadn’t caught his big break until Thursday.
Haslam and Banner hope he makes the most of it.