BEREA: Ray Horton stepped in front of a wall of cameras and recorders Tuesday and the first thing everyone wanted to talk about was his hair.
“The hair? That’s a big news story?” Horton asked as laughter ensued.
After wearing his hair in braids for seven years, Horton, the new Browns defensive coordinator, cut them off just in time for the first full squad practice of training camp Thursday. It might have been acknowledgement of the upcoming heat and humidity or merely split ends. But it appears that Horton’s campaign to become an NFL coach has officially begun.
The braids seemed a statement of who he is and what he believes in. From that standpoint, it’s a shame that they’re gone.
But regardless of the reputation he built in his 10 years as an NFL defensive back with the Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys and 19 years as an assistant in the league, Horton’s choice of hairstyle might have scared league owners. In January, Horton interviewed for coaching jobs with the Arizona Cardinals, Browns and the Buffalo Bills. He talked to the St. Louis Rams in 2012. None of those discussions seemed like obligatory fulfillment of the Rooney Rule. Horton believed he was ready to make the leap.
He said he brought up the braids, which he called “the elephant in the room,” and didn’t think it was an issue with those teams. But no one is going to say he didn’t project the face of the franchise they envisioned.
On Tuesday, Horton was professional, down to earth and friendly, cracking a few one-liners. It seemed like he might have learned from those interviews or been coached on media protocol. He didn’t once mention his “Big men who can run and little men who can hit” mantra. When the issue of his hair came up, he surveyed members of the media to see what they had up top or hidden underneath their baseball caps.
“Well, let me see, one, two, coming up on three, four … unlike four guys out here my hair will grow back,” Horton said. “I just cut it; it was time … change of pace.”
Unlike first-year coach Rob Chudzinski, Horton seemed more forthcoming in his evaluation of players, calling inside linebacker Craig Robertson “my little ace in the hole” and candidly discussing what he thinks about first-round pick Barkevious Mingo’s weight.
Horton is 53. He might think his window of opportunity to become an NFL coach is closing. While he has only been a defensive coordinator the previous two years with the Cardinals, he needs to show league owners he’s a dynamic personality who has all the skills to handle being in charge.
His best selling point might be what the Browns do on the field this season. If Horton achieves the major makeover of the Browns’ defense he’s embarking on, he might get his dream job next January.
Horton has already convinced some of his players he’s a leader of men. Defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson praised Horton at the end of the June minicamp, despite their short time together.
“I think the world of Ray Horton,” Jackson said. “I want to be the guy to make him a head coach and have us, if not at the top of the leaderboard in total defense, then top five.”
With all he’s asking of his players in the transition from a 4-3 defense to an attacking 3-4 multi-front scheme, Horton will need that kind of support. He’s looking for versatile players who can move around. He needs depth. Intelligence ranks right up there with running and hitting. Among the questions Horton suggested he has to answer are “Can Buster [Skrine] play free safety? Can Mingo stand up? Can Paul [Kruger] stand up? Can Phil Taylor drop?”
As well as things have gone this spring, it still seems a stretch to suggest Horton’s defense will look the way he wants for the Sept. 8 season opener at home against the Miami Dolphins.
“We’re not going to get there [in a day] ... you can’t win it in the first game,” Horton said. “But we’re going to try to get better and better and better. Statistically this defense works; I know what the numbers say. We’ve got good players. We’ll get there.”
Horton is looking at statistics from the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cardinals, which run the scheme he learned from Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and implemented in Arizona. Last season the Steelers ranked first in the league in total defense, the Cardinals 12th, and the Browns finished 23rd.
But Horton doesn’t appear to have the personnel those teams do. Horton was appalled at the number of points scored in the Super Bowl as the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers 34-31. For the Browns, every Sunday could be 34-31 until Horton finds out about Skrine and Mingo and Kruger and Taylor and learns what his players do best.
If the finished product Horton puts on the field for the regular-season finale Dec. 29 at Pittsburgh resembles the Steelers in any form or fashion, it could be Horton’s last game wearing Browns’ colors.
Longtime defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel got his first coaching job with the Browns in 2005 after the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl with a patchwork secondary that included receiver Troy Brown. To NFL owners looking for a new coach, turning the Browns defense into a Steelers’ clone might surpass that.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.