The Browns dropped out of the Chip Kelly sweepstakes Sunday despite being labeled as the early favorites to lure the spread-offense mastermind away from the University of Oregon, a league source confirmed for the Beacon Journal.
The source spoke on condition of anonymity because the Browns are not commenting on candidates or interviews until the search for their 14th full-time head coach and sixth since 1999 is complete. The Browns fired coach Pat Shurmur on Dec. 31 after finishing 2012 with a record of 5-11 and have since embarked on a wild ride full of twists and turns to find his successor.
After spending most of last week conducting interviews in Arizona, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and his contingent flew back to Cleveland on Sunday afternoon to reboot their search with Kelly out of the mix, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen first reported on Sunday NFL Countdown.
Kelly’s choice came down to staying at Oregon or leaving to become the next coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported late Sunday night that Kelly decided to return to Oregon.
Kelly, 49, had yet to officially announce his choice.
The news was reminiscent of when the Browns were viewed as the front-runners but still lost a bidding war in March while attempting to trade with the St. Louis Rams for the right to draft Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
But this time, the Browns are led by a new regime — Haslam, who struck a deal Aug. 2 to buy the team from Randy Lerner for about $1 billion, and CEO Joe Banner, who joined the Browns in October after helping run the Philadelphia Eagles for 19 years.
Still, there are two sides to every potential left-at-the-altar story.
A person familiar with the search told the Associated Press that Kelly was indecisive about leaving Oregon, and the Browns decided to move on to other candidates after questioning whether Kelly “was committed to coming to the NFL.” Kelly also walked away from a chance to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year.
Either way, the Browns are ready to forge ahead. Jason Cole of Yahoo Sports reported their ongoing search will include two former Browns offensive coordinators — Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman.
Arians, who was with the Browns from 2001-03 before being fired by former coach Butch Davis, served as interim coach of the Colts for most of 2012 and guided them to a record of 9-3 and postseason berth after coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. Arians, 60, is a former head coach of Temple University and offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Trestman, who was with the Browns from 1988-89, also served as an offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders before entering the Canadian Football League in 2008. Trestman, 56, is also a noted quarterback consultant, and he worked with Brandon Weeden before the Browns drafted him 22nd overall in 2012.
Last week, the Browns also reportedly interviewed former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton and Penn State University coach Bill O’Brien, who dropped out of the running Thursday night by deciding to stay with the Nittany Lions.
Mortensen reported the Browns like Whisenhunt, who was fired Monday after compiling a record of 45-51, including a 4-2 postseason mark, in six seasons with the Cardinals. Whisenhunt, 50, guided the Cardinals to the Super Bowl following the 2008 season, when they fell 27-23 to the Steelers. In 1999, Whisenhunt was a special-teams coach for the Browns. He was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator from 2004-06.
The Browns also reportedly interviewed Syracuse University coach Doug Marrone on Thursday and Saturday, and he seemed to be a realistic backup if their pursuit of Kelly fell through. Marrone, however, agreed to become the next coach of the Buffalo Bills early Sunday morning, Schefter reported.
Kelly, O’Brien and Marrone are among the candidates who were reportedly on the Browns’ radar but did not pan out.
Others appear to be University of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who insists he has no desire to return to the NFL, and New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who reportedly told potential suitors he is staying put.
Nevertheless, the top target for the Browns during the past week was Kelly.
Although he doesn’t have NFL experience, Kelly is considered an offensive innovator who turned Oregon into a national power by leading it to four consecutive BCS games. Elite NFL coaches, including the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick, have sought his advice about how to run an up-tempo attack, and the Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers also have borrowed concepts from his scheme.
The Browns camped out in Arizona for most of last week so they could talk to Kelly after he guided Oregon to a 35-17 win over Kansas State on Thursday night in the Fiesta Bowl. They reportedly interviewed him for seven hours Friday, and lawyers were scheduled to be in attendance for a dinner meeting Saturday night, a sign Haslam and Banner intended to secure Kelly by hammering out a contract.
On Friday, Rapoport reported the Browns were close to a deal with Kelly. On Saturday afternoon, ESPN and NFL Network reported the Browns were favored to secure him.
But Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, a childhood friend of Banner, and his lieutenants swooped in Saturday and had a lunch meeting with Kelly that reportedly stretched into a nine-hour marathon session that didn’t end until about midnight. The Browns were left waiting and are resetting their search a week after they hit the restart button on the franchise by ousting Shurmur, along with General Manager Tom Heckert.
Haslam and Banner knew it would be challenging to find a strong, dynamic leader capable of sparking a turnaround for a team that has only two winning seasons since 1999.
But maybe they didn’t realize it would be this complicated.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.