BEREA: Tom Heckert is not the Browns’ biggest asset.
Neither is Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson nor Josh Gordon.
The most important thing the Browns’ could lose in the anticipated postseason blowup by new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner is the 4-3 defensive scheme.
And just a notch below is its understated professor, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron.
If the Browns have built anything during Heckert’s three-year tenure as general manager and Pat Shurmur’s two years as coach, it is a defensive front on the verge of a nickname.
And that is with this season’s anticipated defensive starters healthy at the same time for just the past three games. That’s when tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin finally teamed up after Taylor’s pectoral surgery in May and Rubin’s calf injury and cornerback Joe Haden returned from an oblique strain.
The Browns have four or more sacks in a game four times this year, twice in the past four weeks, with their season high of seven in a Nov. 18 overtime loss at the Dallas Cowboys. With three games remaining going into the home finale today against the Washington Redskins, the Browns’ 34 sacks have already surpassed the 2011 total of 32, and the expansion era’s single-season high of 43 under coach Butch Davis in 2001 could be within reach.
But after the season likely ends Dec. 30 in Pittsburgh, all know the hammer could fall. Heckert, Shurmur and his staff could be out. The fate of the 4-3 could be in jeopardy.
Starting over with an offense that is just finding itself is one thing. Going back to a 3-4 scheme with a defense that might be on the verge of greatness is another.
“I don’t know of a 3-4 guy that’s in here [in the locker room],” cornerback Sheldon Brown said recently. “I can remember when we were changing to a 4-3, they went out and got Jayme [Mitchell]. He sat on the bench for probably 12 weeks because they were getting ready to transition into a 4-3. You have to have players for that scheme.
“That’s even worse because now not only are you looking over your shoulder, you know you don’t fit that system, so you know you’re out.”
Haden, although prepared for change, isn’t an advocate, either.
“The defense is playing out of control,” Haden said, meaning that in a good way. “It would be crazy to change it up, but whatever happens happens; you’ve got to adjust, you’ve got to do what they say. Hopefully whoever does come or coach Shurmur or whatever happens in the future, they see what we’ve done here so you don’t want to break anything that’s not broken.”
Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson credited Heckert for finding the talent to stock the 4-3.
“I think the 4-3 is suited for the guys we have here,” Jackson said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I started my career in the 3-4. We’ve got a roll going right here.”
The conductor of that roll is Jauron, former coach of the Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills. Shurmur said when he got the Browns’ job, the first phone call he made was to Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid to see if senior assistant/defensive backs coach Jauron was available. Jauron worked with Shurmur’s late uncle, Fritz, with the Green Bay Packers in 1994.
“I’ve always admired Dick,” Shurmur said Thursday. “You become a fan of the league, so you watch how people do things. We were in Philadelphia when he built a playoff-caliber team in Chicago. I knew a lot about him from his days working with my uncle. I admired him as a person, as a teacher and his knowledge and what he’d accomplished. I thought he would be an outstanding guy to inspire our guys on defense.”
Judging from what the Browns said about Jauron on Wednesday, that is overwhelmingly the case.
“I’ve seen him curse one time in two years,” Haden said. “He’s such a professional, it’s like you don’t want to do anything to make him snap. He tells you the exact stuff to do, where to be. He’s so cool and he treats you with so much respect, you wouldn’t want to do a bad job.”
Defensive end Frostee Rucker said he played for another coordinator with just as much knowledge — Mike Zimmer of the Cincinnati Bengals. But in terms of personality, Rucker said Zimmer is at the other end of the spectrum.
“Mike Zimmer, he’s phenomenal,” Rucker said. “Their styles are different. But when it comes to being disciplined, smart football players, they’re similar in that. That’s why I chose this because I’ve had the fiery guy who wants you to be very disciplined and be in your gap and be technically sound. Coach Jauron’s the same way without the fire.”
Rucker said Jauron’s players “trust in what he’s saying and believe in his game plan.”
“He’s a guy who’s hard to disappoint because he’s not a fiery guy who’s yelling and stuff like that,” Rucker said. “That keeps you on your toes more when you don’t know how he’s feeling because he doesn’t tell you. He can rally the troops by standing up there very confident.”
Jackson said Jauron doesn’t try to show off with a tricked-up scheme, especially if it’s too complicated for his players to understand.
“He allows us to play fast,” Jackson said. “If he doesn’t feel like we’re playing at a high level any particular call, he won’t run it. Any calls we’ve played any Sunday, it’s calls we’ve repped over 100 times during practice.
“He understands we don’t have to do a ton of blitzes or pressures or moving guys around. That only confuses guys. We have a core group of calls. Teams may know it, but you’ve got to stop it and we’ve got the players to get it done.”
The Browns’ defense might need a few more pieces. But Jauron said Thursday that the defensive line is getting close to his vision, which means it is “as good as you can possibly be and as deep as you can possibly be.”
“It’s a good thing for this organization,” Jauron said.
It could be a good thing for just three more games. Jauron’s and Shurmur’s fates are likely intertwined. Four of Shurmur’s assistants were brought in by his predecessor Eric Mangini, but holdovers don’t seem likely if the Browns hire a more powerful coach with control of the 53-man roster, a model Banner has preferred.
Losing Jauron would be bad enough. But for Haslam and Banner, saving the 4-3 should be an even bigger priority.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. 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.