BEREA: Less than a year after the Browns hired Rob Chudzinski as their head coach, the bigwigs who brought him back to his home state claimed he wasn’t the right man for the job but they’d find someone else who is in the aftermath of his unexpected firing.
So far, New England Patriots offensive coordinator and Canton native Josh McDaniels, Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles form the list of candidates the Browns are known to be pursuing.
But no matter who is interviewed, if the team’s brass admitted it made the wrong hire Jan. 10 when it chose Chudzinski, why should anyone believe it’ll deliver this time?
“We deserve the skepticism,” Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said. “We accept it. We have to prove to you all we’ll get the right guy. We’re confident we can do that. But until that individual comes in and wins football games, talk is cheap, so actions speak loud. We’re confident we can do that.”
Haslam and CEO Joe Banner held a half-hour news conference Monday afternoon to explain their firing of Chudzinski after he spent just one season on the job. Although the ax swung Sunday night about five hours after the Browns lost 20-7 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season finale, Banner said the organization decided Chudzinski’s fate Saturday and had been discussing it for about a week.
Banner insisted “there’s nothing to those reports” about Chudzinski having philosophical differences with General Manager Mike Lombardi and the front office — like refusing to cut a player such as wide receiver Greg Little or Shawn Lauvao when urged to do so. Instead, he and Haslam repeatedly pointed to the team’s regression in the second half of the season as the reason for Chudzinski’s dismissal. The Browns ended the season with a record of 4-12, seven consecutive losses and 10 defeats in their final 11 games.
“As a team, we were not getting better,” Haslam said. “We had a young team. But if we reflect on it, we would all say a young team should get better, and we simply didn’t feel like that was happening.”
Chudzinski, who grew up a rabid Browns fan in Toledo, had never been a head coach in the NFL before Haslam and Banner hand-picked him while he was an offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers. His first season in charge was filled with obstacles. The Browns used three quarterbacks because of injuries and poor production, and the front office made moves that pointed toward next season — most notably trading two 2013 draft picks for two 2014 selections and shipping running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts in September for a first-round choice in May.
Still, Chudzinski’s new bosses watched other first-year NFL head coaches like Chip Kelly of the Philadelphia Eagles, Bruce Arians of the Arizona Cardinals and Marc Trestman of the Chicago Bears succeed, and they didn’t believe Chudzinski should be excused for his team’s lack of progress.
“The improvement that should be happening through the season, regardless of the talent level that you’re at, is something you have to be able to see,” Banner said. “It’s something that’s happening on many of the rosters, I think you could argue, this year on every roster with a first-year head coach in spite of very difficult quarterback situations.
“We know the team needs more talent to be the caliber of team we’re looking for. But if the answer was time, we should’ve seen the trajectory moving forward, and then it was reasonable to expect as more time passed, the trajectory would continue to move upward. When we felt the trajectory was actually moving downward, we felt that the answer was more than time, and that led us to conclude we thought we needed to make this change.”
Haslam and Banner met with all of the players and later with a small group of team leaders to explain their decision. They also allowed Chudzinski to address the team with what Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon described as an emotional but professional farewell speech.
“I was shocked and disappointed to hear the news that I was fired,” Chudzinski said in a statement released by the team. “I am a Cleveland Brown to the core, and always will be. It was an honor to lead our players and coaches, and I appreciate their dedication and sacrifice. I was more excited than ever for this team, as I know we were building a great foundation for future success. While clearly I would have liked to see the long-term vision through to the end, I am very grateful to Jimmy Haslam and the Haslam family for letting me live my dream.”
Now the Browns are ready to give another coach a shot, so they requested permission to interview McDaniels, a Canton McKinley High School graduate, Quinn and Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, a league source confirmed. Gase told Denver reporters he would postpone the opportunity to interview with the Browns or any other team until after the Broncos are done with the playoffs. According to multiple reports, the Browns also requested permission to interview Bowles, which would satisfy the Rooney Rule. The rule requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for vacancies at head coach and the highest-ranking player personnel position.
Haslam and Banner did not put a time limit on their search. The Patriots and the Seahawks are in the playoffs but have byes. So according to NFL rules, the Browns would need to interview McDaniels and Quinn before the conclusion of the wild-card games Sunday or wait until the postseason ends for their teams.
Banner said, “I don’t think there will be anybody from last year’s search that will be a candidate this year.” If that holds true, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien can be crossed off the list because he interviewed with the Browns before Chudzinski was hired. O’Brien is also reportedly the favorite to land with the Houston Texans, one of six teams with head-coaching vacancies.
One of the openings was created when the Detroit Lions fired coach Jim Schwartz. He also could receive interest from the Browns partly because of his long-standing relationship with Lombardi.
All of Chudzinski’s assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive coordinator Ray Horton, are still under contract, but the Browns will be liberal in granting them permission to interview with other teams, Banner said. Whoever becomes the new head coach will ultimately decide whether he wants to retain any of the assistants.
Banner said he and Haslam are still deciding whether any Browns assistants such as Horton, who interviewed for the Browns’ head-coaching job this past offseason, will be considered candidates.
Chudzinski became the first head coach in Browns history to be fired after one season. A vast majority of the fan base is outraged, and Haslam and Banner even encountered a question during the news conference about whether they can assure the public that The Three Stooges aren’t running the team.
“As unpopular and undesirable for us to be sitting here right now and acknowledging that we didn’t get it right, the fact that we’re making this change makes a statement that we’re not going to accept not being really successful,” Banner said. “And I think that whether you agree with the decision or not, that that’s an important message for our fans to hear.”
Haslam also defended the decision by alluding to the $10.5 million the Browns owe Chudzinski for the final three years of his contract. ESPN reported the figure.
“We’re talking with our pocketbook here,” Haslam said. “So these are not cheap moves to make, and I’m not saying that should be the guiding factor, but we’re doing everything we can to get this right.”
Some doubt the Browns will be able to attract a top-tier coach because their lack of patience with Chudzinski could scare candidates away. Banner attempted to sell the notion that his 14 years in Philadelphia with coach Andy Reid and Haslam’s approach in the business world prove they’re not inclined to have knee-jerk reactions.
“The fact this didn’t go well doesn’t change the track record we both have in attracting good people, recognizing good people and having continuity,” Banner said.
Added Haslam: “We understand the importance of continuity. But I think it’s really important for you to hear this: We also understand the importance of getting it right.”
Haslam also insisted he believes he’ll be able to attract the right coach despite the stability of his ownership being in question. His family’s truck-stop empire, Pilot Flying J, is the target of an ongoing federal investigation into a fraud scheme.
“I don’t know how many times I can say that we expect the Browns to be a long-term asset of our family,” Haslam said.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.