INDIANAPOLIS: New Browns coach Mike Pettine has been sabotaged before he’s barely begun.
At 10:15 today, when he is scheduled to address the media at the NFL Scouting Combine, Pettine will face for the first time a headline-grabbing report that smacks of Browns’ front-office dysfunction.
I might excuse Pettine if he didn’t want to step onto the podium at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com reported Friday that before hiring Pettine on Jan. 23, the Browns nearly completed a trade with the San Francisco 49ers for coach Jim Harbaugh.
Ironically, Florio interviewed Pettine on Friday morning on Pro Football Talk’s NBC Sports Network set.
Via Twitter, 49ers owner Jed York denied the story, but a statement from the Browns did not. It said the Browns “explored several options,” while also calling Pettine an “outstanding head coach.”
Those three words might not be enough to convince Pettine that he’s doomed before he coaches a regular-season game.
The proposed trade gives further credence to the idea that Browns owner Jimmy Haslam wants a big-name coach and that he fired CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi this month because they were poisoning the pool of prospects. It explains the report about the Browns’ “mystery candidate,” who was never revealed.
Clearly, Pettine, the defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills, does not seem to be who Haslam had in mind.
Haslam’s star worship adds to the pressure for Pettine and new General Manager Ray Farmer to win immediately. Haslam fired coach Rob Chudzinski after one season. As outrageous as that was, some NFL observers think Haslam could do it again. Pettine and Farmer might need seven victories to prove they deserve to stay.
The stress of a win-now business might be amped up a few notches under the trigger-happy Haslam.
Not only does that uncertainty affect Pettine’s and Farmer’s confidence, it might influence the May 8-10 NFL Draft. It’s not out of the question to suggest the two might want to select the most pro-ready quarterback — Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater? — because they don’t have the luxury of grooming one. Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, a developmental prospect who needs time on the bench behind Brian Hoyer, might be out of the question. Or Pettine and Farmer might decide they need offensive firepower with the No. 4 overall pick and tab Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins to pair with franchise record-setter Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron, then take a quarterback at No. 26 or No. 35. If they think they have no grace period, they might be forced to re-sign free-agent center Alex Mack and put the franchise tag on strong safety T.J. Ward even if they have reservations about either Pro Bowler.
There’s also the issue of how Pettine is going to win over a locker room if his players believe his run will be short. Haslam needs to address that perception, preferably publicly, but he might not be able to eradicate the seed he has planted that’s growing by the day.
As for the reported trade, there are at least two scenarios for the motive, and both bear the fingerprints of Lombardi.
Harbaugh, who has taken the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game in each of his three seasons and to one Super Bowl, has two years remaining on his contract and is in the midst of extension talks. According to CSNBayArea.com, he isn’t thrilled with the proposed salary. Harbaugh and Lombardi are close friends, with Lombardi’s son Mick hired as Harbaugh’s assistant in 2013. Lombardi could have begun orchestrating a trade to convince York to give Harbaugh more money.
Or Lombardi was up to his old backstabbing tricks.
During his first Browns’ tenure under coach Bill Belichick, Lombardi managed to minimize the duties of General Manager Ernie Accorsi, who resigned in 1992 after eight years. Lombardi could have seen the opportunity to trade for Harbaugh as a way to usurp Banner’s power and reign alongside Harbaugh, a proven winner who would enhance a reputation Lombardi only wishes he had.
Such machinations might have led to Haslam’s stunning firing of Banner and Lombardi on Feb. 11, when Haslam said of Pettine, “I think we got the best head coach we could get.”
No matter how close the reported deal for multiple draft picks came — and we might never know — Pettine will suffer the fallout. As badly as he wanted to be an NFL coach, he could be having second thoughts now.
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.