BEREA: A reporter didn’t get the word radioactive out of his mouth before Browns owner Jimmy Haslam jumped down his throat.
“I think that’s a perception that you all have generated,” Haslam said, referring to the media. “That’s not the perception among the candidates. That’s not the perception among football people that I’ve talked to around the country.
“They talk about the birthplace of football, great fan base, great cap space, young roster, five Pro Bowlers, 10 draft picks, three of the first 35. This perception that’s been created out there is not reality.”
Obviously Haslam doesn’t like his team’s reputation being dragged through the mud, its national perception sullied by the likes of the NFL Network’s Albert Breer, no less, when it came to the word that set him off. But that’s what happened as the perennial losers spent almost four weeks searching for a replacement for first-year coach Rob Chudzinski, fired on Dec. 29 after a 4-12 season.
Hiring Chudzinski’s defensive clone in Buffalo Bills coordinator Mike Pettine on Thursday will do little to change that, especially when Haslam still employs CEO Joe Banner and absentee General Manager Mike Lombardi.
At least Banner had a little fun with the recent Browns bashing, joking about the infamous Three Stooges question at the Dec. 30 news conference.
“Since Mike Lombardi and I are Moe and Larry, we set out to find Curly and we succeeded,” Banner said, laughing.
Perhaps Pettine will be the charismatic leader the Browns have long been seeking. He does have the countenance for it, with what Haslam observed as a little bit of Bill Cowher’s jaw.
Perhaps Pettine won’t join four others on the list of coordinators without prior NFL coaching experience hired by the Browns since 1999 that weren’t suited for the top job.
Perhaps Pettine can turn the Browns around despite a flawed front office structure and a lack of personnel authority that scared off other candidates.
Still, as I dig for an ounce of hope, I worry that Pettine could be a colossal failure.
When Chudzinski was fired, I thought Haslam and Banner had a successor in mind. Instead, Haslam surprisingly admitted: “We did not have a lead candidate going into this. We went in with a wide-open field.”
Instead, the Browns fired Chudzinski to take another stab in the dark.
A stab that included only one interview with an assistant on a Super Bowl team.
A stab that practically said, “Go root for Buffalo.”
Haslam said he wanted a winner. Yet he hired a coach from the Bills, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 1999. That’s a longer drought than the Browns, who last appeared in 2002.
Pettine, 47, has a highly successful background as a high school coach in Pennsylvania, a rise through the ranks I always admire, even if he did go 0-5 against father Mike Sr.’s teams. But as a player at Virginia, a graduate assistant at the University of Pittsburgh and as an assistant for the Ravens, Jets and Bills, Pettine carries a .512 winning percentage. In the NFL, his teams have made five playoff appearances in 12 seasons, with three losses in the AFC Championship Game. That won’t blow anyone away.
Even in the glow of Pettine’s hiring, the Browns’ front office was still stinging from a month of barbs.
Banner lamented that they felt they couldn’t wait for Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, whom they interviewed once and could have again before Sunday, but couldn’t hire until after the Feb. 2 Super Bowl.
“We were very impressed with him,” Banner said. “He’s going to be an outstanding head coach. The worry of waiting was just the status of assistant coaches. We would not liked to have taken 10 more days of the pummeling, but we would’ve waited.”
Haslam said he thinks he’s toughened up after 18 months as Browns owner, but he shot back at those who wondered why the Browns were the last of seven teams to fill coaching vacancies.
“This thought that the first person to finish the coaching search is the winner I think is extremely farfetched,” Haslam said. “This is an important hire. To not take your time and talk to people and do the research, the background checks we’ve done, I think would be inexcusable.”
On Monday, the Browns realized they were losing the public relations battle and released statistics about successors who followed one-and-done coaches. As encouraging as the numbers were — of the six teams who had one-and-done coaches prior to 2013, five improved their record the next season, two of them by more than nine games — it doesn’t take into account the fact that Banner and Lombardi are still picking the players.
It’s not that I don’t like Pettine, even if I never heard of him a month ago. I was impressed by his intense demeanor, his honesty and his willingness to take a job so many shied away from, unsure he’d ever get another chance.
But I worry that he’s being set up to fail if Haslam doesn’t make organizational changes.
Haslam is upset with the media, but he needs to turn some of that ire on the men who drafted a one-down outside linebacker with the sixth pick or made a trade for a wide receiver who’d been involuntarily hospitalized weeks before. Radioactive wasn’t our own doing.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the 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.