BEREA: A few hours after firing coach Pat Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert on Monday morning, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam made his New Year’s resolution clear.
“Our focus right now — I just want to say this over and over — is getting that right head coach,” Haslam said during a news conference. “If we do that, the other pieces will fall into place.”
Haslam and CEO Joe Banner are on a mission to hire a coach who can reverse the fortunes of the franchise and then find a personnel executive who complements him. They are searching for the organization’s sixth full-time coach since the expansion era began in 1999.
“We’re well aware that this has been a carousel,” said Haslam, who struck a deal to buy the Browns from Randy Lerner for about $1 billion on Aug. 2. “It’s [our] job to find the right coach and the right GM and bring stability long term for the organization. That’s our role and we take it very responsibly, very seriously.”
In his two seasons with the Browns, Shurmur compiled a record of 9-23 (4-12 in 2011 and 5-11 in 2012). The team’s five consecutive seasons with at least 11 losses is tied for second-most in NFL history, according to STATS LLC. Another disappointing season ended Sunday with a 24-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Less than 24 hours later, Shurmur and Heckert were ousted.
“We just felt like it was necessary — to get to a championship level — to make these changes,” Haslam said.
The search begins
Haslam and Banner know what they want. They prefer to hire quickly but will take the time needed to secure the right man for the job whether it’s this week or a month from now.
“The top quality in a coach that we’re going to look for going forward is somebody with some really strong dynamic leadership,” said Banner, who worked with Shurmur and Heckert during his 12-year reign as president of the Philadelphia Eagles.
University of Oregon coach Chip Kelly, University of Alabama coach Nick Saban and Penn State University coach Bill O’Brien are among the candidates on the Browns’ radar, according to reports. Adam Caplan of TheSidelineView.com reported that two high-ranking NFL personnel executives listed Kelly as the clear No. 1 choice for the Browns.
Kelly, 49, is known for his innovative offense and has compiled a record of 45-7 in four seasons at Oregon. Last year, he turned down a job offer from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but potential NCAA sanctions stemming from a recruiting scandal could influence a transition to the NFL. Oregon will play Kansas State on Jan. 3 in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Browns are also reportedly interested in New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, a Canton native. But McDaniels has called teams to tell them he’ll be staying put, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported.
Haslam and Banner won’t reveal which candidates are on their list, but Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will interview with the Browns this week, Alex Marvez of Fox Sports reported. Koetter, 53, also is set to interview with the Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, according to the report.
The Falcons had the NFL’s eighth-ranked offense (369.1 yards per game) and were seventh in scoring (26.2 points per game) this season, Koetter’s first in Atlanta. Before joining the Falcons, Koetter served as the offensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars (2007-11) and the coach of Arizona State University (2001-06) and Boise State University (1998-2000).
Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton, 52, also reportedly will interview with the Browns. Horton, a former Pittsburgh Steelers assistant, would satisfy the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates.
Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, 48, is scheduled to interview with the Browns this week, Schefter reported.
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden, Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians could also receive interest from the Browns.
“We’re going to explore all avenues, college coaches, coordinators and head coaches,” Haslam said. “The key is to get the right person.”
The Browns’ new bigwigs believe they can lure the best of the best. Six other teams have head coaching vacancies.
“We don’t believe that there’s any job in the league that’s going to be available that can tell a better story about why you want to come to this particular team, this particular city and take a job,” Banner said. “We go into this extremely confident that we can go after the top people available.”
Banner said Shurmur and Heckert left the organization in better shape than when they arrived.
“I think we have a foundation here to move forward,” he said. “I think the team is better than it was. I think it’s got a ways to go. I hope with the right hires here, we’ll be able to accelerate the process of getting to where we want to be.”
Coach is key
The Browns want to hire the coach first, because they believe it’ll strengthen their pool of candidates. The coach will have final say on the 53-man roster, meaning he’ll decide which players make the team and who dresses on game days, Banner said.
“We made the determination that the greater impact on our future was going to be the head coach, that we need to make sure we find two people that fit together well and complement each other well and that we wanted the skill set of the head coach to kind of drive what we’d be looking for in the position that we would hire after that,” Banner said. “Time will tell if that’s right and if we can find the right two people that are both high quality and fit together as well as we hope.”
Banner said the coach could be the ultimate authority when it comes to drafting, signing and trading players, but it all depends on who’s hired. Either way, football operations will report to Banner, so he’ll wield significant power in those areas. On Dec. 18, the Browns named Alec Scheiner their new president to oversee the day-to-day business operations of the franchise, allowing Banner to focus on the football side of the organization.
Banner’s power foreshadowed Heckert’s exit. In his unofficial farewell news conference Dec. 14, Heckert said controlling the draft, trades and free agency was very important to him.
Banner said the Browns didn’t offer Heckert a chance to stay with the organization in a reduced role. However, the entire scouting staff is under contract and will be retained, Haslam said.
According to reports, NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi, whose stops include Cleveland (1987-95) and Philadelphia (1997-98), is a candidate to head the Browns’ personnel department. David Caldwell, the Atlanta Falcons’ director of player personnel, might garner interest from the Browns as well, according to Don Banks of Sports Illustrated.
Next for Shurmur, Heckert?
Meanwhile, Shurmur, 47, and Heckert, 45, will likely get chances elsewhere. Jason La Canfora of CBS reported the Minnesota Vikings might pursue Shurmur as an offensive coordinator. He and Heckert also could reunite with coach Andy Reid at his next stop. The Eagles fired Reid, who worked with Shurmur and Heckert in their time with the Eagles.
The futures of Shurmur and Heckert, both of whom have two years left on their contracts, were in doubt once Haslam bought the Browns less than a week after training camp began this past summer. Their demise became a virtual certainty after another losing season.
Hired by former President Mike Holmgren on Jan. 13, 2011, to replace coach Eric Mangini, Shurmur entered his first season with the daunting task of installing new offensive and defensive systems during an offseason that was almost entirely wiped out by the NFL lockout. He also did not hire an offensive coordinator in his first year, a decision he later admitted that he regretted.
Shurmur brought his version of the West Coast offense to Cleveland, and the Browns averaged just 13.6 points (ranked 30th) and 288.8 yards per game (ranked 29th) in 2011. In 2012, the Browns hired Brad Childress as their offensive coordinator. Shurmur said he and Childress collaborated on play-calling, and the offense improved slightly with the Browns averaging 18.9 points (ranked 24th) and 314.2 yards per game (ranked 25th). But even with Childress aboard, Shurmur’s play-calling, clock management and strategy, especially decisions about when to punt and when to go for it on fourth down, received rampant criticism from fans and media.
Shortly after Shurmur took control, he pursued Dick Jauron and hired him as the Browns’ defensive coordinator. Jauron guided the team as it transitioned from Mangini’s 3-4 system to a 4-3 scheme. Under Jauron, the defense ranked 10th (332.4 yards allowed per game) in 2011 and 23rd (363.8) in 2012.
Haslam said the assistant coaches are under contract and will be allowed to interview with other teams. He also said the new coach might want to keep some of them.
Heckert left the Eagles after serving as their general manager for four years and was hired by Holmgren on Jan. 11, 2010. In the past two years, Heckert overhauled a veteran-laded roster built by Mangini and spearheaded a youth movement. The Browns finished 2012 with 29 players on their 53-man roster who were either in their first or second NFL seasons. They also had a league-high 87 combined starts from rookies this season. Heckert acquired 17 of the Browns’ 22 starters from 2012 and drafted 11 of them.
Although Heckert bolstered several positions, he might have failed to bring a franchise quarterback to Cleveland. In Heckert’s first two years with the Browns, they cycled through Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace and Colt McCoy. They drafted Brandon Weeden 22nd overall in 2012. Weeden, a former minor-league baseball player, played 15 games and finished with a franchise rookie-record 3,385 passing yards and 14 touchdowns, but he also threw 17 interceptions and posted a passer rating of 72.6. It remains to be seen whether the new regime will give Weeden, 29, another year to prove himself after an inconsistent rookie season.
Heckert’s drafts will be remembered for some blockbuster deals — including one he couldn’t pull off. In March, the Browns failed in their attempt to trade with the St. Louis Rams for the right to draft Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III second overall.