ORLANDO, Fla.: New Browns coach Mike Pettine wants to instill a tough, bloody-nosed culture in Cleveland, and he’s counting on inside linebacker Karlos Dansby and strong safety Donte Whitner to lead the charge.
“I think you have something special when your best leaders are your best players, and that’s why we felt so strongly about bringing in Karlos and Donte,” Pettine said this week during the NFL owners meetings.
Pettine revealed that Dansby and Whitner were the franchise’s top targets in free agency at their respective positions. They filled urgent needs the Browns created this offseason when the franchise cut inside linebacker and defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson and let strong safety T.J. Ward walk in free agency.
Arguments can be made that Dansby is a noticeable upgrade over Jackson and that Whitner has a slight edge on Ward. But the decision to get rid of Jackson, who was the team’s undisputed leader, and Ward, who was coming off his best season and first Pro Bowl appearance, were still met with some skepticism.
Money is always a factor, although the overwhelming perception is that Jackson and Ward simply didn’t fit into Pettine’s vision for his defense.
“I wouldn’t say it’s entirely accurate,” said Pettine, who spent the past five seasons as a defensive coordinator. “We wanted to add toughness up the middle of the defense — not to say that T.J. and D’Qwell weren’t tough — but we wanted to add just some fresh juice there, too; get some guys that had a chip on their shoulder.”
Perhaps Pettine felt the losing that Jackson and Ward experienced had beaten them down. The Browns have gone 41-87 since drafting Jackson in the second round in 2006 and 18-46 since selecting Ward in the second round in 2010.
“I don’t know if it’s beaten down [by the losing],” Pettine said. “I just think they don’t know — their idea of what’s good enough.”
Dansby played in a Super Bowl with the Arizona Cardinals at the end of the 2008 season.
“Great leader, a great spirit and a heck of a football player,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “I hate to lose him because I know what he brought to our locker room.”
Whitner appeared in the past three NFC title games with the San Francisco 49ers and the Super Bowl to wrap up the 2012 season.
“A pro’s pro, a leader of men, a tremendous football player,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I’m sorry to see him go.
“He can do it all. He’s so good at contact courage, and he’s so good at the point of contact that you’ll say, ‘He’s more of a down safety. He’s more of a hitting safety.’ But he’s a very good coverage safety as well.”
Pettine believes Dansby and Whitner’s experiences can help the coaching staff spearhead the changes it seeks.
“When you can bring in guys that have been part of winning teams, there’s a lot to be said for that,” Pettine said. “Coaches can only take you so far. But you [need players who] have done it and they can set the standard and say, ‘This is what it takes.’
“We talked about the leadership part of it, and it was tough to move on from D’Qwell from that sense. That’s why we wanted to make sure we added somebody like Karlos who was going to be just as strong in the locker room and interacting with the staff.”
Still, a knock against the Browns’ decision is that Dansby, 32, is older than Jackson, 30; and Whitner, 28, is older than Ward, 27. Teams usually don’t become older in free agency.
“I didn’t see it as being significantly older,” Pettine said. “Dansby, especially, is a guy who’s kind of found the fountain of youth late in his career. Sometimes age for me gets to be a number. There are certain positions that you know can play longer.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at https://ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.