PITTSBURGH: A year ago, the Browns failed to land big-name coaches they pursued like Chip Kelly, Jon Gruden and Nick Saban.
Now they are under the delusion they can lure a franchise-changing leader after giving his predecessor less than 12 months to begin to turn things around.
When the Browns relieved coach Rob Chudzinski of his duties Sunday night, it illustrated the height of their arrogance, the cartoonish level of their dysfunction. They actually believe there’s a future NFL coaching star out there who wants to work with an owner under federal investigation and a CEO and general manager who have yet to prove they know anything about talent evaluation.
It showed owner Jimmy Haslam learned nothing from his days as minority owner of the Steelers, who pride themselves on continuity. The Browns can’t find a quarterback, so they use their coach as a scapegoat instead.
If Paul Brown were alive, he’d want his name removed from the team he founded.
The next coach will be the fifth to hold the Browns’ job in a seven-year span. Chudzinski became the first one-and-done coach in Browns history. There had been five of those previously in the NFL in the last 10 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“If you’re intimately involved in the details of this thing, you see the progress we’re making. To start over again, it would be devastating, I think. You can’t always change head coaches, it doesn’t get it done,” Browns left tackle Joe Thomas said Sunday before he left Pittsburgh.
“You look around the league, everyone’s searching for the instant answer,” Browns quarterback Jason Campbell said. “This isn’t something that just happens. It’s something you have to work at, something you have to build.
“If the quarterback or a coach doesn’t have instant results, you get rid of guys. Back in the day, guys like Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning, their first year in the league they were 1-15 or [3-13] and they turn out to be hall of fame quarterbacks. You can never base things off one play or one season because the first year’s the hardest year.”
But that’s what the Browns foolishly did.
With a 20-7 loss to the Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field, the Browns (4-12) set a franchise record with their seventh consecutive defeat to end the season and dropped 10 of their last 11. It was a step back from 2012, when the Browns finished 5-11 and fired coach Pat Shurmur.
If Haslam thinks he sent a message of accountability by firing Chudzinski, it’s coming with a side dish of hypocrisy. If that were so important, shouldn’t the Browns have dumped receivers Davone Bess and Greg Little during the season? Shouldn’t the front office be held responsible for a 2013 draft that failed to land any playmakers?
Tweets from Albert Breer from NFL.com and Ian Rapoport of NFL Network cited “effort and accountability issues” with Chudzinski’s players, criticism that surely came from the Browns’ front office. Thomas said he didn’t have a problem with Chudzinski in that regard.
“Down 17-0, you saw great effort this week right to the end,” Thomas said. “I think there was great accountability. That was one thing that we’re built on.”
A sore point with Haslam was the 24-13 loss to the New York Jets on Dec. 22, when he felt the Browns quit.
While Chudzinski is certainly responsible for the Browns’ dizzying decline, dumping him after 16 games seems ridiculous. After Brian Hoyer suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Oct. 3, Chudzinski had no starting-caliber quarterback. After Trent Richardson was traded Sept. 18, Chudzinski had no starting-caliber running back. Receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron were the only legitimate pass catchers. After an offseason spent stocking the defense, the acquisitions underperformed.
Yet somehow this mess was all Chudzinski’s fault.
Speculation about Chudzinski’s future first surfaced Friday in a column by Dan Pompei of Bleacher Report. On Sunday came a series of tweets from national NFL writers. Breer mentioned Penn State’s Bill O’Brien, a former New England Patriots offensive coordinator, and Patriots’ current offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as top candidates.
That seemed to bear the fingerprints of Browns General Manager Mike Lombardi, convinced he can re-create the Patriot Way after working with Bill Belichick in Cleveland. But O’Brien may be bound for the Houston Texans, who hold the No. 1 pick and have a respected owner in Bob McNair.
As recently as Nov. 13, CEO Joe Banner praised Chudzinski, saying, “I’m hard pressed to think that in nine weeks a first-time head coach can do any better or any more than he’s doing. I just think he’s doing an outstanding job.”
When Haslam introduced Chudzinski on Jan. 11, Haslam said the Browns talked to nine or 10 of the best coaches in the country and “came back with the best person to lead the Cleveland Browns to the kind of winning format that we want to have.” He said those in the business regarded Chudzinski as “one of the brightest, if not the brightest young mind in the business.”
Yet Chudzinski received no support when it came to personnel moves and no patience from his bosses.
Haslam, Banner and Lombardi believe they can do better. The only hope of that would be to make the next coach a quasi-GM, power that Banner and Lombardi would never cede, or dip into the college ranks.
It will be a tough sell, even with two first-round draft choices next year and seven picks in the first four rounds. Few might considering dipping their toe in these waters of dysfunction, much less diving in.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at https://ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.