By DraftBrowns.com Staff Writer, Ryan Alton
It took eleven days. It felt like weeks. Late Thursday night, the Cleveland Browns finally came to terms with the 14th head coach in franchise history and the choice couldn’t have been more of a surprise considering where the search began. Rob “Chud” Chudzinski was introduced to the Cleveland media on Friday morning. Not Chip Kelly. Not Nick Saban. Not Jon Gruden. Not Bruce Arians, Ken Whisenhunt, Lovie Smith or any of the other BIG names many of the Browns faithful were expecting to see sitting at the dais when the dust finally settled. Thud. Chud?
It wasn’t what we expected because somehow, somewhere, we got a different impression of what was going to take place. I’m not here to point fingers and assign blame for what turned out to be a very confusing and strange chain of events which finally culminated in the hiring of Chud. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t note how poorly the entire process was handled by both the Cleveland Browns and the media (nationally and locally). I imagine there are more than a few people who wish they could take back things that were said, tweeted, or reported during those eleven days, but I tend to believe, when it comes to finding the right person to lead the Browns out of the doldrums, what’s more important is where we ended up instead of the road we took to get there.
Where Jimmy Haslam III and Joe Banner ended up is where they wanted to be in the first place if you go back and study the profile of coach they seemed to be targeting. The day after they fired Pat Shurmur, Haslam and Banner got on a jet and flew out to Arizona in order to get their foot in the door of University of Oregon Head Coach Chip Kelly, whose team was playing that Thursday in the Fiesta Bowl.
Kelly was thought by many to be a highly sought after candidate that the Browns would have to sell on the idea of coming to Cleveland. At least, that was the perception going in and PERCEPTION, as we’ve discovered, IS REALITY. With the Philadelphia Eagles, the Buffalo Bills and lord knows who else waiting in the wings, Kelly seemed to be interviewing the Browns more than the Browns were interviewing him. It made sense for the Browns to get out there early and call dibs if he had the qualifications they were looking for in their next head coach because competition for his services were said to be fierce.
The NFL is a league that is very traditional and set in its ways but over the past few years, a new mentality has begun to emerge. It is a mindset that is forward-thinking and cutting edge, based on the ability of an offense to always be two steps ahead of the defense. It requires a coach who is innovative, ahead of the curve and willing to buck conventional wisdom to do whatever it takes to win. Every team in the NFL wants this. If they don’t, they’re dumb. As they say, if you’re snoozing, you’re losing. The draw to Chip Kelly, in that regard, is easy to understand.
Kelly is young, innovative, intelligent, willing to adapt his schemes to fit his personnel… and he has the one trait Haslam wanted above all else in his new coach, “strong leadership”. The only thing Kelly didn’t have that gave many people pause was NFL coaching experience. An important qualification that Haslam and Banner were apparently willing to overlook. Or maybe they weren’t. We’ll never know. At some point, the Browns got the impression Kelly wasn’t “all in” and talks broke off. Kelly has since decided to accept the Eagles offer to become their next head coach after a strange week and half of interviewing countless other candidates.
While the Eagles had Plan B through G lined up in the event Kelly went elsewhere, the Browns having conducted several interviews prior to Kelly, seemed to be returning to Cleveland with their tails tucked between their legs. Again, perception is reality. What no one knew at the time was that the Browns also had a list of back-up plans in case they were rebuffed in their efforts to take home the hottest girl in the club. That list included names like Marc Trestman, Ken Whisenhunt, and Rob Chudzinski. All three fit the profile the Browns sought after, though none had the same ‘sizzle’ as Kelly.
Trestman, who also interviewed with the Chicago Bears, is offensive-minded, innovative and is widely regarded as a quarterback guru. He also just so happened to work with Brandon Weeden as he was preparing for last year’s NFL Draft. The rub with Trestman is that he’s much older and, while he’s had many quarterbacks put up all-pro numbers under his tutelage, he’s had spotty success in the NFL as an offensive coordinator.
He’s had the unfortunate luck of never staying with one team for very long because the head coach wherever he was always got fired. That might be an indictment on him or it may not. He finally went to the Canadian Football League in 2008 to prove that he could find success in the role of a head coach himself. And he did, having led the Montreal Alouettes to two Grey Cups, the CFL’s version of the Lombardi trophy. Trestman was eventually hired to be the next head coach of the Chicago Bears, almost a week after the Browns had interviewed him.
Whisenhunt interviewed twice with the Browns but, according to CBS Sports columnist Jason LaCanfora, disagreed with Joe Banner over how his staff would be constructed. We’re only left to assume which assistants Whisenhunt wanted to bring on board and which ones Banner desired or didn’t desire. Whisenhunt has a reputation of being a very proud man set in his principles and if that was an area of concern between he and Banner, then perhaps it is best that they both go in a different direction.
The other obvious point of contention with Whisenhunt, while he has head coaching experience in the NFL, is his horrible record in Arizona without Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner leading the offense and his inability to adapt to the quarterbacks who came after Warner. If Whisenhunt came to Cleveland and was forced to coach with another unproven and shaky quarterback in Weeden, the results could be disastrous.
That brings us to Chudzinski. If Whisenhunt and Weeden would’ve been disastrous early, it only makes sense to look for a coach who not only fits your desired criteria but who also gives the quarterback you currently have the best chance to succeed. With a lack of other options available and the need for the Browns to showed marked improvement next season, Chud’s experience and success in designing NFL offenses that utilize strong-armed quarterbacks in a down field passing attack is perfect for the skill set of Brandon Weeden.
In the interest of full-disclosure, my initial reaction to the interviewing and subsequent hiring of Rob Chudzinski, the former Browns assistant and Toledo native, was “Meh”. After the courting of Chip Kelly, the guy I was publicly smitten about heading into this search… after having the “testinal fortitude” to go up and ask the hottest girl in the club to dance… ending up with Rob Chudzinski was akin to going home with that girl from your neighborhood you dated for a week in seventh grade. But when you look deeper at the traits that Chud brings to the table, you have to start to wonder why Chud wasn’t one of the first guys they interviewed.
A young coach (44) who can grow with a young team? Check. An offensive-minded coach who has proven experience as a coordinator in the NFL? Check. A coach who has shown the ability to adapt his offense and game plan to the specific skills of his quarterback and offensive personnel? Check. A coach that will be able to bring top notch coordinators and assistants with him? Check. A strong leader who players respect and will buy into? Check. A guy who understands what it means to coach the Browns and how much a winning team would mean to the city of Cleveland? Double check.
And wouldn’t that be something? A Toledo boy growing up a Browns fan coming back to lead the Browns to prominence once again. Ohioans (Clevelanders especially, due to our unending depravity) love the thought of one of their own leading one of their beloved teams to a championship. It almost doesn’t seem like it could happen any other way. Bernie Kosar came close. LeBron James came close. Jim Tressel did it at Ohio State. Urban Meyer has a pretty good chance to do it… albeit in Columbus. Where will Chud carve his name in local lore? Will he be among the aforementioned or will he dwell among the likes of Charlie Frye and Brady Quinn?
Looking back, it was a strange eleven days on the road to finding the coach for the Cleveland Browns. Only time will tell if he is the right one, of course. If perception is reality and the perception is Chud was way down the list of candidates for Haslam and Banner, then maybe the reality that he is the Browns next coach will take some getting used to. But when you go back through the list and identify the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate, it’s no wonder to me why Chud’s name emerged in the end. Sometimes things just happen for a reason. And in this case, as it often is in the NFL, getting to where you want to be in the end is far more important than the road you took to get there.