The Browns Coaching Search Is Coming Into Focus

January 2nd, 2013

Who has the ‘strong leadership’ qualities Browns’ Owner Jimmy Haslam III covets at the head coaching position? (photo:

By Staff Writer, Ryan Alton

Now that the dust is beginning to settle from the bloodletting that took place around the league on Monday, a day that saw a record seven head coaches fired, some names are beginning to surface as to who might be on the Browns radar for their head coaching vacancy.  (For the purposes of this piece, we’ll hold off on speculating any more about the General Manager/Director of Player Personnel candidates due to the fact that Joe Banner and Jimmy Haslam adamantly explained that their preference is to hire a dynamic head coach first.)

According to them, once they get the coach in place, they can assess his strengths and weaknesses and determine what type of candidate they need to go after for the  GM/DPP position to compliment the coach.  It’s a less-conventional strategy but one that will give the head coach a lot of power and will subsequently attract the best coaching candidates.  It also falls in line with Banner’s “bias” to have the coach call shots on the 53-man roster.  Factoring that in with the decision to replace Tom Heckert, I can’t say it was really much of a surprise to see that this was the approach they were going to take.


Its the type of bold, aggressive move that, hopefully, will come to define Haslam’s legacy as owner of the Cleveland Browns.  And, compared to what we’ve seen over the last 14 years, its more like injecting a bolt of lightning than a breath of fresh air into an organization and a city that desperately craves it.  With that said, let’s take a closer look at some candidates that have come up who weren’t included on the last list…


Arizona Defensive Coordinator, Ray Horton - I had Horton at the bottom of my list before but never really put much thought into his candidacy until reports surfaced on Tuesday from CBS Sports reporter Jason LaCanfora that Joe Banner was in Arizona to interview him.  Some may write the interview off as Banner merely complying with the NFL’s ‘Rooney Rule’, which require that a minority candidate be interviewed for all available head coach and general manager positions, and it may be just that.


Banner and Haslam said they were going to ‘act quickly’ to get their guy.  Flying to Arizona to interview Horton in order to comply with the Rooney Rule the day after firing Pat Shurmur clears a necessary hurdle in the way of hiring the guy the Browns REALLY want.  Oh by the way, Oregon Head Coach Chip Kelly also just happens to be in Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl which his team will play in on Thursday.  LaCanfora indicates that Kelly is the real reason Banner is there.  We may never know if this is the case or not, so lets just assume for a moment that the Horton interview is legit.


Horton has connections to Jimmy Haslam from his time in Pittsburgh as an assistant coach for the Steelers.  He has been the Cardinals’ Defensive Coordinator for the past two seasons and has them playing at a high level (12th overall) despite their offense being ranked last in the league and putting them in very difficult situations on a weekly basis.  Unfortunately for Horton, it seems that Banner and Haslam prefer an offensive minded head coach despite their claims that they are going into this search with an open mind.  At the end of the day, I would put Horton’s chances of becoming the next Browns coach as unlikely, but the fact he was the first to be interviewed may hint toward something more.


Penn State Head Coach, Bill O’ Brien – O’Brien is a very intriguing candidate for a number of reasons.  First of all, he has NFL coaching experience having worked in New England under Bill Belichick as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for the Patriots.  While in New England, according to an article from Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe, he learned much of what Belichick learned from Chip Kelly about using a fast, frenetic, no huddle offense and how to successfully implement those practice/coaching strategies into NFL game plans.  While the Patriots weren’t as effective running that style offense under O’Brien as they have been this past season, he still learned those concepts and knows how to implement them into an NFL offense.


Second, he went to Penn State and succeeded in arguably the most difficult situation imaginable, winning 8 games, with the fallout surrounding the Jerry Sandusky scandal permeating every aspect of the school, the culture and, the football team.  When Jimmy Haslam was asked recently what the top attribute his new head coach needs to exhibit when they conduct their search, he said emphatically ‘Strong leadership.’  Bill O’ Brien has shown he is a strong leader of men.  He had to be, in order to do the things he has in his one season at Penn State.   He also showed he was able to translate what he learned in New England to the college game and have success.


The problem NFL teams may encounter in courting O’Brien is the fact that he gave his word to Penn State that he would not leave and he reportedly has a $9 million dollar buyout that any NFL team would have to account for if they stole O’Brien away from Happy Valley.  However, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen has reported that teams are gauging the interest in O’Brien possibly leaving for the NFL because he was supposedly lied to by Penn State officials when they hired him.  O’Brien, according to Mortensen, was told that the investigation into Penn State surrounding the Sandusky scandal would be of a criminal nature and would not in any way bring about punishments from the NCAA.


As it turns out, Penn State DID receive penalties from the NCAA, some of which are the harshest to have ever been handed down to a university in the history of college football.  So there may be an exit strategy in place for O’Brien if he finds the ideal fit for him in the NFL.  However, there is little doubt he would become a pariah to the Nittany Lion faithful whom he pledged his allegiance to just last spring if he so chooses to leave after one season.


According to the rumors circulating out there right now, both Cleveland and Philadelphia covet Chip Kelly as their number one candidate and whichever one loses out on him will turn their attention to O’Brien.  What’s interesting about the Eagles however, according to an article by David Jones at, is that (Eagles General Mananger) Howie Roseman “is known to be held in low regard by O’Brien’s mentor, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, and by another strong O’Brien contact, former Broncos head coach and Patriots assistant Josh McDaniels”.  If this is at all true, then it could eliminate the Eagles from contention to sign either O’Brien or Kelly.  Kelly, of course, is also very close to Belichick.  Connect the dots.


University of Syracuse Head Coach, Doug Marrone – Marrone was a virtual unknown to most fans, myself included, until his name surfaced on the interview list of the Browns and the Buffalo Bills a few days ago.  Marrone, a Syracuse alum, is attractive in the NFL ranks because of the success he had as the New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator from 2006-2008.  During that time, the Saints acquired Drew Brees and became one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL.

Unfortunately for Marrone, he left a year too early as the Saints went on to win the Super Bowl after the 2009 season.  But it would be wrong to dismiss his hand in that eventual success.  Also, he is another candidate, like O’Brien, who has coached at the NFL level and taken those experiences and succeeded in the college ranks, where much attention is being paid by the Browns brain trust in this coaching search.


At the end of the day, I put Marrone in the lower-tier of candidates that could possibly come to the Browns, mainly due to his relative ambiguity among the other names that are currently being floated around for NFL coaching vacancies.  Some of those ‘other names’ that have not been directly linked to the Browns at this time but could if the search drags on are Indianapolis Colts Offensive Coordinator, Bruce Arians, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, and San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator, Greg Roman.  However, each of those guys are currently coaching with teams in the playoffs and that might put them out of the timeframe that Haslam and Banner want to operate in.


If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that I rank Chip Kelly as the candidate that I am most intrigued by and also the one I feel is the most likely to be the Browns next coach.  It’s possible that Nick Saban could be at the top of the list but he has said he will stay at Alabama and I fully expect that to be the case.


If Kelly gets the job, I’ll go into more detail about why I feel he is the right fit for the Browns but, at this point, I don’t want to jinx anything.  There is the chance that Kelly could opt to stay at Oregon or find a more intriguing opportunity elsewhere.  If that ends up being the case, I think the Browns will turn their attention to O’Brien.  Then, if that falls through, they may turn their attention to one of the other candidates like Marrone, Horton, or one of the guys I mentioned above.  At this point, however, I think Kelly is their main target and the latest reports suggest he will interview for the job on Friday.  Time will tell what happens there but if there’s one thing I think we’ve learned about Jimmy Haslam in his short time as the Browns owner, he HATES to lose.  And that, Browns fans, is a VERY, VERY good thing.

Tags: bill o'brien, Chip Kelly, doug marrone, Jimmy Haslam, Joe Banner, Ray Horton

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