Mike Pettine hired by Cleveland Browns

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Mike Pettine (top) will take over for the fired Rob Chudzinski in Cleveland. (David Duprey/AP)

Mike Pettine (top) will take over for the fired Rob Chudzinski in Cleveland.

The Cleveland Browns finally have a head coach.

Their (eventual) choice: current Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who accepted the Browns' job on Thursday after a reported third interview with the franchise.

The Browns, who fired Rob Chudzinski on the NFL's "Black Monday" in December, were the only team in the NFL operating without a head coach.

"We wanted to be thorough from the start, and we interviewed as many people as we could," Browns CEO Joe Banner said in a statement. "From that group, we hired the best individual.

"Our players and fans are going to really enjoy Mike Pettine and his leadership style. We’re excited to have him out in front of our team, and we look forward to working closely with him.”

Among others believed to be on the Browns' list of candidates were Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Both publicly announced they were withdrawing themselves from consideration in recent days -- Gase to focus on the upcoming Super Bowl. McDaniels' name resurfaced as a possibility this week, after the Patriots were eliminated from playoff contention.

Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Dallas special-teams coach Rich Bisaccia also reportedly interviewed for the vacant Cleveland position.

In the end, the franchise opted for Pettine, who excelled as the Jets' defensive coordinator under Rex Ryan from 2009-12 before jumping to Buffalo last season. There, he helped the Bills markedly improve on defense -- they went from 26th in points allowed and 22nd in yards allowed during the 2012 season to 20th and 10th, respectively. Cleveland is coming off a season that saw its own defense collapse after a hot start, en route to a 23rd-overall ranking.

"Mike is the epitome of what we want Browns to be -- tough, aggressive and innovative -- with a blue-collar, team-first mentality," said Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.

Every other franchise that fired its head coach either during or immediately after the regular season (Houston, Minnesota, Washington, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Tennessee) already had moved to hire a replacement. Cleveland's delay led many to believe that it had set its sights on one of the coordinators still alive as of the NFL's championship weekend.

In an interview with ESPN radio Wednesday night, Adam Schefter cautioned people to "expect the unexpected" in the Browns' coaching search. "If they wanted to hire [Pettine], they could just go ahead -- and do that and maybe they still will. But me reading between the lines, they’re hopping around, they’re interviewing other candidates, they’re bouncing around the country. I think if Pettine were their guy it would just be over and done with. And the longer it goes on the less likely in my mind that Pettine becomes the guy. I think I would categorize him now as a fall-back option."