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Will the Browns Learn From Previous Mistakes When Hiring a Head Coach?

Cleveland is the only team left without a head coach. It’s long been time for the team to invest deeply here—will the franchise do it this time? Also, answering your mail.

Matt Rhule turned his leverage into a massive payday in Carolina. Joe Judge turned his leverage into the Giants fast-tracking his hire. And both indirectly handed the forever-downtrodden Browns a golden opportunity—to fix what’s been wrong there forever.

At the very least, the next few days will show whether they’ve learned their lesson.

The time is now for Cleveland to invest deeply in a coach in whom the franchise believes. It’s time to let that coach set up a football operation and surround himself with people he can trust. It’s time for owner Jimmy Haslam to not just use the buzzword he kept turning to during his press conference last week, but to actually achieve alignment.

Jimmy Haslam

The team’s recent history can provide a guide on what not to do. From Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi and Rob Chudzinski, to Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine, to Sashi Brown, Andrew Berry and Hue Jackson, to John Dorsey and Jackson, then Freddie Kitchens, it’s been arranged marriage after arranged marriage. Over and over again, they’ve sat in those interview rooms, and projected how people would work together.

Often the Browns have kept one person and not another (Paul DePodesta has been the keeper a couple times now), and they’ve been wrong just about every time. Worse, these situations tend to spiral when things go badly because there aren’t strong relationships on which the people involved can fall back.

How has this manifested? In an organization that’s worked in silos. The analytics people, the scouts and the coaches all operated in different areas, and when you-know-what hits the fan, everyone tries to get in ownership’s ear—scouting chiefs trying to get coaches fired, executives texting coaches on the sideline. There have been split decisions on football matters arbitrated, and later assigned for blame. There’s been finger-pointing and back-stabbing in an appeals court of your own unintentional creation.

In a press conference, it’s easy to say the front office is going to get on the same page, but it’s harder to get there once the honeymoon phase wears off and the pressure is really on.

Haslam means well, but he has a reputation of favoring the most recent person he spoke to, and he’s hurt where he’s meant to help in the past. One example: going to low-level assistant coaches and taking suggestions to the head coach, which, while well-intentioned, isn’t doing anyone any good.

In 2000, Patriots owner Robert Kraft recognized that giving everyone a shoulder to cry on wasn’t always helpful. Kraft was smart enough to see that he’d undercut Pete Carroll’s authority in that way, and wasn’t going to do it again after hiring Bill Belichick. Maybe Haslam can come to a similar realization.

Kraft empowered Belichick. Belichick hired Scott Pioli to run personnel, Charlie Weis to run his offense and Romeo Crennel to run his defense. Belichick knew he had a chance there because he knew the guys he was bringing aboard. Twenty years later, Belichick has continued to promote from within, and move people through the organization, as he’s lost guys like those three, because he values organizational alignment.

It’s time for Haslam to value alignment the same way, and this isn’t even about who he hires to be his next coach. It’s about giving Josh McDaniels or Kevin Stefanski or Jim Schwartz or whoever else it might be the best chance, by surrounding them with people they trust and getting out of the way.

That won’t guarantee championships, of course. But it’ll give the Browns a chance and address the biggest flaw in Haslam’s stewardship of the team. The team has time to look at candidates and decide not just who’ll be the best on Sunday, but whose overall vision they believe in deeply enough to hire completely and fully around it. Then, maybe alignment becomes more than a term to use after firing everyone.

Then, we’ll have actual proof that they’ve learned from this mess of the last eight years.

On to your mail …

Josh McDaniels

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been rumored to be a top candidate for the Browns' head coaching job.

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From Mike Lavelle (@PoppaBear_1017): Browns hiring McDaniels or Stefanski?

Again, watch DePodesta here. He’s running the process, but not making the decision. If it’s Stefanski or Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, there’s a good chance that Berry returns from Philadelphia and the team’s chief strategy officer remains on board. If it’s McDaniels, my belief is that is DePodesta’s place in the organization would be in jeopardy. Again, a lot of this may come down to whom Haslam is listening.

But as I said off the top, the key is making sure whoever Haslam picks is the right coach—and that coach isn’t hired to maintain anything existing in the building—and that the right coach is properly empowered.

From Devin Shaw (@DevinShaw4): Crazy thought... if McDaniels goes to Cleveland, is there any chance Belichick tries to convince his good buddy Urban Meyer to come to New England and oversee the offense? Not necessarily offensive coordinator but a position above that. Think it would be mutually beneficial.

I appreciate the thought, Devin. But no, I don’t think Meyer is going to go back into coaching as an assistant anywhere—he actually became a little less involved offensively over the last few years. In fact, in his last year at Ohio State, he basically granted his offensive coordinator, Ryan Day, autonomy on that side of the ball.

My sense is that Meyer really likes what he’s doing right now, and he’ll keep listening. But I’m not sure there’s a job out there that’ll be the kind of calling for him that Ohio State was. (Maybe Notre Dame would be.)

From Ben Skiba (@benskiba14): Percent chance McDaniels to the #Browns in your opinion?

Ben, the percentages have to be calculated on how determined Haslam is to keep certain people in the building. Does DePodesta get a new deal? Is McDaniels going to be green-lit to bring, say, a strength-and-conditioning staff with him? Those sorts of things, I believe, will be factors.

But as I said, I think the key for the owner coming out of this is creating streamlined communication in the facility that empowers the head coach to turn around everything that’s been wrong with that place. If the players and football staff don’t know who they’re answering to on a daily basis, or have the sorts of appeals courts they have in the past, then the Browns will remain what they have been.

From uncle willie son (@jaymays04): Why can’t Eric Bieniemy get a head coaching job?

Bieniemy has a good resume and has interviewed well with a few teams. There is some background stuff for teams to sort through (he got in trouble a few times when he was younger) but it’s not anything recent or unexplainable. So in his particular case, a lot of it is circumstantial. Last year was his first real go-round of interviews, and most guys don’t get hired on their first shot. Now, in his second year, he’s hurt by a cycle with fewer openings and teams shying away from first-time head coaches.

On Tuesday I asked someone who’s worked with Bieniemy the last few years about him as a head coaching prospect. The response I got came back without any qualifiers.

“Great leader—can command the room, great communicator and teacher. Highly respected by the players and staff. Also, the guy is a great human being. Type of guy you would want building the culture of a team.”

From Benjamin Racine (@BracineRacine): Love the work you and the staff do at MMQB... to me the underlying issue that needs to be addressed once again is diversity amongst NFL head coaches. (Eric) Bieniemy, (Jim) Caldwell, David Shaw are all on the market—are they not interviewing well or is it something else?

Benjamin, I wish I had a better answer for you. I just don’t know. I’m not going to sit here and attack guys who did get jobs, but there are certainly fair questions to ask here. I think the issue starts with the makeup of the NFL at the ownership and executive levels, since those people are making the hires. That’s something that can’t be changed overnight—you can’t force people to sell teams, and team president jobs don’t turn over at nearly the rate that coach or even GM jobs do. Nonetheless, the people in those positions need to be held accountable. Maybe a solution would be involving outside executives and consultants of color in the search process, putting them in the room with the people in charge of the interview process. I don’t have a silver-bullet answer, but I certainly recognize the problem.

From Lukas Peer (@Lukaspeerfekt): What's the feeling about Rhule's plan with Cam Newton?

Lukas, I don’t think Rhule has made a decision on that yet, and owner David Tepper told me last month that there was no plan to make the call until Cam Newton got back healthy. He won’t be there until March. But what I would say you can take to the bank is, for now, Newton’s on shaky ground in Charlotte, in part because I believe a pretty significant rebuild is coming.

And that’s because the hire of Rhule wasn’t for next year, it was for the next 10 years. My feeling is that Tepper has seen it that way, and would have no matter who hired, all the way through, and my evidence is that he was prepared all along to give the new coach major say in pretty much every area of football ops, from strength-and-conditioning to video to the use of analytics, and even with personnel decisions.

Rhule’s contract is another piece of evidence that Tepper is all-in on this one. So my belief is the team will be built in Rhule’s image, and the decision on Newton will be a part of that.

From Hornet (@cochise269): When commenting about the hiring of Joe Judge as Giants head coach, why would you reference that he used to be a neighbor to Aaron Hernandez?

Hornet, thanks for asking, because I do want to address this. There was a 2013 tweet from me referencing this fact, which was from court filings (I believe) while I was working on the Hernandez case. Someone found it Tuesday morning, after Judge was hired, and then people went nuts retweeting it like I posted it today.

Again … that tweet’s six-and-a-half years old. Judge was barely off the plane from Alabama when it went up.

From Paulo Santos (@Paulo_RW): How much is Derrick Henry worth in a contract extension?

Paulo, this case is going to be fascinating. Both Mike Vrabel and Jon Robinson have roots in New England, and that program has, in the past, been hesitant to reward offensive skill players in general. The Patriots, in fact, haven’t ever given a skill position player a contract worth eight figures annually, and the most lucrative a running back has ever gotten there is, believe it or not, the five-year, $25 million deal Corey Dillon signed in 2005. Vrabel was a 29-year-old linebacker and Robinson was area scout in New England back then.

So how do the two approach this one, where a philosophical belief may clash with the value of a player? It’s a tough one. The franchise tag for backs will likely fall between $12 million and $13 million. That’d be an option, but it’s a pretty good bet any running back hit with the tag will take a hard line – because of the NFL life expectancy at that position, players almost have to take a stand to get paid (both Zeke Elliott and Melvin Gordon did last offseason).

That’s why I think it probably makes sense for the team to get to Henry right at the end of the season and try hard and work something out before it comes to that. Based on the leverage points here, Henry will likely ask for a contract in the Elliott/Todd Gurley range, and it’ll be on the Titans to manage it from there.

From James Stewart (@IAmJamesStewart): Is Vegas an option for Tom Brady?

Jimmy! On paper, it does make some sense. The Raiders have the cap space to make a good offer, a stadium and new market to sell, and a roster that’s not as far off as people might think, after a strong 2019 draft. They also have the capital in the draft and free agency to improve the team as Brady might see fit, and a coach with a complex system, and history working with older quarterbacks at the end of their careers (Rich Gannon, Brad Johnson).

The idea’s intriguing, and it would preclude the Raiders from taking a quarterback high this year and developing him behind Brady. It even would line up with GM Mike Mayock’s handling the position—the Raiders really like Derek Carr, but have him positioned as a high-end placeholder, and are open to upgrading at the spot.

Do I think it happens? No. It’s far from home for Brady and may not line up family-wise for him. But the idea’s a good.

From Wendell Ferreira (@wendellfp): Do you foresee [former Dolphins offensive coordinator] Chad O'Shea coming back to New England?

Wendell, I’d be a little surprised. O’Shea turned down a contract extension in 2018 in New England when he found out that he wouldn’t necessarily be slotted right in as Josh McDaniels’s replacement, had McDaniels taken the Indianapolis job, then left with Brian Flores less than a year later to get his shot as a coordinator. It’s tough what happened to him there. But now that he’s been a playcaller, I’d think he’d want to get back there again, and I don’t know if heading back to a place that wasn’t going to make him one is best.

That said, Bill Belichick’s mended these sorts of fences in the past. Brian Daboll left New England for similar reasons in 2007, and wound up returning in ’13. So it’s certainly possible that Belichick makes a play to get O’Shea back, with Joe Judge leaving his old spot open, and it makes sense for O’Shea career-wise to return. Or even that Belichick saw something coaching against O’Shea that changed his mind on him as a play-caller.

Another factor will be whether Brady’s still there or not. It’s tough to find someone capable of coaching a player with that much experience and knowhow. If Brady’s gone, the parameters to be the quarterbacks coach/coordinator in New England change a little

From Pro Football Fan “Moose” (@Moose57070456): In the upcoming College Football Playoff National Championship Game, which players do you see as future NFL stars?

Can’t wait for this one, Moose—the CFP title game is chock-full of prospects. One thing in particular you’re going to want to watch is the receivers against the d-backs on both sides. LSU WR Jordan Jefferson, CB Kristian Fulton and S Grant Delpit, and Clemson WR Tee Higgins and CB AJ Terrell will all likely be top-50 picks in this April’s draft. And you’ve got top receivers looking ahead to the 2021 draft (LSU’s JaMarr Chase and Clemson’s Justyn Ross), and even a corner for the 2022 draft (LSU’s Derek Stingley) to check out, too.

Outside of those players, keep an eye on LSU QB Joe Burrow and Clemson S/LB Isaiah Simmons—two likely top-10 picks in 2020—and a generational quarterback prospect for 2020, in Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. And there are others, like LSU DE K’Lavon Chaisson, with a chance to really help themselves, too.

Should be a good showcase for all.

From Shedrick Carter (@shedrickcarter2): What’s going on with these head-coaching hires? Nobody seems to want the creative OCs anymore.

Shedrick, a correction has happened. Some of those hires didn’t work, and teams figured out that everyone fishing from the same pier for a few years would naturally make it harder to reel in a great one. So this year, three of the four guys hired have a lot of head-coaching experience—Mike McCarthy has 13 years under his belt, Ron Rivera nine and Matt Rhule seven, with Judge obviously the outlier.

I do think this is a good development too, in that playcalling is such a small part of being a great head coach. Two of the head coaches still alive (Mike Vrabel, Matt LaFleur) were only play-callers for one year before becoming head coaches, and another (Andy Reid) had only been a position coach before getting his first shot. And if you wanna take this a step further, the two coaches in the college football title game Monday (Ed Orgeron and Dabo Swinney) were position coaches before becoming head coaches.

Is it nice to have a great playcaller as your head coach? Sure. But it’s further down the priority list than many people think.

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