Thursday, January 13, 2011

Pat Who?

It was roughly 10 days ago that Pat Shurmur’s name entered our consciousness. Only those who follow the National Football League religiously knew who he was.

When his name initially surfaced as a candidate for the Browns’ head coaching vacancy Mike Holmgren created by firing Eric Mangini, most fans asked, “Pat Who?”

And that’s how Shurmur arrives in Cleveland Friday when he becomes the Browns’ fifth head coach in 12 years. Pat Who?

Like Mike Smith was Mike Who? when he accepted the Atlanta Falcons’ head coaching job; and John Harbaugh was John Who? when he took over in Baltimore for Brian Billick; and Mike Tomlin was Mike Who? when the Rooney family chose him to succeed Bill Cowher.

Smith, Harbaugh and Tomlin, three of the most successful coaches in the NFL the last three seasons. And all arrived as question marks because their resumes provided no clues as to how quickly – or even whether – they would achieve success.

None had head coaching experience. Smith listed several years as a defensive coordinator on his resume; Harbaugh was nothing more than a special teams coach most of his career; and Tomlin had been an NFL defensive coordinator for just one season.

For every Tomlin, there are a large number of Romeo Crennels. For every Smith, there are plenty of Butch Davises. For every Harbaugh, there is a boatload of Eric Manginis.

When Crennel and Mangini were hired by the Browns, I was immediately and vehemently opposed to the hires. I didn’t feel comfortable that either man was capable of recapturing the glory days of the Kardiac Kids or Bernie Kosar-era Browns.

They were disciples of Bill Belichick, whose brilliance as a head coach and personnel evaluator did not rub off on either of them. They clung philosophically to his apron strings and that flat out did not work in Cleveland. Never had a chance.

Unfortunately, it took four years for the Browns to realize that with Crennel, and two very long seasons with Mangini to discover he was Belichick Lite and not much else.

Now, we have in Shurmur someone who is the anti-Belichick. And I must confess I’m not nearly as upset at his hiring as I was with his two immediate predecessors. Not that I’m exactly sanguine about the pick. I’m just not that down on it.

Perhaps that’s because Shurmur brings offensive credentials to Cleveland. That side of the football has been aching for a change for at least the last six years. Browns fans have been maltreated to stunningly boring offensive football for far too long.

Ostensibly, there will be no more dull, button-down football on offense, No more runs setting up passes. No more smash-mouth football.

Now, again ostensibly, we can look forward to a return to the style of football Sam Rutigliano embraced 30 years ago. Wide open from the first snap. The kind of football that excites fans and puts pressure on opposing defenses.

That’s probably why Holmgren and Tom Heckert Jr. honed in on the 45-year-old Shurmur. Heckert knew him from their days in Philadelphia and Holmgren knew him obliquely through Eagles head coach Andy Reid, a Holmgren protégé.

Sometimes, it’s not necessarily what you know. It’s who you know. And this time, perhaps for the first time since The Return in 1999, there will be a comfort level that finally exists in the football operations of the Browns.

If it’s all about familiarity, then no one else had a shot at this job. It was all Shurmur. It was, in essence, his job to lose. Only a poor interview separated him from returning to St. Louis as the Rams’ offensive coordinator and landing his first head-coaching gig.

“ . . . I came away from our interview very impressed with him as a person, his extensive knowledge of the game and his track record of success as an assistant coach in this league,” Holmgren said in a statement released by the club. “Most importantly, I feel as though he possesses the necessary qualities which make him the right man to lead our football team.”

He did not delineate on what those necessary qualities were.

All that despite Holmgren’s contention he would was in no hurry to name Mangini’s successor. “I’d like to get it done sooner than later,” he said 10 days ago. “At the same time, I’m not going to rush the process.”

Ten days is rushing it.

He added, “We’re opening it up. It’s a pretty wide search . . . we’re not limiting ourselves in any way.”

Wide search? Three candidates (Shurmur, Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell) constitute a wide search?

Say what you mean and mean what you say.

The big question now is whether to trust Holmgren and Heckert on this one. The fans trusted Randy Lerner with the hiring of Crennel, Phil Savage and Mangini. And they trusted Carmen Policy with the hiring of Chris Palmer, Dwight Clark and Davis.

We all know, unfortunately, where that trust led.

Who knows? This time, it might be the Browns’ turn to get lucky with an unknown coach. This time, the good coaching vibes might finally cast their eyes covetously toward Cleveland.

So who is Pat Shurmur? We don’t know. We knew about Crennel, Davis and Mangini before they arrived in Cleveland. Shurmur? No clue.

We have to rely on the words and instincts of Holmgren and Heckert. And then we wait. Wait to find out whether he’s a Harbaugh or a Tomlin or just another coordinator who is a much better coordinator than head coach. Or perhaps a mere extension of Holmgren.

No question the team president is taking a calculated risk in naming Shurmur when other more glamorous names were available. He is clearly rolling the dice.

Do we trust the H&H guys? After all, they are football men. Lerner and Policy weren’t. And is Shurmur going to get a free pass as a result? If Crennel and Mangini got free passes, count on it.

But he won’t get one here. Free passes do not exist here. They must be earned. Like anyone else, Shurmur must prove himself first in order to get passing grades.

Even more important, he has to prove himself to the players. And that promises to be his most difficult job. Gaining respect of the locker room is paramount and a vital contributing factor toward the success of any team.

So is he Pat Who? Or is he the real deal, the one perfect coach this franchise has sought for nearly a generation?

We’ll find out soon enough.

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