Monday, January 14, 2013

Chud just might be the right guy . . . finally

Watching Rob Chudzinski at the news conference announcing his appointment as the Browns’ new head coach, one thing became abundantly clear.

The man was really, truly, honest-to-goodness thrilled to be sitting where he was at the time, listening to the words of his new boss.

“. . . and I believe we came back with the best person to lead the Cleveland Browns to the kind of winning format we want to have here in Cleveland and we all expect to have,” said Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III.

The pride showed on Chudzinski’s countenance as he sat there between Haslam and club CEO Joe Banner late last week. It looked as though he wanted one of them to pinch him to make certain this was all really happening.

If you’ve ever wished for something big and ultra important in your life and then got it, you know exactly what coursed through Chudzinski as he faced the media. The smile on his face did not belie the inner joy and pride he must have felt.

After listening to the new coach field a variety of questions, there was no doubt whatsoever this sad-sack team is finally getting a head coach who gets it, who lived it, who knows what it’s like to be a fan of the Cleveland Browns.

Anyone who can recall what he did as a little kid growing up in Toledo, living and dying with a Browns team of a different era, pretending he’s Ozzie Newsome or Brian Sipe, gets it.

Chudzinski knows what it feels like to be a Browns fan. He knows the hurt of a tough loss, the exhilaration of a big victory. He knows the colors Burnt Orange and Seal Brown are special.  So is the logoless helmet.

Eric Mangini can have his “but it’s the Cleveland Browns, mom” moments. That’s not nearly the same as this. Mangini said he got it. No he didn’t. He never did.

Chris Palmer, Butch Davis Romeo Crennel and Pat Shurmur, who all preceded Chudzinski, never got it, either. All they wanted was a chance to be a National Football League head coach. Didn’t matter where.

To Chudzinski, Cleveland matters. That not only gives him a leg up on the job that lies ahead, his genuineness gives him style points in the eyes of many fans.  

However, style points do not win football games. And the odds of this man calling all the shots for the first time in his career and being successful are bigger than one would think.

The success rate for first-time head coaches who were coordinators in the NFL is rather low. The Mike Tomlins, Andy Reids and John Harbaughs are the exceptions. The landscape is littered with failures as the Browns know all too well.

Is Chudzinski a popular choice? No. His name popped out from virtually nowhere. The Browns were the first team to contact him this season and they did so almost as an afterthought. Despite Haslam’s protestations, he wasn’t their first choice.

The Browns’ spin, naturally, suggested he was their man all along even though the team’s interview list might have reached double figures. By the time Chudzinski appeared on their radar, all the high profile guys were either back in college and snapped up.

Haslam said his first coaching hire “was always on our radar screen.” That’s so easy to say in hindsight. Consider it nothing more than rhetorical blather because only the sycophants buy it.

Here’s another from Haslam: “We did not have one person in mind as the favorite.” Tell that to University of Oregon coach Chip Kelly who, if you believe the reports, could have written his own check if he had said yes to Haslam and Banner.

Because Chudzinski was not the first, or even the fourth, choice, that doesn’t necessarily make him the wrong choice. There is something about him that says of all his predecessors with the Browns, except perhaps Davis, he’s got a good shot to live up to Haslam’s expectations.

Chudzinski is inheriting a nice player core, especially on offense, which is his specialty. He indicated he would adapt to his personnel, not vice-versa, something that got the stubborn Shurmur fired well before the end of his contract.

What works in the new coach’s favor, though, is his preference for a vertical downfield passing game that is much better suited for the Browns. The days of making quarterback Brandon Weeden play with a west coast bent are over.

If there is anyone who can maximize Weeden’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses, it’s Chudzinski. Ample proof of that is what he did as offensive coordinator down in Carolina with Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. In two seasons, Newton passed for nearly 8,000 yards, ran for another 1,450 and accounted for 67 touchdowns, 40 with his arm.

Chudzinski put him in a position that gave the Panthers the best chance to win games. Instead being forced to play in a pro set from under center, Newton was given an offense similar to the one he played in at Auburn and flourished in his first two NFL seasons.

That’s not to say Weeden can duplicate Newton’s feats. But you can look for him to return to his Oklahoma State shotgun days and unfurl his strong arm that seems perfectly suited for his new coach’s style of play.

Chudzinski applied the perfect adjective for the kind of football Browns fans can expect and have yearned for all these years: aggressive. Football, by its very nature, is an aggressive sport. And the new coach has promised we’ll see it on both sides of the ball.

Attacking teams usually are teams that wind up winning a majority of games. How many times have we seen with the last three Cleveland coaches a passive, almost play-not-to-lose mentality? Correct answer: Too many. That’s got to stop. If you’re going to lose, you might as well go down fighting.

Another aspect of coaching that has been missing for the last dozen or so years with the Browns is attention to detail. “We’re going to focus on critical situations in a game,” Chudzinski said, adding fundamentals will be stressed.

OK, all coaches say that. And you can bet a lot of people will be watching closely to make certain he keeps those promises. If not, it’ll be back to the square one for Haslam and Banner.

Somehow, this glass-half-empty thinker sees something in Chudzinski that wasn’t there with the likes of Crennel, Mangini and Shurmur. Maybe it’s the Browns fan growing up background. He might not be a Clevelander, but inside him beats the heart of a Browns fan.

For the first time in the last several years, since 2007 when he was Cleveland’s offensive coordinator, I feel somewhat sanguine that, even though Chudzinski was far from their top choice, Haslam and Banner have made the correct choice.


  1. Hi,
    To be honest, the more I think about the Chud hire, the less I like it. It's not that I don't think he could be a good head coach, but it's what his hire may represent to my eyes. I think it says loud-and-clear to me that Jimmy Haslam is more concerned with making money than putting a winning product out on the field. Why? Because he decided that his most important hire was choosing a business man, not a football man, and that he is allowing Joe Banner to run the football operations as well as the business operations. Banner made a lot of money for Jeffrey Lurie in Philadelphia and, by all accounts, he has delivered business hires that have great reputations. Smart people who have very good experience doing what they do whether it’s negotiating contracts or managing the salary cap. But, on the football operations side, Banner has whiffed several times already as Chudzinski was very likely not on their top five list of candidates. It seems likely that Haslam wanted Banner because of Joe’s excellent reputation and experience in knowing how to turn a profit in the NFL. So, if Banner stumbles and bumbles through the football operations side of things until he gets it right (if he does at all), it’s the price Haslam seems willing to pay because he hired Banner to make him money first.

    Looking at this hiring process, it seems clear that both Banner and Haslam were deluded into thinking they had a top job that others wanted. Because of the young, talented roster (except maybe at QB), the salary cap room that promised quick upgrades and (supposed) quick improvement, and Haslam's money, they thought they would be able to land a top guy. Haslam made a lot of noise about making that big "splash," that big statement hire that says that HIS team is going to be relevant. But they were wrong, dead wrong because nobody of real substance wanted the job and they couldn’t see why. They couldn’t see why because they are business men first, and very experienced ones, but they are virtually rookies and green-as-grass when it comes to the football operations. But, as business men, making money is the top priority.

    Haslam & Banner went to Arizona deluded into thinking they had their man and their big splash and they probably still don't understand how it went all wrong. Quite simply, Chip Kelly understood what others have quickly understood as well: the organizational structure that Haslam has OK’d with Banner in charge of everything is a losing one. You don’t put a business man in charge of football operations, especially one who has the reputation of making sure you know who is in charge. But, Haslam’s priority is turning a profit first.

    Haslam was part owner of the Steelers, among the model franchises, and you would think that if his top priority was winning, he would have established an organizational structure that is comparable to Pittsburgh’s where personnel people run the personnel side. Kevin Colbert, their GM, grew up through the scouting ranks in Detroit and Miami. Having watched the Ravens in the past four years, another model franchise, Haslam would also see that Ozzie Newsome grew up through the coaching/scouting side of operations. But Haslam goes another way. He decides that a business man, Joe Banner, will run the Browns and be their de-facto general manager even though Banner has virtually no personnel experience and that his behind-the-scenes right hand man, Mike Lombardi, was such a joke during his NFL personnel career that nobody has wanted him for five years. But, again, Haslam’s true priority is turning a profit, not winning.

    End of part I. Thanks,
    Paul from Seattle

  2. So, even someone like Doug Merrone decided to take the Buffalo (!?!?!) job instead of waiting to hear back from Cleveland. Buffalo who is even in worse shape at QB being saddled with a huge contract for a guy they mistakenly thought (even though no one else did) would be their franchise guy. Buffalo who has arguably a much weaker roster and who even the young Browns laughed at behind closed doors early in the season (which, of course cost them the game) because they knew they had a better team. But Merrone takes the Buffalo job because, as bad as it is, it’s still more attractive than Cleveland’s job.

    And what of Rod Chudzinski? Again, he may turn out to be a fine coach. But, he wasn’t even interviewing with any other team. He would have been available next week and probably the week after. Why not wait and look at some of the assistant coaches who were on playoff teams before hiring him? Sure, Haslam & Banner professed to be “blown away” by his interview, but were they? Was this move made, in part, to do more damage control when Whisenhunt walked away? How bad would it be right now if this story came out without the Browns making this hire? Haslam and Banner would be skewered right now. Of course, additional reports claim that Whisenhunt didn’t walk away because Banner insisted on final authority over his coaching staff, but I take these reports to be nothing more than spin from the Browns funneled through the local media.

    In the end, the Chudzinski hire reveals to me Haslam’s true motives. While I don’t doubt he wants to win, he’s clearly sacrificing this franchise’s ability to do so in order to maximize profit by letting Joe Banner have such total control that the best coaching people are walking away. He’s letting an experienced business man, but a neophyte football man, run the football operations without putting a top personnel man in charge. This is even when his experience as part Steelers owner has shown him that strong personnel people need to run football operations in order to win. By simply looking at the outward results of his decision-making thus far, it seems clear to me that Haslam’s top priority is profit. Otherwise, we’d already have a top football man running football operations. In fact, this would have been Haslam’s first hire, not a business man.

    Sorry for the uber long response, but I've been thinking about this for a few days now.

    All the best. Thanks.
    Paul from Seattle

    1. Hi Paul,

      Hope you're feeling better after pouring out your feelings. They are much too diverse to take on one at a time.

      Allow me to suggest to you that yes, Haslam is in it for the money. But he's also in it for the glory. It's an ego thing.

      He'd love nothing better than to hoist the Lombardi Trophy and find out just how Jerry Jones felt. High profile owners are in it for the self satisfaction they feel when their teams win.

      As for the money, Haslam gets more than enough from the ancillary revenue stream (TV and merchandising revenues top that list) all NFL owners receive. Any owner who winds up the red is either brand dead or surrounds himself with the wrong people.

      The choice of Chudzinski was a result of backing himself into a corner when his top guys (Saban and Kelly) bailed for various reasons. He got schooled by the Eagles on Kelly.

      He mistakenly thought coaches would flock to him when Shurmur was fired. Maybe Banner led him to believe that was so. Maybe not. In any event, It most likely will turn out to be a lesson learned.

      It was his choice to give Banner the keys to the kingdom. For the time being, he has to live with that. Banner's success in Philadelphia is a strong legacy. Let's see how the first season plays out.

      I can tell you one thing: The Chudzinski offensive philosophy is a much better fit with the club's talent on that side of the ball than his predecessor's. And he seems to understand that passive football usually means losing football.

      Right now, they are only words. As the new season unfolds, we'll get a much better idea of how meaningful they are.

      Hopefully, this much shorter response will hold you until the team names a general manager.

  3. Hey Rich,

    That is the first thing I thought when I watched the presser. He get's it. As far as will he be successful, I hope so. I am really getting sick of starting over again, especially at my age (If I'm not mistaken, you were the hockey writer for the old Cleveland Press...) Where the heck is my old Barons jersey anyway? And that's really showing my age.

    BTW Paul from Seattle,
    While you stated your argument very well, there is one big flaw in your argument that shoots it down in one sentence:

    Losing teams don't make enough profit for someone who spends a Billion, and yes that is billion with a "B" to purchase a football team.

  4. Hi Marc,

    I was the hockey writer for the Plain Dealer (Jim Braham, Bob Schlesinger and Doug Clarke wrote about the sport for the Press). I outlasted them all.

    And which Barons jersey do you seek? The old American Hockey League Barons or the ones who skated in the National Hockey League for two very long seasons? That was pure torture.

    Any man who loses money as an NFL owner is either incompetent or brain dead. Being an NFL owner is practically a license for making money. The ancillary revenue stream almost assures a profit.

    Haslam is in this for the glory. Making lots of money would be nice, but he wants to caress the Vince Lombardi trophy. Banner was his ticket to NFL ownership. And Banner will not be the GM. He'll be the overseer and let his football people run the show, just like he did in Philadelphia.

    That is all.

  5. Hey Rich,

    I remember all of those writers, and the NHL Barons, that was torture, heck even the Crusaders from the WHA. Had an autographed Gerry Cheevers jersey. I used to have a Barons jersey from the old AHL. I used to see them at the old Cleveland arena across the street from Leo's Casino. Excuse me, I have to go take my Geritol now....

    1. How many tablespoons? Thankfully, I have never ingested any of that stuff.

      A quick correction: Leo's was at 75th and Euclid. The old Arena was around 37th and Euclid. My fondest memory of that building was the chicken wire that surrounded the rink.