Wise coaching choices
As coaching appointments go in the National Football League, those announced by the Browns the other day flew somewhat under the radar, but could wind up having a profound effect on what lies ahead.
Al Saunders, Ray Horton, Pep Hamilton and Kirby Wilson are the latest assistants to join new head coach Hue Jackson’s remodeled staff and each brings the kind of experience to help guide him through his rookie season in Cleveland.
Saunders, a venerable NFL vagabond with stops now in eight league cities, as well as five colleges throughout his 46-year coaching career (33 in the NFL), will offer the Browns’ offense next season large doses of what a successful offense looks like.
No matter where he has gone, success has followed the soon-to-be 69-year-old Saunders. Whether it’s coordinating offenses, coaching wide receivers (his specialty) or overseeing the offensive structure of a team, statistics always improve.
Perfect example is this past season. After retiring in April after declining to take a front-office job in Oakland, Saunders unretired in October when interim Miami Dolphins coach Dan Campbell called.
He made an immediate impact after being named senior offensive assistant (also his title with the Browns), coaching up the Miami wide receivers. Main beneficiary of that coaching was Jarvis Landry, who set a club record with 110 receptions.
And where does the Browns’ greatest weakness on offense lie? That’s right, with the wide receivers. If there is anyone who can extract what talent remains in Dwayne Bowe’s body (assuming the Browns choose to retain his services), it’s Al Saunders.
Saunders spent 15 of his NFL seasons in Kansas City—10 with Marty Schottenheimer and five with Dick Vermeil – and was responsible for much of the the offensive success of those teams. He was also on Vermeil’s staff in St. Louis when the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV, and was Jackson’s offensive chief in Oakland in 2011.
He knows all about winning explosive offensive football, having learned from, among others, Don Coryell during his stint with the San Diego Chargers. His expertise in crafting those offenses should make life more pleasant for Jackson and Hamilton.
Hamilton, who carries the slash title of assistant head coach/offense, arrives with a checkered NFL past. He was fired as offensive coordinator mid-season by the Indianapolis Colts and replaced by former Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski.
But the Colts’ offense in 2014 ranked in the top three in the league led by quarterback Andrew Luck, whose offensive coordinator and position coach at Stanford was Hamilton. Luck missed most half of last season with multiple injuries and the Colts’ offense suffered, prompting Hamilton’s dismissal.
It’s not certain exactly where Jackson, who favors a vertical offense that aggressively pushes the ball mainly through the air, will fit Hamilton into his philosophical scheme. The ex-Colts offensive coordinator was criticized in Indianapolis for being too run-oriented.
It’s possible he and Wilson, hired as the running game coordinator, will collaborate to provide that aspect of the Cleveland offense this coming season. He was Adrian Peterson’s position coach last season in Minnesota. He certainly won’t find that kind of talent on the Cleveland roster.
The big get, though, is Horton, who returns to the Browns as defensive coordinator after serving in the same position with the team in 2013. He was blown out in one of owner Jimmy Haslam’s purges following that season and was Tennessee’s defensive boss the last two seasons.
What makes Horton’s return so significant is the results he achieved with the Browns in that one season. Even though the club finished 4-12, they played an aggressive style, winding up as the ninth-best defense in the NFL. Numerous fourth-quarter collapses contributed to most of the losses.
They were third overall against the pass, but that stat is a bit misleading since many teams didn’t have to throw the ball to beat Cleveland and the lower number of yards gained in that fashion skewed the ranking.
And yet, Horton might wind up as the most important addition to the coaching staff because of his aggressive approach. That aspect of the game, an absolute necessity on that side of the ball, was clearly missing last season under Mike Pettine and Jim O’Neil.
Horton is certain to revive the awful Cleveland pass rush, which produced just 29 sacks last season, 16 of them in two games. The Browns had 40 in 2013, the most since the 2001 team registered 43. His greatest challenge will be improving the run defense, which has been AWOL for way too long.
What fans are more likely to see in 2016 is Horton channeling his mentor, the great Dick LeBeau, whose creation of the zone blitz revolutionized the game. Nothing wrong with that.
With these wise coaching appointments, all signs point to Jackson favoring aggressive football on both sides of the ball. That’s something that could pay off handsomely if the personnel end of the organization matches his wisdom with regards to revamping the roster to fit the new coaching philosophy.