After the Browns gave Rob Chudzinski the quick hook, the assumption was that the Cleveland organization had a plan. Instead, they were the last NFL team to fill their head coaching vacancy, and the offseason has seen plenty of upheaval in the front office as well.
So for now, at least, former Jets and Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will be running the show in Cleveland. And while Pettine’s nickname is “Blunt Force Trauma” and he’s had a couple of colorful turns on ESPN’s “The Season” (as a Pennsylvania high school coach) and HBO’s “Hard Knocks”, don’t expect another Rex Ryan.
“For any of you that are expecting me to be like [Ryan] personality-wise, you’ll be mistaken,” Pettine said at his introductory press conference. “We were pretty much opposites of each other. I’m not going to be predicting Super Bowls or meeting presidents or wins and losses. I won’t be writing on anybody’s Winnebago about ‘Super Bowl or bust.’ ”
“Mike is the epitome of what we want the Browns to be—tough, aggressive and innovative—with a blue-collar, team-first mentality,” said Owner Jimmy Haslam at Pettine’s introduction. “Most importantly, Mike has repeatedly shown the ability to lead his players to consistent improvement and success, clearly what we are striving for as he leads the Cleveland Browns moving forward.”
Pettine has already indicated he’ll focus his attention on the defensive side of the ball, but in his introductory presser he added that “I’m not going to be that defensive coach that says, “Listen, we’re going to win it on defense and we’re going to run, and we don’t need to have a great quarterback.”
“I’ve always been of the mindset,” Pettine added, “that you fit your system to your players.”
So with Pettine concentrating on the defense, Kyle Shanahan has been tabbed to direct the offense. Shanahan served as the Redskins’ offensive coordinator the past four seasons under his father, Mike; prior to that he was the Texans’ offensive coordinator for two seasons under Shanahan disciple Gary Kubiak, working his way up from receivers and quarterbacks coach with that organization.
At first blush you might be inclined to paint a Kyle Shanahan offense with the same broad strokes as his dad’s scheme, and there are certainly elements of similarity: you’ll get the West Coast-flavored passing attack and the zone-blocking ground game.
But the younger Shanny has proven adept at working with a variety of quarterbacking styles, which is critical because at this juncture the Browns have no idea who’ll be under center for them Kickoff Weekend. Shanahan found success with both statue-like Matt Schaub in Houston and infinitely more mobile Robert Griffin III in Washington; despite the differing styles, in four of his six seasons as a coordinator Shanahan’s offenses have ranked in the top 10 in yardage.
Along with flexibility, balance is a hallmark of the younger Shanahan’s offenses. For example, in RG3’s rookie season the Redskins became the first NFL team ever to throw for at least 3,400 yards and rush for 2,700 yards, and Washington led the NFL in yards per play.
You want running? Alfred Morris topped 1,200 yards each of the past two seasons in Washington; Steve Slaton hit that number as a Texans rookie in 2008, Shanahan’s first year as Houston’s OC.
Last year’s edition of the Browns was, to put it kindly, devoid of talent in the ground game. But with the free agent addition of Ben Tate, who has just four career games of 20 or more carries yet five 100-yard efforts, Cleveland now has a feature back capable of holding up to the Morris or Slaton-like workload Shanahan is likely to give them.
Better yet, Tate has experience—and success—in the zone blocking system Shanahan will employ. The Browns will need to makeover their offensive line to some degree; they’re set at tackles (Joe Thomas, Mitchell Schwartz) and will be at center as well if transition free agent Alex Mack returns. The guard play needed to be upgraded anyway, and zone scheme teams have traditionally had success finding effective guards later in the draft because they tend to be undersized.
Former Eagles running back Wilbert Montgomery, who coached the Baltimore running backs the past six seasons, takes over as Cleveland’s running backs coach while Andy Moeller, the Ravens’ offensive line coach the past three years, will oversee the Browns’ offensive line. Both are familiar with Pettine from his time in Baltimore, and both are familiar with what it takes to succeed in the AFC North.
Maybe you prefer the passing game? Andre Johnson hit the 1,500 yard mark in both years Shanahan ran the offense in Houston; last year Pierre Garçon had 1,346 in Washington. 2013 NFL yardage leader Josh Gordon is more than capable of filling the AJ/Garçon receiver role Shanahan loves to feed. Both Johnson and Garçon thrived without much in the way of running mates, so the Browns’ lack of a quality WR2 shouldn’t be an issue.
Actually, the Browns’ true second target was tight end Jordan Cameron, who faded down the stretch last year but nonetheless gives Shanahan’s West Coast-ish attack the same sort of tight end target he had in Washington (Jordan Reed, Fred Davis, Chris Cooley) and Houston (Owen Daniels). By the way, all of those tight ends put up seasons averaging around five catches per game with 53 yards per game or better, despite a variety of factors (injury, sharing the workload, etc.) conspiring against them. And none are as talented a receiver as Cameron.
Ultimately, the key to Shanahan’s offense will be Cleveland’s quarterback. Right now Brian Hoyer holds the top spot on the Browns’ depth chart, and the head coach is a fan. Of course, in the same interview in which he referred to Hoyer as a “winner” and praised his intangibles, Pettine added that “to win in this league, you have to have a great quarterback and that’s something we’re going to put our full focus and attention on.”
That likely means that, at some point in the first three rounds of the draft, the Browns will add a quarterback to compete with Hoyer for the starting gig.
In the meantime, Pettine brings a decidedly blue-collar attitude to the ultimate blue-collar town. He’ll have the Dawg Pound barking at the defense, and many of the pieces are in place for a successful offense as well. Nailing the quarterback position, be it coaching up Hoyer or trading for Kirk Cousins or hitting on a draft pick, will go a long way towards deciding if Pettine’s tenure as the Browns’ head coach is any longer than Chudzinski’s.