The Cleveland Browns are in a race against time—and against six other teams—in their search for a new head coach, which means this is a week of aggressive pursuits and even more aggressive rumors.
Several names have emerged in connection with the Browns' coaching search, so let's take a quick look at each of the men the team is rumored to be linked to and see how likely it is any one of them accepts Cleveland's overtures.
Chip Kelly, Head Coach, Oregon
Oregon Ducks head football coach Chip Kelly's name has been flying around the NFL all season long, many thinking it's an inevitability that he takes his talents to the professional arena in 2013. And the timing is right, with the Ducks facing NCAA sanctions—including a potential bowl ban—for recruiting violations under Kelly's watch.
Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer is reporting that Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is currently in Arizona, where Kelly's Ducks face Kansas State in the Tostito's Fiesta Bowl on Thursday night. Haslam is trying to get a jump on the other teams most interested in Kelly—most notably the Philadelphia Eagles—and woo him to Cleveland before anyone else can get in a serious pitch. The team will reportedly interview Kelly for the job on Friday.
Kelly's frenetic, zone-read-option offense has found some copycats in the league already but the goal is for some team—the Browns or some other franchise—to land the real-deal. However, it may not be well-suited to the personnel currently in place. Current starting quarterback Brandon Weeden said that he doesn't think he can run the zone-read, which may signal the end of his time as the Browns' starter should Kelly take the job.
The other concern is that the Browns are searching for a head coach before a general manager in order to allow that coach to have as much control over the football side of things as he wants. They'd like the coach to have final say over the roster and the general manager to be more of a personnel assistant, and in doing so, they hope to entice the highest-caliber coaching talent available.
There are doubts that Kelly would be well-suited to having that much power in the NFL and that he'd be able to effectively control personnel at the highest level.
Ultimately, Kelly is the most powerful man in the NFL coaching searches being conducted at present. He can write his own blank check, whether in Cleveland or elsewhere. Though Haslam and Joe Banner might have their heart set on him, Kelly doesn't seem to be the best fit for the personnel currently in place in Cleveland.
Bill O'Brien, Head Coach, Penn State
Another name atop both the Browns' and Eagles' coaching wish-list is Penn State's Bill O'Brien. O'Brien is the 2012 Big Ten Coach of the Year and though he's publicly stated a number of times that he has full intentions of remaining with the Nittany Lions for the 2013 season, the offers set to come his way from NFL teams may prove to be more powerful than his desire to give his college players coaching continuity.
When it comes to the strong leadership requirement the Browns have for their next coach, O'Brien is a perfect match. His offensive pedigree as the New England Patriots' coordinator and quarterbacks coach also makes him a better fit for the Browns' current personnel, Weeden included, than Kelly. O'Brien incorporated some Kelly-esque techniques with his Patriots offense, like running a near-constant no-huddle, but without the zone-read that would render Weeden obsolete in Cleveland under Kelly.
The issue is whether O'Brien is really ready to leave Penn State after just one year and whether Penn State will let him. They could raise his salary to keep him and there's also the reported eight-figure contract buyout any team that takes O'Brien would have to pay to the university.
Doug Marrone, Head Coach, Syracuse
Syracuse head football coach Doug Marrone has become an overnight sensation when it comes to NFL coaching vacancies, with meetings scheduled for this week with both the Browns and the Buffalo Bills, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Marrone has been with Syracuse for four seasons and has a 25-25 record over that span; prior to joining the Orange he was the New Orleans Saints' offensive coordinator for two years and the New York Jets' offensive line coach before that. He clearly has experience in building a strong offense, something the Browns need, but it might be a stretch to think he'd leave Syracuse for the NFL at the moment.
Marrone is a Syracuse alum and has called coaching his former team his "dream job," so it is going to take a choice situation to get him to walk. While the Browns have one of the best rosters for a new coach to take hold of—with so much youth, talent and potential, anything is possible—Marrone's current gig may be the top of his personal mountain.
Ray Horton, Defensive Coordinator, Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton's dance card has been mighty full this week, with Buffalo and Cleveland among the teams interested in his services, on top of his own team, who fired head coach Ken Whisenhunt on Monday. Though Horton fulfills the Rooney Rule, which requires every team with a coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate, he's more than that—he's a legitimate option for the Browns.
Horton's defense was the lone bright spot for the Cardinals this season, despite the team ending the year with a 5-11 record. Though current Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron is still employed by the team, with no Browns coordinators or assistants yet relieved of their duties, it's likely that he's out, depending on who the Browns hire.
Though Cleveland's offense needs the most work, their defense is rife with talent that has yet to meet its full potential. A defensive guru like Horton could elevate Cleveland's defense to one of the league's best.
Dirk Koetter, Offensive Coordinator, Atlanta Falcons
Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's name was bandied about a lot over the past two days when it came to coaching vacancies around the league, including the openings in Cleveland, Kansas City and Philadelphia. However, D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Wedensday Koetter has withdrawn himself from consideration and instead accepted a contract extension with the Falcons that runs through 2014.
Nick Saban, Head Coach, Alabama
I don't mean to be crass here, but when it comes to Alabama head coach Nick Saban returning to the NFL to coach the Browns, it's time to cue Vince McMahon's entrance music. Saban has the best job in college football, is just a few days away from the BCS title game and was a notorious failure when he was at the helm of the Miami Dolphins in the 2005 and 2006 seasons.
ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi may have Saban at the top of his Browns head coach wish list, but look at the two names behind his—Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden. These are pipe dreams; neither Saban nor Cowher nor Gruden will be coaching the Browns in 2013, and I personally don't believe any of them will be in the NFL in the upcoming season, either.
CBS Sports' Mike Freeman says that Saban has already been approached by NFL teams wanting to gauge his interest and he's given them a forceful "no thanks," and it's not of the sort that leaves the door open for the right job. The Saban-to-Cleveland rumor needs to be put to bed, forever.