The Cleveland Browns franchise is faced with a future-defining choice in 2013. New owner Jimmy Haslam will kick off a new era of Browns football by selecting the team's next head coach.
Haslam's first decision as owner was to oust Mike Holmgren as team president in order to make way for former Philadelphia Eagles executive Joe Banner. With Banner in charge, the front office is set to undergo a huge makeover, which includes replacing general manager Tom Heckert and head coach Pat Shurmur.
For a franchise marred by non-competitive football since returning in 1999, change is definitely welcome. However, the buzz will die quickly if it doesn't signal a turnaround for the franchise. The organization will need to make sure that this hire works out better than the hiring of Shurmur, who managed to win just nine games in his two seasons in Cleveland.
Here's a look at the candidates who are rumored to be in the hunt for the job, along with pros and cons for each.
Chip Kelly, Head Coach, Oregon
Jason LaConfora of CBS Sports reports that Kelly is the Browns' top candidate for the job. Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that team president Joe Banner will interview Kelly in Arizona this week.
The days of college and pro offenses looking drastically different are coming to an end.
With a premium on offensive innovation and ingenuity Chip Kelly has established himself as one of the hottest names in football. Kelly's up-tempo spread offense has transformed Oregon into a perennial contender for the national championship.
Kelly would bring the excitement to the Browns' fanbase that has been missing since the team has come back, and the team will, at the very least, be fun to watch. His system may have to be tweaked a bit to accomodate pro personnel, but the Browns would certainly rack up the points.
Kelly is an intriguing option, but he comes with drawbacks.
The biggest concern has to be a lack of NFL experience. Kelly has been coaching since 1990 but hasn't spent any time at the next level.
Despite the reputation for an option attack, there are actually many pro elements to his offense. The zone-based running game that Kelly often employs isn't far off from what Mike Shanahan's Redskins do. The question is how he handles coaching older players.
Coaching 18- to 23-year-olds can be quite different than coaching 10-year veterans of the league. It's a transition that has tripped up successful college coaches who make the leap, including Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier.
Nick Saban, Head Coach, Alabama
The Crimson Tide head coach has been adamant that he's not going to be leaving Alabama for the NFL, but Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports reports that a source told him Saban will be named the Browns' head coach on January 8.
Of all college coaches, Saban is the closest to a pro schematically.
When you watch Saban's teams play, it feels like you are watching an NFL team, as he utilizes a smashmouth offense and a 3-4 scheme that mirrors what many teams in the NFL are doing.
Saban's record at Alabama speaks for itself. He has little to prove at the college level after winning two of the last three titles, and he could win a third in the upcoming national championship game.
Saban also has ties to Cleveland. He worked with the Browns as defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick. This is a hire that many fans would get behind because of his success and name recognition.
Saban has already gone the pro route once—and it wasn't pretty.
The dominant college coach served as the Miami Dolphins' head coach in 2005 and 2006. His reign started off with promise; he took the Dolphins to a 9-7 record and had them competing for a playoff spot. But year two didn't go as planned, and the team went 6-10.
From there, Saban jettisoned to the Crimson Tide and took off as college football's most dominant coach. After such an unsuccessful stint in the NFL, one has to wonder if his personality is more suited to coach college players.
Another drawback is his defensive schemes. The Browns have promising players in the front seven who are well-equipped to form a good defense in the current 4-3 scheme. However, Saban has utilized the 3-4 everywhere he has been.
If the Browns do pursue Saban, it will likely take a considerable contract to lure him away from Tuscaloosa. That's a big risk for a coach who may or may not work out.
Ray Horton, Defensive Coordinator, Arizona Cardinals
Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that team president Joe Banner has interviewed Horton while in Arizona to interview Chip Kelly.
There's a reason that a coordinator for a 5-11 team has managed to become one of the hottest names across the league for job openings—he's done great things with the defense in Arizona.
Despite an offense that didn't help his cause, the Cardinals defense ranks 12th in total yardage per game, fifth in passing yardage and were one of the most disruptive units in football. His team led the league in sacks at 58 and interceptions with 21.
Who is the best candidate for Cleveland?
Horton is one of the game's best defensive minds, but he has been trapped with a roster that doesn't have success on offense. If he were to be paired with a great offensive coordinator, he could be a successful head coach.
The primary concern for Horton is a lack of head coaching experience and a conflict in scheme.
Horton has worked as an assistant for 19 years in the NFL, including stops with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals but has never been a head coach. There are plenty of great minds in the league who have never successfully made the transition to becoming a head coach because of the added responsibility.
Any time you bring a long-time assistant to the ranks of head coach there's a risk that he may not have what it takes to become a successful head coach.
Horton is also experienced with the 3-4. If the Browns hire Horton, it's likely they would be moving to that scheme. The current roster is built to run the 4-3, and switching now may inflict unnecessary rebuilding.
Doug Marrone, Head Coach, Syracuse
ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that the Browns and Bills have lined up interviews with Marrone.
Syracuse HC Doug Marrone is scheduled to interview this week for Cleveland Browns' HC and also will interview for Buffalo Bills' HC.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 1, 2013
Marrone is a candidate who surprised most fans, but he has had a fair amount of success as a head coach at the collegiate level and has experience as an NFL assistant.
Syracuse is by no means a college football powerhouse, but he has put together a 25-25 record with two bowl wins in his four years there.
Prior to his time at Syracuse, he was an offensive line coach for the Tennessee Titans and offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints from 2006-2008. His offenses in New Orleans were effective with Drew Brees, so he knows how to put together an effective passing game.
Marrone just doesn't have the big time experience and "wow" factor that most Browns fans will be looking for with the hire.
He has had moderate success at Syracuse, but he's had losing seasons in two of his four years there. That can partially be attributed to the cyclical nature of college football, but he certainly doesn't have the flash of Saban or Kelly in terms of coaches who are coming from the college ranks.
Bill O'Brien, Head Coach, Penn State
Harrisburg Patriot-News writer David Jones reports that the Browns are among the group of NFL teams interested in Penn State's Bill O'Brien.
A strong argument could be made that O'Brien was college football's best coach in 2012.
The Penn State head coaching position was among the most unappealing in football, and he managed to lead the team to an 8-4 record despite the numerous obstacles he faced in his first season there.
O'Brien had NFL experience as an assistant with the New England Patriots from 2007-2011, including one season as the team's offensive coordinator. O'Brien turned Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin into an effective quarterback and would work wonders for Brandon Weeden.
If the Browns are looking for an offensive coach, O'Brien is the man.
Like many of the candidates, O'Brien has no experience as an NFL head coach. That is offset by his experience as an assistant, but it isn't quite enough to erase those concerns.
The other issue is a $9.2 million dollar buyout that O'Brien has in place, which makes him a less appealing option financially.
O'Brien's credentials in his short time at Penn State are impressive, but Belichick's coordinators have struggled to duplicate their mentor's success. The Browns have seen that firsthand with the likes of Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini.