After two seasons, the Cleveland Browns and their new brain trust have decided to part ways with defensive coordinator Dick Jauron and make the switch to Ray Horton, who was most recently the defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals.
Horton's name had been tossed about in the past weeks in connection to nearly every head coaching vacancy in the league before angrily demanding his release from Arizona after being passed over for its head coaching job. Arizona's loss, however, is decidedly a major Cleveland gain.
Though the Cardinals went 5-11 in the 2012 season, things could have been far worse if it weren't for their defense.
Under Horton's aegis this past season, the Cardinals ranked 11th in total yards allowed at 337.8, fourth in first downs allowed and 17th in points at 22.3. In addition, the Cardinals' 22 interceptions were the second-highest total in the league. In contrast, the Browns gave up an average of 363.8 yards per game in 2012, along with 21.6 first downs and 23 points and had 17 interceptions on the season.
Prior to his two seasons in Arizona, Horton spent 2004 through 2010 coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive backs, with safety Troy Polamalu his biggest success. For three seasons with Horton on their defensive staff, the Steelers ranked tops in the league in total defense and ranked in the top 10 in the other seasons.
Considering that his entire NFL resume prior to the Cardinals job involved him coaching the secondary, expect a major improvement to the play of the Browns corners and safeties in the coming year—look, for example, at how Horton was able to develop Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson from a seemingly one-trick return man into a complete player, one who had seven interceptions and five fumble recoveries in 2012.
The interesting thing to consider about the Horton hire is that he runs a 3-4 defense while the current personnel on the Browns roster fits Jauron's 4-3. There had been whispers of a shift in scheme as early as last week after Rob Chudzinski was hired, as well as discussion about whether that would be a wholesale shift or a turn to a more hybrid approach wherein 3-4 and 4-3 personnel groupings would make an appearance throughout games (similar to how the Baltimore Ravens play defense).
Regardless of whether the Browns remain a 4-3, switch to a 3-4 or become a hybrid of the two, it doesn't destroy much of what has already been built on the defensive side of the roster. Regardless of their base defense, the Browns will still need at least one additional pass-rusher in this year's draft.
There's a lot of talent already on hand when it comes to the Browns defense, including players who are capable of the versatility required of a hybrid defense. There's no way that the decision to hire Horton came with an implicit mandate to destroy a well-curated defensive roster just because there may be changes to the scheme.
In terms of available talent on the defensive side of the ball, the Browns couldn't have made a better hire. It's but the latest in a series of drastic changes in their front office and coaching staff since Jimmy Haslam took over as owner in 2012, all of which seems to point to the Browns finally finding a collection of coaching talent capable of molding their young roster into household names.
From bringing on trusted front office figurehead Joe Banner to work as Cleveland's CEO, to hiring Chudzinski last week as head coach, from bringing on Norv Turner as offensive coordinator earlier in the week, to retaining Chris Tabor at special teams as well as George Warhop, their offensive line coach (indicating that though it may look that way, this isn't a total reboot), it's been an active few months—and especially past week—for the Browns.
And that doesn't include the other announcement on Friday of the hiring of Michael Lombardi to be vice president of player personnel—a controversial move, perhaps even a wholly unpopular one, but one it must be said showed a lot of conviction.
When Haslam took ownership last fall, it was clear that the Browns were again going to head in another direction. Near-constant change gets tiresome, to be sure, but under new management, there was no chance that the Browns would continue with business as usual once the 2012 season wrapped up.
The goal here is to make no more changes for years to come, and considering the resumes and successes of these recent hires, it seems like stability—yes, true stability—might not just be an aspiration for the Browns, but a soon-to-be reality.