After only one season and less than one calendar year on the job, the Cleveland Browns fired head coach Rob Chudzinski last week. That means the Browns are once again in the hunt for a new head coach, ideally one who will lead the team to more than the four or five wins that have been customary in Cleveland over the past few seasons.
There's a lot of pressure for the Browns administration to get this right. Chudzinski marks the seventh head coach fired by the Browns since the franchise returned to the NFL in 1999. He also marks the first major failure of the new regime, which consists of owner Jimmy Haslam, CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi.
To rebuild what nascent trust that the Browns fan base had in the front office means hiring the right man for the job. It means providing the team with both continuity and someone who can be the catalyst for improvement.
The Browns have a lot of talent on their young roster, but still seem rudderless after yet another coaching system failed. The new hire will have to inherent this talent without also taking on the culture of losing and futility that has seemingly doomed the Browns to single-win seasons and a long playoff drought.
Who are the Browns considering for such an important job? Here are the candidates who are currently known to be in the running for the Browns' head coaching vacancy.
Josh McDaniels, New England Patriots Offensive Coordinator
New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels appears to be the frontrunner for the Browns head coaching job. Lombardi had long sung McDaniels' praises when Lombardi was an analyst with NFL Network and McDaniels already confirmed that his interview took place last Saturday as planned.
"We met and that's about all there is at this point. Nothing, nothing further" - Josh McDaniels on #Browns interview from conf. call today— Daryl Ruiter (@RuiterWrongFAN) January 6, 2014
The vast majority of McDaniels' NFL experience has been with the Patriots, starting in 2001 when he was a personnel assistant. Aside from working in New England, he was also the Denver Broncos head coach for the 2009 and 2010 seasons, and spent 2011 as the St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator. He returned to the Patriots when the 2011 season ended and took up their offensive coordinator job for 2012.
McDaniels' first head coaching job with the Broncos wasn't much of a success. In his first season, the Broncos went 8-8 while McDaniels opted to bench star receiver Brandon Marshall before later trading him to the Miami Dolphins. The Broncos had a 3-9 record the following season before he was fired on Dec. 5.
He then went on to join Steve Spagnuolo's coaching staff in St. Louis. However, Spagnuolo and his staff were fired at the end of the 2011 season and McDaniels took his talents back to New England. The Browns came calling last year, wanting to interview him then for the head coaching job that ultimately went to Chudzinski, but McDaniels wasn't ready to return to the helm of any team just yet.
He's ready now, however. With Lombardi's longstanding support, the Bill Belichick connection and the fact that the Browns wanted him last year, McDaniels' hiring seems to be the logical end to this coaching search. If it happens, however, it will have to wait until the Patriots' season is over. They are set to host the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round of the playoffs this weekend.
Even with so much front office support, McDaniels isn't guaranteed to have a successful tenure in Cleveland should that be the direction the team goes. The Belichick coaching tree hasn't produced many gems, as far as the NFL and head coaching are concerned.
Eric Mangini and Romeo Crennel are two failed Belichick disciples who have already gotten a chance at the Browns head coaching job and failed. Jim Schwartz was just fired by the Detroit Lions. Al Groh had one year as the New Jets head coach. Nick Saban may be a legendary college coach, but he was terrible and miserable with the Miami Dolphins.
However, if McDaniels is who the Browns want and if McDaniels is truly ready to return to the head coaching ranks, there's little standing in the way between him and this job.
Todd Bowles, Arizona Cardinals Defensive Coordinator
Though the thought is that the Browns are searching for an offensive-minded head coach, that doesn't mean a few defensive coordinators won't be in the interview mix. What is interesting, however, is their choice of coordinators to interview—namely Todd Bowles of the Arizona Cardinals.
The Browns hired former Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton to work in the same capacity for them in 2013, and Horton has yet to be formally fired. Bowles, who has a 4-3 background, but maintained Horton's 3-4 in the transition, managed to keep Arizona's defense performing well this season, with Cleveland ranking sixth on defense in both yards and points allowed.
Though Bowles has proven that he can handle taking over Horton's defense and doing good things with it, it also makes little sense that the Browns would hire Bowles when they have Horton already under contract. Perhaps the interview was to fulfill their league-mandated Rooney Rule quota or served as a de facto interview for a potentially vacant defensive coordinator position down the line.
Bowles does have some history in Cleveland, having served first as nickel package coordinator and then secondary coach for the Browns from 2001 through 2004. But his career path—focusing on defensive backs before being promoted to coordinator—is quite similar to that of Horton's.
It seems unlikely that Bowles will be offered the Browns head coaching job. More than anything, it speaks to the Browns being enamored of the defense that the Cardinals have built in Arizona and the Browns' desire to have something similar in Cleveland.
Dan Quinn, Seattle Seahawks Defensive Coordinator
The Browns met with Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn last Wednesday, marking their first official head coaching interview.
Quinn is in his first season as Seahawks coordinator and is the team's third coordinator in as many years. He had been with the Seahawks in 2009 and 2010 as their defensive line coach, which has long been his speciality, having coached the position for four NFL teams and four college teams.
Quinn runs a hybrid-style defense for the Seahawks, which would work well with Cleveland's mix of 3-4 and 4-3 specialists. The Browns ran a 3-4 under Horton, a 4-3 under Dick Jauron and a 3-4 under Mangini.
It's no secret that the Seahawks boast one of the most intimidating defenses in the league. What is unknown is how much Quinn helped shape it, considering the turnover at defensive coordinator there and how well the team has handled the changes.
Still, Quinn is an important coordinator on a proven winning team. But the Browns seem better poised to snag a new coach with an offensive background rather than a defensive one. Their need to fix the quarterback position and the run game points to that being their strategy. Quinn is a talented coach, but he's not quite what the Browns need right now.
As with McDaniels, the Browns won't be able to formally hire Quinn until Seattle's playoff run is over.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn Tigers Head Coach
The Browns aren't looking to just the NFL ranks to try to find their head coach of the future. College coaches have also caught their eye, especially Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn.
Malzahn and his high-energy, no-huddle offense (he even wrote a book about it) helped propel the Tigers from being winless in the SEC in 2012 to becoming SEC champions and reaching the BCS championship game. As Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer points out, Malzahn has become attractive to the Browns for similar reasons as Chip Kelly, whom they pursued last year.
Malzahn has never coached in the NFL, however, and is coming off of his first year at Auburn where he turned the football program around in record time. Malzahn doesn't seem interested in the Browns head coaching job or in leaving Auburn, saying on Friday per Dan Greenspan of NFL.com, "I'm happy at Auburn. I think I've made that clear," which doesn't bode well for the Browns convincing him to interview, let alone come on board.
It's understandable why the Browns would covet Malzahn's services, especially with last year's infatuation with Kelly and their need to provide a spark to their offense. But Malzahn isn't likely to be tempted into the NFL now that he has the opportunity to build an SEC dynasty at Auburn.
James Franklin, Vanderbilt Commodores Head Coach
Another offensive-minded college coach on the Browns' radar right now is Vanderbilt's James Franklin, and this time, it's one they could realistically hire. Franklin and the Browns are expected to meet sometime this week, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, per Pat McManamon of ESPN.com.
Franklin has been Vanderbilt's head coach since 2011 and has a 24-15 win-loss record over that span. He's had one year in the NFL, serving as the Green Bay Packers wide receiver coach in 2005.
Who would you prefer the Browns hire to be their next head coach?
Franklin's college coaching experience has taken him to schools big and small and he's had various duties to match his many locations. He was tight ends coach at Washington State, receivers coach at Idaho State and offensive coordinator at Maryland before heading to Vanderbilt.
Franklin has been noncommittal about wanting to return to Vanderbilt next year, but he did say in a postgame news conference following the BBVA Compass Bowl that he is "really, really excited about next year and what we’re building and the direction we’re going, and this is just the beginning," regarding his team on Saturday.
But Franklin is indeed meeting with the Browns and, of the candidates not named Josh McDaniels, would be the best fit in Cleveland. He's a smart, offensive mind who turned around Vanderbilt in quick order, just like Malzahn in Auburn. And unlike Malzahn, he is also open to an NFL job for 2014.
Though Franklin's NFL experience has been marginal, to say the least, Kelly's success in Philadelphia in just one year points to the potential rewards that can be reaped by taking a risk with a somewhat unproven coach.
The Two Big No's
Worth mentioning are the rumors surrounding the Browns' supposed interest in Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops and former Ohio Sate head coach Jim Tressel. The former report came from Tony Softli of St. Louis 101 ESPN radio and was further fanned by Stoops' comments when asked about his interest in the Browns. The latter came from Akron radio station Fox Sports 1350.
Neither have proven to be true. Stoops, who said, "you never know," when asked about his interest in the Browns is not on the team's list of candidates, according to Mary Kay Cabot of Northeast Ohio Media Group. Neither is Tressel, Cabot said in another report, although the Browns did acknowledge interest in other college coaches.