Cleveland Browns CEO Joe Banner and owner Jimmy Haslam used the team's poor performance in the second half of the 2013 season as the justification for firing head coach Rob Chudzinski after less than one calendar year on the job. The Browns lost their final seven games in a row and 10 of their last 11—a team record—and needed to make a move that showed how seriously committed they are to improvement.
But if that is the case, if the unraveling of the Browns, particularly in the second half of the season, was grounds for Chudzinski's firing, then why is defensive coordinator Ray Horton still—at least for now—on the job?
Haslam and Banner confirmed that Browns assistant coaches can keep their jobs while the team finds a new head coach who will decide their fates. But perhaps they should have given Horton his walking papers along with Chudzinski. He and his defense are just as much to blame for the Browns' 4-12 2013 campaign as Chudzinski, if not more so.
Horton and his 3-4 defense were brought in to replace Dick Jauron's 4-3 that ranked 23rd in yards per game, 19th in points per game and notched 38 sacks in 2012. He planned to have an attacking-style defense similar to that of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and both the draft and free agency was spent stocking up players who would help advance this agenda.
However, as the season wore on, it became more and more clear that Horton's vision lacked on-field execution. Though the Browns ranked ninth in yards per game allowed, at 332.4, they ranked just 23rd in points per game, at 25.4. And it's fair to say that as the season wore on, the bigger the defense's collapse became.
The Browns defense ended its season ranked a dismal 30th in red-zone touchdown percentage, with teams scoring touchdowns on 64 percent of their red-zone appearances. They ranked 31st in opponent third-down conversions, with teams getting a new set of downs against them 44.67 percent of the time. They gave up the most fourth-quarter points to their opponents—9.1 of them, on average.
Put together, those three numbers are a formula for complete defensive failure. It would have taken an offense of the likes of the Denver Broncos for the Browns to have won many games with that defense.
And no one saw it coming.
|Browns Defense, 2013, vs. Cardinals Defense, 2012 & 2013|
|Team||3rd D%||Rank||RZ TD%||Rank||4Q PPG||Rank|
In 2012, the Cardinals were one of the best defenses in the league in all three metrics. It ranked first in fourth-quarter points allowed, at 3.8, third in opponent third-down conversion percentage, at 32.88, and third in opponent red-zone touchdown percentage, at 44.44. And while Arizona lost its defensive coordinator, it didn't see any drop-off in defensive performance this season.
What changed was the players tasked with executing the defense. The Browns' 2013 defensive roster was made up of veterans who could either effectively make the switch to the 3-4 or had already done so in Cleveland under Rob Ryan in 2010, as well as 3-4-friendly outside free agents and rookies.
Three of their defensive free-agent pickups—linebacker Quentin Groves, defensive lineman Desmond Bryant and cornerback Chris Owens—all eventually landed on injured reserve.
2013 first-round draft pick Barkevious Mingo played like a rookie and had only 668 defensive snaps in his first season. Cornerback Leon McFadden was the only other first-year Browns defender to get anything near significant playing time, and that came as a result of Owens' injury.
And Cleveland's free-agency crown jewel, linebacker Paul Kruger, had only 4.5 sacks on his 439 pass-rushing snaps—certainly a disappointing performance for someone brought on to be a dominant force in the front seven.
It wasn't just that the Browns needed to get enough pieces to make their new 3-4 defense work; they also needed these pieces to work in concert with one another. Building chemistry and trust between a group of players who had never taken the field together, along with a coach most of them had never worked with, takes time. And there's no set amount of time it will take.
Sometimes, like with the 2013 Baltimore Ravens, it happens quickly. Other times, like with the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles, it doesn't take shape until the end of the season. For the Browns, inexplicably, things started stronger than how they finished.
And with that reasoning being the driving force for Cleveland's front office's decision to part ways with Chudzinski, it follows that Horton should have been held to the same standard. After all, he had more to work with on the defensive side of the ball than the offense did and the defense still collapsed.
Making the Browns defense into a mirror image of the Cardinals was a tough task to accomplish in one season, especially with the change in base scheme. But the fact that the defense failed in such crucial areas on third downs, in the red zone and in the fourth quarter speaks more to the coaching than the players.
Chances are, Horton's time in Cleveland will be limited to one season depending on who the team ultimately hires as its new head coach. But based on Haslam's and Banner's comments concerning why they decided to fire Chudzinski, Horton should have been released at the same time, on the same grounds.
The Browns basically didn't have a quarterback and had no running game to speak of; no wonder their offense struggled. But they had a complete roster of defensive talent and only got worse. There's no excuse or explanation for it, and the responsibility ultimately comes down to coaching.