Mike Pettine Is Best Choice for Browns Now, but Future Remains Very Uncertain

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 23, 2014

USA Today

The Cleveland Browns' month-long coaching search has ended with the team announcing on Thursday that it has hired Mike Pettine, most recently the Buffalo Bills' defensive coordinator.

After a seemingly meandering search that included New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and, apparently, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano, the Browns have settled upon Pettine. Or, as ESPN's Adam Schefter said on Wednesday, perhaps settled for, with Schefter claiming Pettine was the team's "fall back option."

However, whether Pettine was the Browns' first choice of their fourth, he's still a good fit to coach the team. The Browns wanted Pettine; Pettine wanted the job. That's more than can be said of the likes of McDaniels or Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who both bowed out of consideration. 

With the Browns becoming a lightning rod of negative attention for relieving former head coach Rob Chudzinski after less than one calendar year on the job, the front office not only needed to make the right decision, but it also needed to find someone truly dedicated to coaching this team. And Pettine evidently epitomizes what the Browns' powers-that-be had wanted in a coach—someone who can actually get his players to improve. 

Speaking on the hire, team owner Jimmy Haslam said (via ClevelandBrowns.com):

Mike is the epitome of what we want the Browns to be—tough, aggressive and innovative—with a blue-collar, team-first mentality. He knows what's necessary to beat teams in the AFC North. Most importantly, Mike has repeatedly shown the ability to lead his players to consistent improvement and success, clearly what we are striving for as he leads the Cleveland Browns moving forward.

Mike Pettine helped coach the Bills defense to 57 sacks in 2013—a franchise record.
Mike Pettine helped coach the Bills defense to 57 sacks in 2013—a franchise record.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Browns CEO Joe Banner also spoke to the length and breadth of the coaching search, saying, "We wanted to be thorough from the start and we interviewed as many people as we could. From that group, we hired the best individual for this job."

The Browns clearly believe they have made the right hire. They have brought on a bright defensive mind in an era when offensive gurus are getting all of the head-coaching attention, but they aren't being anachronistic for anachronism's sake. 

Last season, the Browns focused on bolstering the defensive side of the ball, helped by then-defensive coordinator Ray Horton (now with the Tennessee Titans). Though the Browns ended the season ranked ninth in yards allowed, in other areas more directly related to wins and losses, the defense absolutely failed.

Browns Defense vs. Bills Defense (2013)
TeamRed Zone TD%Rank3rd-Down Conversion%Rank4th-Qtr. Pts.RankSacksINTs
via TeamRankings.com and ESPN

Cleveland ranked 30th in opponent red-zone touchdown percentage (the Bills ranked eighth), 31st in opponent third-down conversion percentage (the Bills ranked 14th) and dead last in fourth-quarter points per game allowed (the Bills ranked 15th). The Browns had 40 sacks and 14 interceptions in 2013, compared to 57 and 23 for the Bills, respectively.

Pettine's background with the Bills, and working with Rex Ryan as the New York Jets defensive coordinator from 2009 through 2012 and under him in Baltimore from 2002 until 2008, proves that he can mold a defense and develop players. The fact that he ran a hybrid-style defense in Buffalo also means he's well-suited to the Browns' motley crew of defensive players, some of whom have more experience in a 4-3 base and others in the 3-4. 

Of course, the full picture of how the Browns offense and defense will look in 2014 will be heavily influenced by the coordinators they hire—and those positions are still vacant. And though the Pettine hire looks great, despite the public-relations toll the long search has taken on the Browns, we really won't know if he's a good coach until the 2014 season is well underway.

Just over a year ago, the Browns hired Rob Chudzinski. Less than a year later, he was fired. That won't quickly be forgotten.
Just over a year ago, the Browns hired Rob Chudzinski. Less than a year later, he was fired. That won't quickly be forgotten.David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

After all, the Chudzinski hire last year also appeared to be a good choice. He seemed to have a strong offensive pedigree, enthusiasm for the Browns and the glowing support of the team's front office. Yet, a year later and he's gone.

The reason? The Browns didn't improve. The offense struggled without stability at quarterback or much of a run game, and the defense completely collapsed.

With a 4-12 record to end the year, Banner, Haslam and general manager Mike Lombardi decided to start over with coaching. The specter of Chudzinski's one-and-done season still looms over the Browns and now Pettine, and will remain until the Browns start winning games. 

That will be the true barometer of whether hiring Pettine was a good choice, even though today we can say he's the right choice.

If he is, the stink of Chudzinski's quick departure and the memory of the seemingly scattershot search for his replacement will fade. If he's not, however, the failure could result in yet another housecleaning, this time including the CEO and general manager along with the coach.

There is no reason not to feel hopeful about Pettine and his ability to finally deliver the Browns their first winning season since 2007. However, there is also no reason not to be skeptical or even pessimistic, considering the happenings of the past 12 months and the track record of the franchise, in general, since its return to the league in 1999.

But there's much to like about Pettine, even if only for the simple fact that he's not Schiano. However, liking or hating the hire is one thing—the results the hiring produces matter more.

The Browns have their new head coach. Now, can they win?