The Cleveland Browns introduced Mike Pettine as their new head coach on Thursday, ending a nearly month-long search to fill the vacancy left after the firing of Rob Chudzinski.
Pettine is the former defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, and it's expected that he will be the Browns play-caller on that side of the ball. But beyond that, what does the Pettine era mean for the entire roster and the way the organization approaches the 2014 season?
Let's take a closer look at what we know now and try to figure it out.
Aside from the need to hire a head coach, the Browns also lack both offensive and defensive coordinators. The two men who held the position for the 2013 season are gone—offensive coordinator Norv Turner took the same job with the Minnesota Vikings, while defensive coordinator Ray Horton has moved on to the Tennessee Titans.
Already, there are rumors of whom Pettine and the Browns are considering to fill the two coordinator positions. On the offensive side of the ball, the Browns, per Pro Football Talk, apparently have interest in Gary Kubiak, most recently the head coach of the Houston Texans.
Kubiak would help Pettine and the Browns in three ways: One, his head coaching experience will put him in a mentorship role for first-time head coach Pettine; two, his history as a run-game guru will help the Browns improve their 27th-ranked rushing offense; and three, Kubiak's presence could help bolster the team's stable of running backs by attracting free agent Ben Tate in the offseason, as the NFL Network's Ian Rapoport has suggested.
However, the Browns could still retain members from Turner and Chudzinski's offensive staff—Pettine confirmed that possibility on Thursday. That would allow for some continuity from 2013 and also reduce the number of hires the Browns need to make at this (relatively) late point in the game.
On the defensive side of the ball, the leading candidate for coordinator is Buffalo linebackers coach Jim O'Neil, per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. O'Neil was on Pettine's staff with the Jets and he brought him along to Buffalo. However, the Bills would have to let O'Neil out of his contract for that to happen. And it's not even something that Pettine can talk about publicly until the Bills give permission.
Because of Pettine's defensive background, he's confident already that he can have success in Cleveland on that side of the ball. However, the offense will need to be conducted by those with experience and who have already been proven winners. Kubiak would be a great choice for those reasons. O'Neil seems like a no-brainer hire as defensive coordinator, but again, the Bills will have as much a say in that happening as Pettine himself.
As a disciple of the Rex Ryan system dating back to the Baltimore Ravens, Pettine's defensive style is both aggressive and progressive. Though his primary background is a base 3-4, Ryan's philosophy of hybrid fronts means that Pettine hasn't been devoted to one single system.
When Pettine went to the Bills last year, there was some question of whether he'd switch the formerly 4-3 base team to a 3-4. Instead, he ran more of a modern, hybrid system with multiple base looks. This works out well for the Browns' defensive personnel, the veterans of which have been through a 3-4, 4-3 and back to a 3-4 base over the team's three previous coaching staffs.
As NFL.com's Marc Sessler points out, Pettine stressed his adaptability as a coach in his press conference on Thursday:
That means player evaluation will dictate how he utilizes Cleveland's current defensive personnel and where he thinks changes—both additions and subtractions—need to be made. This flexible approach, however, likely means there will be less roster turnover than if he was beholden to one set defensive system.
During Pettine's stints with the Jets and the Bills, his defenses were particularly stingy with both points and yards, ranking in the top 10 in one or both metrics in all five of his seasons with each team.
The year with the Bills wasn't as great as those spent with the Jets, but he was also tasked with turning around a defense that gave up a 22nd-ranked 362.9 yards per game in 2012. Buffalo's yards per game allowed in 2013 improved to 10th, at 333.4.
The Bills also had franchise highs in both sacks, with 57, and interceptions, with 23, in 2013. It's clear that Pettine likes his defenders to be aggressive, both in their pursuit of the opposing team's quarterback as well as their pursuit of the football. The Browns had only 40 sacks and 14 interceptions in 2013; look for both to improve under Pettine in the upcoming season.
|Mike Pettine's Defenses, 2009-2013|
|Team/Year||Jets, 09||Jets, 10||Jets, 11||Jets, 12||Bills, 13|
|Total Yds. Allowed (Rank)||4,037 (1)||4,664 (3)||4,993 (5)||5,174 (8)||5,334 (10)|
|Total Pts. Allowed (Rank)||236 (1)||304 (6)||363 (20)||375 (20)||388 (20)|
Offensively, the system will rely heavily on whomever the Browns hire to coordinate that side of the ball. Under Chudzinski and Turner, the offense was a downfield-passing attack that didn't involve much running. If Kubiak is hired, expect that to change drastically with the Browns utilizing a game-managerial style of passing to help set up some heavy running.
However, Pettine understands the importance of having a good quarterback and of not just being a power-running, defensive-minded team in today's NFL. In his press conference on Thursday, Pettine addressed this head on, saying, "I'm not going to be that defensive coach that says, 'Listen, we're going to win it on defense and we're going to run, and we don't need to have a great quarterback.'"
With a receiving talent like Josh Gordon on the roster, that's reassuring news. However, the offensive system won't really begin to reveal itself until the coordinator is hired.
So who will be the man under center running Pettine's offense? Pettine was asked about the quarterback position on Thursday and had strong praise for the one man currently on the Browns roster who has a chance at the starting job, Brian Hoyer. Pettine called Hoyer a "winner" and praised his intangibles. Hoyer thus will most certainly be in the mix of players vying for the job.
Pettine added, "To win in this league you have to have a great quarterback and that's something we're going to put our full focus and attention on." He has clearly bought into Browns CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi's dedication to having a "championship-level quarterback."
The comment also seems to indicate that Pettine is on board with the team drafting a quarterback to compete with Hoyer for the starting spot. Free agency is likely out of the question—there's just not much starter-level talent available in the free-agent quarterback market this year. But it's nearly impossible to know whom the Browns might be interested in taking, whether in the first round or later (including Johnny Manziel).
All we know is that Pettine sees attractive qualities in Hoyer and understands the importance of having a truly talented, franchise-level quarterback under center. That's a start.
The question of roster and personnel control came up in Pettine's press conference, with the new head coach somewhat deflecting the question by saying that part of his contract has yet to be ironed out.
It's hard to imagine any head coach, Pettine included, not having some input on the team's roster. However, as a first-time head coach, Pettine's leash won't be very long. While he may feel capable of calling the majority of the personnel shots, his lack of experience doing so likely means Lombardi and Banner will not be giving too much control to their new guy.
Expect Pettine to have a bit more say on the defensive roster than on offense and to help inform any defense-related decisions on free agents and in the draft. On offense, however, the front office and even the new coordinator will have more control, especially when it comes to the quarterback.
Roster control in the NFL is a form of trust. It is earned. Pettine has earned the Browns head coaching job, but he hasn't earned the type of roster control afforded to the Mike Tomlins and Bill Belichicks of the league.
While it might make Browns fans nervous that Banner and Lombardi will continue to exert the most control over the team's personnel decisions, it makes sense when Pettine's (lack of) experience is brought into play.
The Browns have in Pettine a tough-minded coach who will be more focused on team discipline than his predecessor. He mentioned having high standards and a need for accountability from his players in his press conference on Thursday:
Pettine, whose nickname is "Blunt Force Trauma," explained that toughness is not just about how physically his players perform on the field but also about mental strength. He has a dedication to not only turn around the Browns' string of losing seasons but also the culture of losing in the locker room that has doomed the team for years.
On Thursday, he spoke to this directly, saying,
Most people think of toughness in just the physical sense. I think, as important or more important, is the mental toughness, is the ability to think through things when they aren't going well, how to hang tough when things go bad, that the heads don't drop and it's the 'same, old Browns,' and teams talk themselves into losing. That, to me, is the culture that needs to be changed here. We're going to build a team that's not just physically tough, but, obviously, mentally (tough).
For this to happen, however, he'll need to get the Browns locker room to buy into what he's selling and become the type of players who will run through brick walls for their coach. Chudzinski certainly didn't seem cut from this cloth, nor Pat Shurmur before him. Pettine's hire could signal a culture change for the Browns, one they most sorely needed.
His experience having a head coach for a father—albeit in the high school ranks—has greatly informed Pettine's coaching style. Toughness, a commitment to excellence and never wavering from his high standards were taught to him by his father, a legendary coach in Pennsylvania, according to Bill Livingston of The Plain Dealer.
Though Pettine worked under Rex Ryan from 2002 until 2009, he's not at all like the Jets head coach. He made this clear on Thursday as well:
For any of you that are expecting me to be like him personality-wise, you’ll be mistaken. We were pretty much opposites of each other. I'm not going to be predicting Super Bowls or meeting presidents or wins and losses. I won't be writing on anybody's Winnebago about 'Super Bowl or bust.' But I think he and I, for many years, were the perfect complement for each other. I kept him on the straight and narrow with a lot of things, kept him organized, and he helped me open my mind to a lot of the creative aspects of defensive football.
There are certainly many things worse than a tough head coach who learned from someone as bright as Ryan and someone as revered as his own father. The players, however, need to be fully committed to Pettine and not see him as part of the Browns' revolving door of coaches. He needs to make an imprint as quickly and completely as possible.
Ultimately, Pettine's future in Cleveland hinges on the team's win-loss record. The Browns' firing of Chudzinski after one losing season indicates patience has worn thin for the front office and ownership.
The Philadelphia Eagles went 10-6 in 2013 under first-time NFL head coach Chip Kelly after going 4-12 in 2012; the Kansas City Chiefs hired Andy Reid and turned their 2-14 2012 into an 11-5 2013. The Browns know that a turnaround is possible as quickly as one offseason and won't tolerate repeated losing seasons from their coaches. Thus, Chudzinski went one-and-done.
The pressure is exceedingly high in Cleveland. Another failed coaching hire could mean a total revamp, yet again, with Banner and Lombardi potentially out the door along with Pettine and his coaching staff. The Browns need at least a seven-win season in 2014 to look like they are making any progress, or for Pettine to have any kind of job security.
To Pettine's credit, the quick hire-and-fire of Chudzinski didn't faze him. He said on Thursday he didn't find the move "unnerving," noting that he doesn't know the exact circumstances of Chudzinski's situation. He also said that he prefers to "bet on [him]self," and is confident he can do his job well and would much rather be a head coach than turn down the opportunity because of some perception of a lack of security.
He's at least confident and appears, at least at this very early moment, competent. Most importantly, he will bring his on-field toughness into the locker room and hopefully bring about a culture of change that will lift the team out of the dregs of losing.
But if he doesn't, he won't be in Cleveland for long. Because of how badly the Browns looked after ditching Chudzinski after one season, Pettine may not be given up on as quickly. But he's under a lot of pressure. Pettine's job will only be a success if the Browns win games. That's the simple truth.
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