All the way back on Jan. 23 the Cleveland Browns were preparing their indoor practice facility for head coach Mike Pettine’s introductory press conference. They would be introducing the 18th head coach in franchise history. More importantly, they would be introducing the eighth head coach since 1999 and the third in the last 36 months.
This job is not for the faint of heart and few could have envisioned how quickly he would make his mark on his football team.
As I walked into the Browns facility that day I overheard two camera operators from local news outlets talking.
“Mike something,” one said.
“Eh, who cares? He’ll be gone in a year or so anyway,” the other quipped.
They both enjoyed a chuckle and honestly so did I. Despite the fact that I had been in contact with a high-ranking source within the Browns discussing Pettine for the better part of a week, I still knew little about him. Despite the fact that I broke the story of the Browns choosing to hire him, I still had no idea who he really was.
I just kept telling the dozens of radio shows who requested me as a guest that day that Pettine needed to win the press conference. The reason that was so important was because no one knew who Pettine was and most were bothered by the fact that he was not the team’s first, second, third, fourth or maybe even fifth choice.
If the press conference were akin to Major League Baseball then Pettine didn’t just win the press conference, he turned on an inside fastball and drove it out of the park. Pettine told the media that day:
My vision here in Cleveland, having spent time in Baltimore, to compete in the AFC North you have to be willing to bloody your nose a little bit...I think that’s the mentality that we’re going to take here. This team is going to be built on toughness. 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, to hang tough when things go bad, that the heads don’t drop and that same old Browns, and teams talk themselves into losing. That to me is the culture that needs to be changed here.
Those words were strong, direct and seemed believable. Still, this city has seen too many coordinators with big promises, little success and early departures to buy in blindly. Pettine would have to prove his worth in this town.
Fast-forward nearly eight months later, and it looks like Pettine’s word was worth more than all the contracts the Browns are still paying to fired coaches combined. The culture actually seems to be shifting.
Sure, it has been just two games. And sure, the Browns are just 1-1 heading into Week 3 where they will host the Baltimore Ravens. But it is not the record that proves he is having a dramatic effect on this team.
It is the way they have competed.
The season started in such a familiar fashion. The Browns came out flat on the road, and the Pittsburgh Steelers were not just winning—they were humiliating the Browns. Too often Cleveland fans have had to watch their underprepared team get bludgeoned by their hated rival.
Pittsburgh built a 27-3 lead, and there was no doubt that this season was headed to the same place so many had gone before: the land of double digit losses, coaching changes and irrelevance.
Then something miraculous happened. The Browns did not fold. In fact, they fought back like team with backbone and grit. They did not keep banging their heads against the wall with a game plan that obviously was not working. No, they made halftime adjustments.
This can’t be real life.
The comeback fell just short but there was still plenty to take away from the loss. The Browns stood toe-to-toe with one of the big boys in the division, and it wasn’t a fluke. They didn’t need nine turnovers or to be facing the third-string quarterback. They just played good football.
"We take out of it that we're 0-1," Pettine told the media after the heartbreaking loss. "I told the team afterwards this is a pass-fail league. We failed. I'm proud of the effort in the second half but it's a valuable lesson to learn. You're behind 24 points at halftime.
"I don't know what the percentages are of coming back and winning. I guarantee it's probably right around one. There are no moral victories in this league, but I was proud of the resolve and the character that showed up. These guys went out and executed the plan in the second half. It wasn't enough. They basically made one more play than we did, and it's a valuable lesson. But it doesn't change the fact that we're 0-1."
After being force-fed five-year plans and progress for so long it was startling to hear some actual accountability from a head coach. Pettine was not going to let his team be the “little brother” anymore. He would not allow the Browns to feel good because they hung in there with “big brother.”
No, Pettine demanded that his team not only compete but actually defeat its opponents. What a novel concept.
Still, one half of football does not make a competent team. Pettine and his roster would have to do it again in Week 2. This time the odds were stacked heavily against him.
How can the Browns beat one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time when they can’t score? The offense that was among the worst in the NFL during the preseason would enter their home opener without suspended Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon, injured Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron and injured starting running back Ben Tate.
Even if the Browns defense, which held Pittsburgh to just three points in the second half, could duplicate its Week 1 performance there was still no way the offense could score enough points to win. A 0-2 start seemed written in the stars.
And then it wasn’t.
“We understand we aren’t the same Cleveland Browns,” safety Donte Whitner told the media after the Brown shocked the football world by defeating the New Orleans Saints 26-24 Sunday.
This most certainly is not. The Browns started the game poised but intense. Even when New Orleans fought back and took its first lead in the third quarter, Cleveland didn’t flinch. Hoyer and the offense marched right down the field and responded with seven points of their own.
They overcame the odds despite the world doubting them from afar. They weren’t the team anyone was paying attention to before the season but people are taking notice now.
Sound familiar? Does it sound like a coach who was leading a high school team just over a decade ago and defied the odds to ascend to the pinnacle of his profession? Does it sound like a coach who wasn’t the first, second third, fourth or maybe even fifth option for his job?
Does it sound like a coach who had to deal with a quarterback controversy and the world questioning every decision he made yet still picked the right leader for his offense? Does it sound like a coach who, despite taking the reins of one of the worst NFL franchises of the last decade, installed the philosophy of “Playing Like a Brown” this season?
Yes, this team sounds like Mike Pettine. They look like Mike Pettine. It seems as though they are becoming Mike Pettine.
He has made himself felt throughout the locker room. He has done it without being a “player’s coach” that is too lenient or a drill sergeant whom the players hate. He has done it through strategy.
He and general manager Ray Farmer replaced players they did not feel were passionate about football with guys who “hate to lose,” according to Kevin Jones of ClevelandBrowns.com.
There are players who are no longer on the Cleveland Browns roster because they lacked a passion for football. Plain and simple. Some of these players can compete and have landed on other NFL rosters.
But Ray Farmer, Mike Pettine and the rest of the coaching staff want men in their program who can’t wait to come to practice; who walk into the film room with a dozen questions to ask about next week’s opponent; who, most importantly, are passionate about restoring the Browns to an AFC powerhouse.
“We want to get guys that hate to lose,” Pettine told ClevelandBrowns.com in a sit down interview. “Losing makes them almost borderline physically ill. I told them, there are guys in this room are good enough to play in the NFL. They just might not be a fit for us.”
He insulated the locker room with passionate leaders like linebacker Karlos Dansby and Whitner. So it was not surprise when those exact two players used their voices and influence to will the Browns back into game against the Steelers after halftime.
That too is Pettine’s doing. He could have entered the locker room screaming and throwing things like most fans and many other coaches would have done. Pettine knew better, however. He knows his team like they are an extension of him because that is exactly what he wants.
Pettine let the leaders on the roster call their peers to the carpet. He let them question whether or not the team was going to fight or roll over and die. Sometimes the best leaders delegate to their most trusted underlings.
He has his team playing with a chip on its shoulder, as if responding to a perceived slight from the rest of the NFL. No one gives the Browns the respect they feel they deserve. That sounds familiar as well.
“Whether it was real or not, in my mind was thinking that people saw me as just a high-school coach,” Pettine told the media in his introductory press conference back in January. “Here’s a guy trying to make it in the NFL, but he’s just a high-school coach in the NFL. And that drove me. Again, that might not have been the case at all, but in the back of my mind, I used that.”
Once again, it is still very early in this season and even earlier in Pettine’s coaching career. That does not dampen the excitement I have for the possibility of what Pettine can be. Better yet, that does not dampen the excitement I have for what this team can be. Coach and team will grow together. They are one.
None of this guarantees long-term success. It does, however, guarantee that there is at least an opportunity for it to happen.
Mike Pettine told the media after Sunday’s win that he was going to go home and enjoy a “big ol’ cigar” to celebrate. He should, he deserves it.
Not just because he earned his first victory as a head coach but because he has already done something that no coach has done since the franchise’s return in 1999. He has given the Cleveland Browns an identity. The identity is not a star quarterback or a flashy wide receiver.
The Browns identity is that of an overlooked, hungry and angry underdog. It is the identity of Mike Pettine himself.
All quotes and observations were obtained first hand unless otherwise noted.