You could sense this moment approaching.
Seconds after Jimmy Haslam assumed ownership of the Browns a month ago, fans’ thoughts turned to the future – particularly in the form of what’s next.
Or based on the Browns’ expansion history, the better question would be who’s next.
When we learned of Team President Mike Holmgren’s exodus, the link that tethered embattled Head Coach Pat Shurmur to the organization was loosened. Shurmur’s uneven and often erratic coaching decisions appear to have further reduced his chances of remaining with the Browns into 2013.
And while anything is possible, odds are the Browns will begin the 2013 season with yet another new Head Coach.
As for the who – Haslam and new team CEO Joe Banner have so far been judicious in their approach to evaluating the existing staff – which has led to local media framing the debate by using very familiar terms and names.
A former graduate assistant at Tennessee in 1986-87, Gruden has ties to Haslam, and some think he’d be high on the owner’s short list if he decides to hire a new coach.
Such a report was about as expected as Lake Erie cloud cover in January.
Since becoming a part of Monday Night Football’s broadcast team, Gruden has remained perhaps the highest profile ex-coach around. In terms of visibility and maintaining contacts around the league, Gruden has positioned himself to interview for any NFL or college job he desires. And since he hasn’t done such a thing for close to four years, Gruden has retained a mystique that no doubt enhances his appeal.
Naturally, this mystique lends itself rather well to writers looking for a utilitarian viewpoint.
There are two working models of interest in predicting what might happen here if the new Browns’ leadership wants a new front office and/or head coach: Banner in Philly and the Pittsburgh Steelers, where Jimmy Haslam was a minority owner.
Neither offers a tale of the big-name coach handed the keys to the kingdom with everyone else scurrying a safe distance away until the coach signals it’s OK to print playoff tickets and buy a confetti franchise.
Who knows, really? The decision is likely months away and will be in the hands of Haslam, Banner and perhaps some other front office names yet to reveal themselves. As for Gruden, he’s not responding – nor should he. In some respects, this latest report could very well be the result of a well-timed “leak” from Gruden’s people to a well-placed media operative – a kind of reminder to NFL teams that Gruden is still an option.
However in this case, the validity of the source is difficult to question. Some of you may remember Howard Eskin as the Philadelphia-based reporter who once whispered that Randy Lerner was looking to unload the Browns.
"Well, here's what I've heard, and that's why I put it out there yesterday: Jon Gruden, definitely, positively, wants to coach again. He's got the itch. One of the reasons, well, he enjoyed doing what he did for ESPN. But one of the other reasons is his son was in school, this is his senior year. His son would be done, so he doesn't have to worry about going to see his games and he's ready. He's a football coach and he wants to coach again. That's the first part of what I know. You just don't throw it out there, ‘Oh, it's Jon Gruden coming back.'"
While it’s difficult to gauge both the Browns’ interest in Gruden and vice versa, or whether Gruden even wants back in the NFL, it’s worth taking a look at just what the Browns would be getting in the former Raiders and Buccaneers coach.
The benefits are obvious. Gruden is a Super Bowl winning Head Coach who brings 11 years of experience running a team. Gruden built the late 1990′s Raiders into a Super Bowl contender, before taking the Buccaneers to a title in 2002. Along the way, Gruden compiled 95 total wins and boasted 6 winning seasons and built a reputation for working around the clock to gain an advantage on an opponent.
Gruden’s strength as a coach comes from his years working under Holmgren as a Wide Receivers coach and Offensive Assistant before landing an Offensive Coordinator job with the Eagles. Gruden’s eventual success in Oakland can be attributed to his time learning the West Coast Offense – the chosen offense of the current Browns. Gruden’s arrival in Tampa Bay helped to propel a defensive-minded Bucs team to a title.
Yet Gruden’s biggest selling point may come in the allure of his star power. Simply put, Gruden would become the biggest celebrity coach the Browns’ franchise has ever had. Gruden’s “Chucky” reputation – manifested in continual sideline fits of rage – would likely give the Browns the kind of national identity the team has lacked during the expansion era. On field, Gruden’s reputation extends to a passion for quarterback play and inspired performances by veteran players.
However, the appeal of Gruden could be tempered by the realization that he was fired in Tampa Bay at the close of the 2008 season. Of course, Head Coaches are always fired in the NFL, but it’s worth noting that after Gruden’s Super Bowl win, he failed to win another playoff game (2003-2008). And for the more cynical of readers, an argument can be made that Gruden won a Super Bowl with another coach’s roster (Tony Dungy) and against a coach (Bill Callahan) that was still running Gruden’s old playbook.
In fact, if you discount Gruden’s Super Bowl win, his playoff record falls to 2-4. Additionally, his career .540 winning percentage falls far short of many of his NFL coaching contemporaries. But again, we’re dealing in hypotheticals here. Obviously, Gruden is a championship level coach – something not seen in Cleveland in decades.
However, another of Gruden’s current selling points may also prove to be a liability in Cleveland. Over the past few years, Gruden has cemented a legacy for himself as a Quarterback Guru. Clearly, Gruden knows the position and can offer some constructive critiques of rookie QB’s – as he has done for ESPN in a number of pre-draft segments. But, as Gruden’s coaching past largely becomes clouded in his current role as a TV star, it’s easy to forget just how quickly he tore through quarterbacks as a Head Coach.
Just take a look at the following list of quarterbacks who started games for Gruden:
While Brad Johnson won a Super Bowl, only Rich Gannon could be considered a true QB success story. This list only suggests that both before and after Gannon, Gruden routinely burned through quarterbacks in his pursuit of finding the perfect one. Unfortunately for Gruden, his methods often created more instability and frustration for his offenses – all of which never matched the production of his Raiders’ units.
If Gruden were potentially to arrive in Cleveland, he would find a franchise that has started 17 different quarterbacks since 1999. And unless the new Browns’ management decides to invest another first-round draft pick in an 18th starter, Gruden would inherit Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy – two quarterbacks whose mechanics, decision making and hours of game film would be dissected by Gruden’s keen eye.
On the surface, such a marriage could prove highly complicated. The parameters are troubling: A franchise that is continually looking for its franchise quarterback meets an overly picky QB analyst.
From a continuity standpoint, Gruden would qualify as a prime candidate to take over the Browns, if only based on his experience coaching the West Coast Offense. While the actual merits of the offense can be debated, Weeden and the Browns’ young offensive play makers would benefit from continuing in the system, rather than learning something new in 2013.
In Gruden, the Browns would be gaining an experienced Head Coach, coordinator and play caller – one who boasts two decades of West Coast experience. However, one of the questions the new Browns’ management has to decide is whether the West Coast Offense is a reflection of the past or a vital offense for the team’s future. Gruden could certainly bridge the gap between these two periods – assuming that he has picked up new wrinkles from all the teams he has visited and covered as a broadcaster.
In a sense, Gruden finds himself also wedged between two spots. As Bill Cowher can probably attest, there is no better spot for an ex-coach than working in TV. Simply by being visible, the likes of Gruden and Cowher can only build their name. Of course, returning to the sidelines is an easy way to destroy such an image. Likewise, Gruden – once the league’s youngest Head Coach – has now seen a new generation of coaches pass him by in terms of enthusiasm, creativity and innovation.
Gruden’s signature offense has also undergone a reformation of sorts. While several NFL teams use a variation of the offense – or at least incorporate elements of its philosophies – very few run a traditional attack like the one Gruden used in Oakland and Tampa Bay. In fact, Pat Shurmur’s Browns’ system is probably the closest version of the offense remaining in the NFL. Yet, huge swaths of the NFL have adopted more college-inspired spread attacks and modified read and react systems.
And this final thought is the ideal launching point for the Browns’ ultimate decision. On one hand, names like Gruden are familiar and bring a boost of attention. Yet, in a hopeful new era of Browns’ football, the familiar names of the past may be cast aside for an undiscovered coach – one who could become the next Gruden.