And then that happened.
Resting somewhere between the high definition tease of Chip Kelly and a remake starring Ken Wisenhunt is former Browns' offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski – who in case you've been comatose was named Head Coach late last week.
On paper, the hire is nothing special – especially compared to the skyscraper bar of expectations set by the Chip Kelly chase that now seems to have occurred months ago. Once Kelly was no longer a legitimate candidate, it felt as if the Browns had to settle for the likes of Ken Wisenhunt or even an older assistant such as Mike Zimmer. However, in Chudzinski, the Browns are getting an experienced offensive coordinator, one who is both relatively young and possesses a decent track record of success.
Of course, being that we're talking about Browns' fans – most will point to Chudzinski's local ties and prior connections to the Browns – as if those sorts of things somehow aid in game-planning and overall coaching ability.
Anyway, the hire is surprising – but not altogether disappointing. Again, whoever was hired after Kelly was going to be a disappointment. Naturally, when Kelly does his NFL dance again next winter, these same sentiments will reprise. However, in Chudzinski, the Browns new ownership group is signalling that a long dormant offense is the team's greatest current weakness. In fact, the Browns' offense has struggled since Chudzinski dialed up a miracle year from Derek Anderson in 2007.*
Certainly, the rumored addition of Norv Turner makes the hire more appealing. Say what you will about Turner as a Head Coach, but the reason the veteran offensive coordinator keeps getting these jobs is because he is an excellent QB coach and offensive game planner – something the Browns have badly lacked over the past two years. For Weeden, Turner represents a saving grace in that he will offer a more QB friendly offense – at least compared to Pat Shurmur's 1993 West Coast system.
It remains to be seen how Chudzinski and Turner will divide up game day duties. If Turner takes over the game day controls of the offense, then Chudzinski can widen his focus to the rest of the field. This seems like such an obvious statement, but after viewing Shurmur lost in his laminated play calling sheet for two years, such a move could be essential. Here, it's worth remembering that only a select few Head Coaches such as Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy call their team's offensive plays – and the league's most successful offenses represent layers of effective coaching.
And in an even more simplistic statement, the importance of hiring a young offensive-minded Head Coach seems even more relevant after watching a weekend of mostly defenseless football. In all four Divisional playoff games, there were only rare moments of defenses doing little more than just trying to keep up. If it wasn't obvious now (or ten years ago), the NFL is a league designed to reward teams who can effectively throw the ball.
Although a staggering amount of work needs to be done to improve the Browns' offense, the trickier question at the moment appears to be an eventual shift (back) to a 3-4 defensive alignment. I joked back in 2011 that Phil Taylor was a great draft pick for both the Browns' current and future defensive schemes. Unfortunately, this could be a reality. The current Browns' defense is loaded up the middle, but lacks strong pass rushers and linebacker depth. Perhaps the move actually makes sense, despite the objections of most Browns' fans.
The initial reports have Chudzinski seeking to bring John Pagano along as defensive coordinator and possibly shifting to a 3-4 defensive alignment – at least based on the history of teams he has coached (Crennel's Browns, Turner's Chargers and Ron Rivera's Panthers). As for the actual look of such an alignment, we've heard buzzwords ranging from "attacking" to "hybrid" to "versatile" – all terms that would basically exclude Dick Jauron's often necessary, but never overly creative defensive practices.
In terms of the Browns' current roster, former GM Tom Heckert exclusively drafted for a 4-3 scheme, but the remaining holes in his work basically translate to what is needed to staff a 3-4 attack. Consider that the Browns still lack a complementary pass rusher for Jabaal Sheard – a player who is built more like a 3-4 outside linebacker – and additional secondary help. Although it's not a popular sentiment, the Browns' linebackers are probably as suited to play the 3-4 as they would a 4-3 scheme.
Regardless of the coordinators and schemes, the hire comes back to Chudzinski filling the profile desired by Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner. Chudzinski is a first-time Head Coach, is young, has both college and NFL experience and has shown a willingness to adapt to a more collegiate style of offense. Considering how rapidly the NFL is emulating the college game, Chudzinski's hire makes some sense. Although he struggled at times, Chudzinski helped create an NFL-friendly, zone-read offense for the uber-talented Cam Newton. In Cleveland, the ideal offense could better resemble Chudzinski's Cleveland and San Diego attacks that took advantage of downfield mismatches – which seemingly would be suited to Brandon Weeden's strengths as a quarterback.
For Banner and Haslam, the hire represents both a lot of work and a mountain of setbacks. After narrowly focusing on Kelly and allegedly missing out on Syracuse's Doug Marrone, Banner and Haslam "widened" their net of available candidates and zeroed in on what they thought was the best of a diminished field of candidates. Naturally, more significant moves are coming in the hiring of more personnel types. Here it's worth remembering that Banner has basically created a pseudo-GM position – one that will function differently compared to Tom Heckert.
Finally, in terms of comparisons – Chudzinski is not the big name that most Browns' fans wanted. The more progressive of Browns' fans desired the future in Chip Kelly, while more traditional fans wanted the likes of Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden. However, similar to the often empty allure of NFL free agency, a name is sometimes just that. In Chudzinski, the Browns are getting a creative, young and fairly experienced coach – one who appears will be fully supported by the new ownership and personnel regime.
When's the last time that happened in Berea?
*For those of you endlessly dredging up old Derek Anderson QB debates, I can only say that some things never change.