Nearly every question asked regarding the Browns' latest offseason coaching search has revolved around the team's offense. Naturally, such questions are warranted, thanks to the Browns finishing 31st in the league in points per game and plays from scrimmage, and 29th in total yards per game. Throw in a team president whose NFL roots are offensive-based and the offseason directive could not have been more clear.
So far during the week-long interviewing process, Holmgren has interviewed two offensive coordinators in Atlanta's Mike Mularkey and St. Louis' Pat Shurmur, and he will likely visit with his former protégé Marty Morningwheg in the coming days. Although the Browns have also scheduled an interview with defensive specialist Perry Fewell, the odds are that Holmgren's eventual hire will focus on improving what has become a long-suffering offensive attack.
Common sense would suggest that this approach is a natural reaction against the Browns' last three coaching hires – all defensive-minded head coaches in the form of Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini. After all, considering the league-wide shift towards rewarding offense that has occurred over the past decade, it would appear the Browns have some catching up to do.
In this sense, early speculation suggests that Shurmur is the early favorite for the Browns' job. Of course, the entire search only consists of two interviews as of Tuesday. Anyway, while the names will likely change over the next week or so, the emphasis on the offensive side of the ball is clear. This is the area where the Browns need the most help – along with being Holmgren's specialty.
However, this direction begs a most natural question: What about the defense?
After some five years of muddling through a transition to a 3-4 scheme, the Browns' defense finally appeared to gel midway through the 2010 season. Eric Mangini and Rob Ryan's "power" defense played some terrific games against New Orleans and New England before injuries and age eventually took their toll down the stretch.
During the ill-fated December losing streak, the defensive problems became reminiscent of the offense's woes, as it was evident that the front seven lacked any true playmakers.
Having said all this, if we can consider the following as anything more than speculation, than an interesting situation in Cleveland could develop.
Shurmur is considered to be a favorite among several in Browns president Mike Holmgren's coaching tree. John Fox, who will interview for the Denver Broncos' head-coaching job Wednesday, and Jim Mora, the former Seattle Seahawks coach and current NFL Network analyst, are potential defensive coordinator candidates in Cleveland, sources said Monday.
While Holmgren has been tight-lipped regarding the process, let's just assume that an offensive-minded coach will be hired. Or at the least, the team's new head coach will not have originated from the Bill Parcells-Bill Belichick school of 3-4 defense. If the above report is to be believed, then the likes of Mora and Fox could take over the defense.
Or, if we reach into Holmgren's coaching past, perhaps Dick Jauron could prove to be another candidate to run the Browns' defense.
Regardless of the individual qualities each of these three potential candidates possess, a common characteristic found alludes to the idea that the 3-4 defense could be a thing of the past in Cleveland.
And perhaps the timing couldn't be any better for the Browns.
Consider that three defensive starters from 2010 will be free agents, assuming of course that actual football will be played sometime in 2011. As of now, defensive end Robaire Smith and linebackers Matt Roth, Chris Gocong and D'Qwell Jackson may have played their final games in Cleveland. Combine the exodus of these four players with the likes of a potential cap casualty in Shaun Rogers and the Browns' defense will look dramatically different next season.
The remains of the Browns' front seven will merely boast Ahtyba Rubin, Kenyon Coleman and a still large volume of veteran linebackers. Of these players, only Rubin could be considered as a defensive building block for the future. While a player like Scott Fujita – or possibly David Bowens – can provide veteran leadership, it's clear that some major work needs to be done in reforming the team's defense.
Of the Browns' pending free agents, Roth and Gocong are certainly talented, but may not prove to be worth a significant financial investment. Roth was terrific in run defense throughout 2010, but it remains to be seen how his skill set would fit within a 4-3 defense. The same could be said for Gocong, who is a bit of a tweener type of linebacker.
Further clouding the situation is the possibility that the likes of Mora or Jauron could run elements of a Tampa-2 style of defense. In this scenario, the Browns have virtually no linebackers athletic enough to drop into coverage. For further evidence, just witness the 280 different variations of screen passes that have been run against the Browns over the past half-decade.
Also, such a defensive style is predicated on pressure from the defensive ends. While it's possible that Roth could be a help here, the only member of the current roster who could have an impact within such a defense is Marcus Benard. Benard managed to progress throughout the season mainly lining up as a defensive end in Ryan's three-man rush fronts. After these two players, the rest of the Browns' defensive linemen are a collection of journeymen, players who only fit somewhat into a 3-4 system and who don't appear to be viable candidates for a new defensive philosophy.
In the end, the ultimate head coaching decision will be predicated on the offensive side of the ball. In this scenario, the future of the defense will become a bit of an afterthought.
Or in other words, Holmgren and Heckert truly have a lot more work to do. More than most of us probably realize.