Clay Matthews has developed into one of the most fearsome defenders in the NFL over the past two seasons. As Browns fans know, in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, the Browns passed on their opportunity to draft Matthews, opting instead to select center Alex Mack. At the time, no one faulted the Browns for choosing the safe, easy-to-project Mack. His college scouting reports reflected a high degree of confidence that he would be a steady, consistent performer for years. Matthews was harder to project. After walking on at USC, he performed admirably, but there were questions if his game would translate to the NFL.
Two years later, Mack is a a steady performer. He has not graded out as a top center in the league, but he has been solid, and has not missed a game. Meanwhile, Matthews is the face of a Packers defense which had a fantastic season, finishing 2nd in the NFL in Points per Game Allowed. He is a feared player who forces offenses to account for his location at every snap.
The Browns now face a decision similar to the one they faced in the 09 Draft. Peter King, amongst others, reports that the Browns current "leader in the clubhouse" for their head coaching vacancy is Pat Shurmur. King paints a picture of Shumur as a known quantity to Browns president Mike Holmgren, someone who can be relied on to implement Holmgren's preferred version of the West Coast offense, someone with solid coaching mentors and a familiarity with both Holmgren and Tom Heckert. Shurmur seems to be a safe, easy-to-project coaching candidate. In short, an Alex Mack.
However, there is a Clay Matthews still available in the coaching pool. His name is Jon Gruden, and hiring him would be precisely the sort of move to immediately change perceptions of the Browns, in the NFL and, more importantly, in the city of Cleveland.
In Cleveland, the news that Shurmur is the favorite for the head coaching job has been greeted with mostly silence. Thus far, most of the contempt and frustration has been directed towards Marty Mornhinweg, whose 5-27 record and overtime wind-taking present easy targets. By comparison, say most folks, Shurmur looks pretty good. This sort of thinking is precisely why there were so many fans clamoring to retain Eric Mangini. For a large number of Browns fans, competence and a semblance of competitiveness are all that are required for continued loyalty at this point. "At least we could watch the games this year," people have said, as if this represents some achievement. "At least we're not a joke."
Browns fans need to be reminded that it's necessary to ask more of an NFL franchise. In the NFL, teams can and have been turned around in a season. What is necessary an expectation from fans that the organization won't just compete, it will win. Often, it is necessary to make the bold decision, the decision that may entail more risk in order to fulfill winning expectations.
Mike Holmgren can make no bolder decision than to aggressively pursue and hire Jon Gruden. Gruden is second to none in the design and execution of his offense. For a young quarterback like Colt McCoy, few offensive minds are available that could provide as much valuable insight as Gruden, who would maximize McCoy's skill set much in the same way he did for Rich Gannon. He would also be the first Super Bowl winning coach hired by the Browns, the first that would be able to explain exactly what it takes to reach the pinnacle.
Most importantly, though, Gruden represents a complete departure from the line of thinking that simply being competitive is good enough. Hiring a coach like Jon Gruden makes a statement that the Browns are tired of losing, tired of settling and that the organization will spare no expense in securing a Super Bowl championship for the long-suffering city of Cleveland. As a result of Gruden's hire, season ticket sales would increase, fan attitudes would change and winning would become the new expectation.
In this coaching search, Mike Holmgren can choose the safe route, the Alex Mack route. Or he can choose the bold route, the Clay Matthews route. Matthews has been instrumental in revitalizing the Packers dominating defense. Jon Gruden can do the same for the Cleveland Browns.
PS: Mr. Holmgren,
As a personal note, if the Browns do hire Jon Gruden, I will immediately be making a deposit on season tickets. Lower bowl season tickets, at that.
Make it happen, Mike!