For Browns fans still lusting after a high-profile head coach, last January's hiring of Pat Shumur could have left much to be desired. In terms of overall coaching experience, Shurmur's career has been built by years of working with quarterbacks before emerging as St. Louis' offensive coordinator for the past two seasons. However, in a direct contrast to Shurmur's mostly novice credentials, the team's new defensive coordinator, Dick Jauron, boasts a wealth of NFL experience.
In making both hires, Team President Mike Holmgren likely saw visions of his past. In some respects, Shurmur is essentially traveling down the same path Holmgren took as a young assistant to Bill Walsh, before leading the Packers to two Super Bowls. Regarding his veteran hire, Holmgren is simply pointing to a time that included Jauron as first a young Green Bay assistant and later as a rival coach in Chicago.
While Shurmur was hired on based on his potential, Jauron easily serves as a more proven commodity. This point can't be lost on either Holmgren or Browns fans, as Shurmur will become the head man in Cleveland, while also calling the team's offensive plays on game days. Because of this, Jauron's vast coaching experience cannot be underestimated, as he now virtually assumes all control of the Browns' defense.
Jauron's record as a head coach could be considered marginal, as he has been fired in two NFL cities. Yet, the former Bears and Bills head coach does boast an AP coach of the year award in 2001, along with proving to be a hot coaching candidate for a number of jobs after the close of last season. Perhaps more importantly to the Browns' immediate interests, Jauron's defenses have proven to be effective in two key areas that have long been critical weaknesses in Cleveland.
In viewing Jauron's most successful years in Chicago and Buffalo along with his time as defensive coordinator in Detroit, an encouraging trend emerges regarding both run defense and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Jauron's 2001 Bears allowed a league-leading 203 points, which sparked the team to a surprise 13-3 record. In the middle of the Bears' defense were mammoth veteran tackles Keith Traylor and Ted Washington, who effectively swallowed up the interior blocking of opposing teams. Bigger defensive ends such as Phillip Daniels and Bryan Robinson were capable in both run defense and on passing downs. The combination of Daniels and outside linebacker Roosevelt Colvin contributed a combined 19.5 sacks.
In Detroit, a similar pattern ensued as some 700 lbs. of Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson manned the inside tackle spots, while the bullish Cory Redding and James Hall flanked the interior wall. Hall managed a career-best 11.5 sacks as the Lions experienced a slight team turnaround. Jauron's Buffalo debut saw the Bills' Aaron Schobel register 15.5 sacks, while the likes of Kyle Williams, Larry Tripplett, Chris Kelsay and a veteran core of linebackers dramatically improve what was a tattered defense.
Jauron's history indicates that all of his defenses improved in their first year under his helm. Chicago's defense became a powerhouse unit, while both Detroit and Buffalo allowed upwards of 50 fewer points during Jauron's first season as coach. As for the blueprint for Jauron's initial success, each of these teams featured some massive bulk at the defensive tackle positions, along with one run-stopping defensive end and another more geared to rush the quarterback. Filling in the gaps of Jauron's various front seven alignments were veteran linebackers such as Warrick Holdman, Earl Holmes, London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes.
Arriving in Cleveland, Jauron faces another impressive challenge, as the Browns are transitioning from six years of a 3-4 system into a more traditional 4-3 defense. Already, some of the pieces for Jauron's newest project have been procured. The Browns' recent draft heavily emphasized the team's fractured defensive front seven, as first-round pick Phil Taylor and second-round selection Jabaal Sheard figure to become instant starters in Jauron's new defense.
Along with Taylor and Sheard, fourth-year defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin should help to solidify the team's interior core, while veteran linebackers Scott Fujita, D'Qwell Jackson and Chris Gocong remain from last year's roster. The tenuous possibility of free agency could also see the arrival of more front seven help.
Although it's mere speculation at this point, it's intriguing to think of how these current pieces could fit under Jauron's guidance.
Taylor and Rubin appear to have similar skills at defensive tackle, yet Jauron's system offers a bit of flexibility. In a more one-gap type of system, Taylor figures to assume the kind of land mass run stopper role previously held by the likes of Washington, Wilkinson and Williams. Rubin would appear to play more of the attacking, up the field sort of lineman – which would be a departure from his work in Eric Mangini and Rob Ryan's base 3-4 scheme.
At defensive end, the Browns' lack of depth is striking. Currently, the untested Sheard would have to be penciled as a starter, while a player such as Marcus Benard likely attempts to convert into an every down end. Although 2010 Browns such as Matt Roth, Brian Schaefering and the mysterious Jayme Mitchell could become a temporary answer, this is a position that is far from unsettled.
In fact, the likelihood of Benard successfully making a transition to a four-man front is doubtful at best. While certainly talented, Benard is very much a work in progress as an NFL player. However, Jauron's defenses have featured both a grinder and pass rusher in the past. At the moment, Sheard appears more suited to complementing the team's run defense, rather than becoming a pass rushing force. The prospects of landing a premiere pass rusher will likely rank high on the team's 2012 wish list.
At linebacker, the team's current options certainly fit the veteran mold that has framed Jauron's past units. Fujita will again anchor the team's linebackers, joining a likely starting unit that includes Gocong inside and a returning Jackson at the weakside spot. Of course, health is the key in this area, as Fujita missed half of the 2010 season, while Jackson has suffered pectoral injuries in two consecutive seasons.
Yet, Jauron's initial success in Buffalo was largely shaped by the veteran talents of Spikes, Fletcher and Angelo Crowell. The Browns' current linebacking trio is somewhat reminiscent of these three players, at least in terms of size and range. When healthy, Fujita was the Browns' best defender in 2010, while Jackson easily covered the most ground before his injury problems occurred. The wildcard here has to be Gocong, who should at least benefit from playing behind the newly-built wall in front of him.
Of course with anything relating to the Browns, time will tell. The 2011 version of the Browns' defense is nothing short of inconclusive at this point, simply based on the makeup of the current roster. A small leap of faith is needed to predict full healthy seasons from Fujita and Jackson, along with the progression of two rookies and Benard.
Obviously, some free agent moves are needed to shore up depth all over the defensive front seven. Regardless of the scheme in place, the Browns' defense has suffered for nearly a decade thanks to simply being worn out as the seasons progress. The 2010 case of Ahtyba Rubin delivered a powerful testimony of this unfortunate reality, along with the parade of undrafted free agents who littered the team's starting lineups last December.
However, with a few key pieces in place, 2011 could mark the beginning of yet another defensive turnaround helmed by Jauron. Ideally, the team's defensive backfield will be more settled this coming season and the prospects of more draft help in 2012 at least provide some hope.
As for now, at least it looks like a plan is in place.