On the cusp of training camp there are so many questions we fans have; so many unknowns that we are curious to see play out. Do we have any viable wide receivers? What does Jim O’Neil’s scheme mean for the linebackers? Is Kyle Shanahan really the quarterback whisperer? What will the D look like with two strong corners and depth? Will Manziel make the quarterback position interesting or is Hoyer entrenched? Will the new zone blocking approach fix the running game to function at an acceptable NFL level?
My earliest memories of the Browns essentially go back to the start of the Forrest Gregg Era. I was just a pup so I didn’t really know what I was watching. Before that is just old film highlights and I’ve read a lot of history. This is only relevant in the sense of what follows.
My biggest question for training camp and the start of the season: how effective will Mike Pettine and his staff be this year? Can they add value and if so how much? In the old football vernacular: can they coach this team up?
In my lifetime as a Browns fan I haven’t see much evidence of this occurring. When I have seen coaches add value I’ve seen them coach up the Browns in different ways, but in the end all have been incomplete. When I think of the holy trinity of coaching up players I consider these areas and criteria: do they excel at player development, are the teams prepared to play on Sunday at the whistle, and do they make good game day decisions. If you find a coach that can craft a staff to coach up players in all three of those areas you will field a winner.
Gregg was not a players’ coach to put it mildly. The tough Texan was a Vince Lombardi protégé and brought that kind of approach to an aged team in desperate need of a rebuild in an era when free agency didn’t exist. Gregg took a young roster and treated it like a blacksmith, firing out the impurities in the raw material and then hammering a bunch of molecules into an instrument of battle. His first season was an abomination where the Browns threatened to lose out for half the season. Gregg stuck to his six shooters and the young squad closed the season strong as a springboard to 9 – 5 the next season, including the seminal Turkey Jones game. The Browns appeared ready to take the next step, but the players seemed to stop responding to Gregg and he was fired summarily near the end of the season in the sort of Modellian overreaction we all came to know and loath. In his time here, Forrest Gregg managed to coach up the Browns. He took a young term and developed players and formed a roster. He was not the most adroit game manager and the team splintered on him in the end, however.
Gregg’s work wasn’t for naught. His young roster was like a servant released from indenture for the next coach, the polar opposite personality Sam Rutigliano. Sam definitely coached up his first several Browns teams, but in a very different way from Gregg. New players were integrated into the roster and developed well, and other young players responded to positive motivation rather than virtual beatings. Sam was riding the tide of the liberal “free to be you and me” 1970’s and the players seemed to respond in kind; particularly the young quarterback from southern California that was hardly the first-in, last-out, example of nose to the grindstone I’ve read in some accounts.
Sam excelled on game day. He was the best Browns coach I’ve seen in his regard. He understood the rules’ changes that liberated the passing game in the late 70’s and did more with less on offense than most of his counterparts. The magic Kardiac Kids teams gave off the vibe they could move mountains together and Sam was near the apex of the NFL when it came to X’s and O’s. His first teams may not have accomplished a great deal on the field but they hold a special place in our hearts for reasons directly related to Rutigliano’s coaching: innovation, poise, and intelligence.
Where it fell apart for Sam was when he needed to re-tool the roster. Sam struggled with player development. When his vets started to age, his young players didn’t develop. It would be easy to blame the draft and perhaps that is where the scapegoat lies, but Sam also was key in decisions to feature Paul MacDonald and obtain Durial Harris. In his last season as coach, a promising rookie late round back from East Carolina sat unused while an old and washed up Mike Pruitt gave great effort but lacked any quickness. Despite being “good for the city”, the affable Coach Sam was let go after a disastrous start to the 1984 season.
Enter Marty Schottenheimer, Sam’s defensive coordinator. When fans usually evaluate coaches, most of the attention is misdirected to game day in my opinion. Marty Schottenheimer’s game day coaching is legendary for its fruitlessness and failure. He is the NFL’s Sisyphus. And yet of all the Browns coaches I’ve followed as a fan, none could touch Marty for his ability to develop and coach up players ready to play hard when the whistle blew. It didn’t matter if they were young players, cast-offs from other teams, old vets or pro bowlers. The volume of unheralded players developed by Marty Schottenheimer is impressive. Ironically the only players he couldn’t coach up were his hand pick number one draft choices at his old AFL position. But what really takes the prize is the toughness and adaptability his teams demonstrated. I think fans forget about the frequent and devastating injuries, bad personnel decisions, and even a death to a possible future Hall of Fame player in Marty’s time. All they ever did was play hard and make the playoffs year after year winning big game after big game to get there.
It was clear from the start in 1984. Marty took the exact same team that started 1 – 7 and put them through the equivalent of mid-season training camp. Old vets were benched, roles redefined, a few unknowns that showed heart were inserted into the lineup, and what looked like a new team finished 4 – 4. Marty knew how to create a band of brothers that would fight until the last man. For all of those qualities shown these men remain absolutely beloved by fans for accomplished next to nothing on the field compared to the teams other cities’ hold in similar esteem.
I really don’t want to write about Marty’s game day decisions. You know. Suffice to say that’s why there’s no “gleam”.
Since Marty they’ve all kind of come and they’ve all obviously gone. We’ve had the avuncular defensive veterans whose laissez faire approach with some vets created illusionary temporary success in Bud Carson and Romeo Crennel. We’ve had the coaches sadly placed in horrific situations out of desperation clearly over their heads in Chris Palmer and Pat Schumur. They had hopelessly young teams and lacked the necessary qualities and they did not disappoint as they failed to develop players or create a cohesive team and prepare them for Sunday, and game day looked like the parade from Animal House. I’m probably being too harsh on old Paddy. His teams did play hard on Sunday and the point differential relative to his loss totals was more respectable than most fans will credit.
Bill Bellichick, and his personal Lucifer, Eric Mangini, both coached up their teams at times. Both developed a few players in an odd sort of way, seemingly drawn toward mediocre athletes that played above their heads. Both displayed nearly identical schitzophrenic game day ability. There were positively brilliant performances punctuating some of the most bizarre game day decisions and melt downs we’ve been treated to over the years. Bill had the 94 Dallas game; Mangini his absurdly sublime Saints and Patriots back-to-back wins before he lost his job losing four straight – later in the same season. Both coaches created rosters about as cohesive as the HMS Bounty at times. Both had respected NFL vets staunchly in their corners. Both more or less deserve each other. BB managed to find a way to lose more games than he won his first three years despite a point differential in the single digits and having himself, Nick Saban, and Kirk Ferenz on the coaching staff and a front office with Ozzie Newsome and Scott Pioli. Go figure. The fascinating aspect to BB is that you can get a logical group of fans pointing out how he coached up the Browns and another giving credible examples of how he bungled his time here and got less from more on game day and with his roster decisions. Mangini simply enjoyed running marathons while pumping his feet full of buckshot as fast as humanly possible. Coach ‘em up, coach ‘em down. And yet I have to say the last time I saw the Browns coached up was when Eric Mangini had his run from the end of his first year through the first two thirds of his next season.
Then there’s two I see as somewhat similar. The curious cases of Paul Hilton Davis and erstwhile home boy Rob Chudzinski. Butch Davis arrived the hottest commodity since tobacco hit Litchfield prison in Orange is the New Black. Not only had he turned around The U, purging the off field problems and restoring the elite program status to Miami, but he had great NFL experience working with the last dynasty as line coach and defensive coordinator with a reputation as a film room savant. The man was the shiny, gleaming Answer. Initially he did not disappoint. The young players that looked like stumblebums under Coach Fudd suddenly gained confidence. He seemed to mix in new draft picks and some vets seamlessly and the expansion Browns won almost immediately. The team started making big plays in rivalry games against Baltimore. There has been much written in hindsight about the ill-fated draft picks of Butch and his personal scout, Pete Garcia. But in the first two seasons it seemed like the young players were developing, the roster was showing some spirit and cohesion, and they were playing big in big games in year two.
And then came half-time of the infamous playoff game. A different Butch Davis emerged. It was like as if Lawrence of Arabia got bufued by Turkish officer. It was like an anti-spiritual experience sucked the life out of the man. Confidence gave way to hubris and then paranoia. The ranks all of sudden displayed an utter lack of discipline. An affable leader simply melted down before our eyes and was gone within two years of guiding an expansion franchise to a playoff appearance in year four of existence. He coached ‘em up, and them he blew ‘em up, staring with self-immolating himself like a Buddhist monk in Saigon in 1960 something. Damndest thing I ever saw.
By contrast Rob Chudzinski was boring. Robbie we hardly knew ye. I read glowing reports last training camp of how Rob was a leader of men, a breath of fresh air, and how the players were positively responding. I saw a team lose some inexplicably tough game while fighting hard. I saw a quarterback carousel with everything but Don Strock. Then bang – all of a sudden I’m reading he’s on the firing line.
You talk to fans and players you never get a straight story on Chud. And given that he had to work for the two stooges he did that isn’t surprising. It would seem that Chud coached the team to about where it belonged, had a short stretch where it overachieved and fought through some injuries, and then thud. Dud. Chud. Coached like Fudd. I personally thought he got a raw deal but then again Chud’s point differential was worse than either of Shurmur’s seasons. Surprising, eh? Time will tell if we see any player development carry forward though there is evidence of hits and misses last season. Mostly misses. So in the end Chud didn’t coach anyone up either. He didn’t show well on game day. And his teams folded like Phar-Mor ™. Buh-bye Chud.
And so comes Mike Pettine straight from central casting. Son of a high school legend and apt pupil of one of the truly strangest coaching trees in modern pro football. What will he do? Will we see the bevvy of young players on the roster develop as never before? Will we see the toughness of Marty? Will we see the innovation of Sam? Will we see the esprit of Butch Davis’ first two seasons where the team goes toe to toe with the tough guy not backing down? I really don’t know. But after the long, strange trip of Browns coaches in my lifetime I have neither hopes nor expectations. I’m ready to just let Pettine be Pettine. But I do know I’m not going to crucify Pettine for his first and inevitable game day clunker of a decision as a rookie head coach. At this stage it is far more important to me to see the young talent develop and the team play hard, smart and hit people.
In year one I want to see a foundation building. I want to see Marty in 84 and 85, Gregg in 75, Davis in 01. I want to sense some innovation like we’re not the dolts of the league trying to copy the last trend. I cringe when I read about how we have to follow the Seattle model blah, blah, blah. I want to be Coach Sam when he said in an era when pro set running backs would dominate the game saying “I’m not trying to establish a running game. I’m trying to establish first downs.” I want to see the Browns create the next model. Show us something Mike. You are the single most important leading indicator as camp opens. Nothing else matters if you don’t get it right. Oh, and yeah, no pressure.