Earlier this month, NFL.com’s Elliot Harrison released his 2015 NFL head coach power rankings. In the photo essay, he ranks all 32 coaches in the league according to this formula: “We tried to balance ‘What have you done for me lately?’ and career accomplishments,” in order to “[Weigh] the stacked résumés of the Tom Coughlins of the world against the promise of successful upstarts like Chip Kelly.”
Given that the Browns won just seven games last year in head coach Mike Pettine’s first season with the team, it was expected that Harrison wouldn’t rank Pettine all that highly. But, it was surprising to see just where he placed Pettine on the list—28th, one spot ahead of Washington’s Jay Gruden and one behind of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Gus Bradley, never mind that Washington won only four games in 2014 (in Gruden’s first season) and the Jaguars won a mere three (in Bradley’s second year). And even more baffling are the reasons he gave for ranking Pettine so low. Harrison wrote:
“Pettine looked to have things turned around in Cleveland last season, getting off to a promising 7–4 start —and then the bottom fell out. Turning to Johnny Manziel at quarterback didn’t do anything to brighten the gloomy finish to the year. Pettine’s defensive background should come in handy, as the Browns have plenty of young talent to work with, players—like former first-round pick Justin Gilbert—who, if they pan out, could make quite a difference going forward. However, Pettine must also prove he and his staff can work wonders with quarterbacks.”
Harrison cites the quarterback situation—one Pettine didn’t necessarily get himself into in the first place—the fact that Manziel wasn’t a savior by year’s end and the uncertainty surrounding whether other young Browns’ draft picks, defensive ones in particular, will ever pan out. He then circles back to the quarterback problem again. This line of reasoning is simply quite sloppy, but yet also one expected out of someone who may not pay as close attention to the Browns and their coaches, and Pettine in particular, as they do to others. And it’s hard for anyone to have a solid read on the Browns’ situation when only two things have been constant: The lack of a franchise quarterback and the lack of stability at the head coach. But these reasons aren’t good ones for justifying Pettine’s low rank, nor should Pettine be stuck among the dregs of the league. In many respects, Pettine’s first year in Cleveland was a success.
Think about what he had to work with: He was hired before the Browns had a new general manager in place; he was tasked with managing the Manziel-Brian Hoyer situation and placed in the middle of what became a power struggle in the organization; a slew of his most promising defensive players suffered serious injuries in-season; Josh Gordon was suspended much of the year; his offensive coordinator quit right after the season. And yet, he still managed to coach the team to seven wins, their most since 2007. In fact, 2014 marked just the fourth time since 1999 that the Browns have reached at least seven wins. These accomplishments might seem bleak in a sense, because they are all tinged with a bit of what-was in Cleveland for so long. But they are also a sign that Pettine’s ways have promise for the Browns going forward.
And back to that quarterback situation that Harrison brings up to open and close his argument—Pettine cannot take all of the blame for where the Browns are at the position right now or where they were last year. As a first-year, first-time head coach, Pettine’s input on whether to draft Manziel was likely subservient to the opinions of then-coordinator Kyle Shanahan and of course, general manager Ray Farmer. And the situation existed before Pettine even came to town—it’s part of the systemic issues that the Browns have been facing for years, starting with a lack of stability in the coaching and front office staffs. He can only work with what he’s given, and the stock of franchise-level quarterbacks in the NFL is ever-shrinking. Pettine should get a few knocks for how Manziel’s rookie year came about and played out, or for the team even selecting him in the first place, but Harrison would like to put the entire burden on the head coach’s shoulders.
The note about young draft picks panning out, meanwhile, is a blanket statement that applies to every single team in the league. Yes, there are some teams, like the Baltimore Ravens, that seem to find more hits per draft classes than misses, and for which this is less of a concern. But the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2015 season hinges even more on their first- and second-year players, and yet Harrison ranks their head coach, Mike Tomlin, sixth. Yes, the Steelers have reached two Super Bowls under Tomlin’s coaching and he deserves a high rank, but there was not one mention of how the Steelers have struggled to have consistent success drafting young talent in Tomlin’s tenure, nor one about how their younger players have a lot to prove immediately if Tomlin is going to continue to be so revered. But, at this point in July, Harrison could have written “if they pan out, could make quite a difference” about every team’s rookies and younger players.
In fairness, Pettine was dealt a pretty bad hand when he arrived in Cleveland and managed to come away looking good. He’s showing potential that the Browns could finally have a long-term coach on their hands. This isn’t to say that Harrison should have ranked Pettine in the top half of the league’s coaches after his first year, but 20th or 22nd seems far more appropriate when considering how Pettine handled a number of difficult situations and tangibly improved the team. The coach of a seven-win Browns team does not deserve to be lumped alongside the three- and four-win coaches around the league.