History repeated itself for the Cleveland Browns when once again they hired a coach for offensive coordinator with no prior experience calling plays in the NFL.
Two days before Senior Bowl week began the Browns hired Rob Chudzinski to replace Jeff Davidson as offensive coordinator. Chudzinski was tight ends coach for the San Diego Chargers in 2005 and 2006. He was the Browns tight ends coach in 2004 and left during the coaching search that eventually landed Romeo Crennel five weeks after the 2004 season ended.
Crennel's first offensive coordinator, Maurice Carthon, had been an offensive coordinator for three years with Detroit and Dallas, but he never called plays until he joined Crennel's staff in 2005. That season the Browns finished last in scoring with 232 points.
Carthon was forced out after six games in 2006. He was replaced by Davidson, an offensive line coach with no history of calling plays on any level. The Browns scored 238 points, which ranked 30th.
Chudzinski, 38, was the offensive coordinator and tight ends coach at the University of Miami from 2001-2003. The Hurricanes were 12-0 and consensus national champions in 2001. There he coached Kellen Winslow Jr. and developed a strong bond with him. Winslow was a rookie with the Browns in 2004 and a major reason Butch Davis hired him that season.
"I thought the offensive presentation he made to us was well thought-out and encompassing," Crennel said. "It covered many facets of the offensive structure. We talked about coaches, schedules and discipline. He had a plan for all of those things. He even had a plan about our situation here and how he would have handled things."
Chudzinski is taking over an offense that ranked 31st in the NFL in 2006. He was a candidate to replace Cam Cameron, now the Dolphins head coach, as offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers, the highest scoring team in the NFL this season.
He joked about trying unsuccessfully to pack LaDainian Tomlinson in his bag when he made the decision to leave the Chargers. The one thing the Browns could offer that the Chargers could not match is Chudzinski grew up a Browns fan in Toledo, Ohio. When he was a young boy he would visit is cousin on Sunday afternoons. They turned the living room television around so the screen was facing the picture window. He said they would watch the game through the window and pretend they were in the stadium.
That's a nice, sentimental story, but what kind of offense will be used? The Browns talked for two years about searching for an identity under Carthon and Davidson. They never found one.
"From a philosophy standpoint, I've been lucky to be around attacking styles of offenses that are built on a balance of run and pass," Chudzinski said. "It utilizes the special and unique talents of the guys who are part of that offense. It gives your playmakers a chance to make plays for you. We talked primarily about an attacking style of offense."
Chudzinski said he has not formulated an opinion on quarterback Charlie Frye. He is aware of distractions caused by Braylon Edwards - being late for meetings, and a sideline tantrum among the transgressions - but he is not holding those against Edwards.
"I don't have an impression because I haven't looked at all of the film to evaluate the guys," Chudzinski said. "The biggest thing for me is for these guys to have a clean slate. I want to be able to look at them, evaluate them and not listen to the perceptions that may be out there. I think that's fair to them and it's the way to go about it. We'll build from there."
--Jerry Rosburg, the special teams coach from 2001-2006, left the Browns to take the same job with the Atlanta Falcons. Special teams was consistently the Browns' best unit the last two seasons. Rosburg's prize pupil was kick returner Joshua Cribbs. Cribbs, undrafted, set a franchise record for kick returns with 1,094 yards in 2005. He broke his own record with 1,494 kick return yards in 2006.
--Jeff Davidson, passed over for the job of offensive coordinator, was hired as the Panthers offensive coordinator. Davidson was the Browns' offensive line coach the last two seasons. Assistant offensive line coach Jeff Uhlenhake remains on the coaching staff, but the Browns are looking for an experienced line coach to replace Davidson.
--Alfredo Roberts has been hired to coach the tight ends after coaching the Jacksonville tight ends the last four seasons. Roberts and Chudzinski were teammates on the Miami Hurricanes in 1986 and '87.
--In 2005, Joshua Cribbs set a franchise record with 1,094 yards in kick returns. In 2006, he broke his own record by exactly 400 yards.
--LB Kamerion Wimbley, with 11 sacks, had six more than Alvin McKinley and Chaun Thompson had in 2005 when they tied for the team lead with five each. As a team, though, the Browns again failed to get to the opposing quarterback. They totaled 28 sacks, five more than in 2005. McKinley had only one despite starting 14 games.
--TE Kellen Winslow Jr. led the Browns with 89 catches. WR Braylon Edwards caught 61, 28 fewer than Winslow, yet Edwards had 894 yards receiving, compared to 875 for Winslow.
--One reason the defensive coaching staff remained intact was opponents threw only one more touchdown pass in 2006 than when they threw 19 in 2005. It was a remarkable feat considering starting RCB Gary Baxter played only three games, starting LCB Leigh Bodden missed seven games with ankle injuries and nickel back Daylon McCutcheon missed the entire season recovering from knee surgery.
--The Browns are being vague about TE Kellen Winslow's plans for offseason surgery to clean out scar tissue on his right knee. Winslow might have the surgery somewhere other than The Cleveland Clinic, where surgeries on Browns players are normally performed.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think Braylon will respond very well this offseason. Once we have a chance to sit down, talk to him and lay out what our expectations are -- not what the media, fans or anyone else -- but what the Cleveland Browns' expectations are from him, I think we will be a step ahead of the game with him." -- Browns general manager Phil Savage on WR Braylon Edwards.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Williams was made a starter when rookie D'Qwell Jackson suffered a toe injury that ended his season after three games. When Andra Davis was knocked out of the game with a concussion while playing the Ravens on Dec. 17, Williams had to take over calling signals in the huddle. Williams continued in that role in the final two games with Davis on the sideline.
"We talked about the possibility of working him at both spots, but he was a rookie," coach Romeo Crennel said. "Without trying to teach him too much, we knew that we needed the depth inside, so we decided to leave him inside. Somewhere down the road we might experiment with him a little more, but I think he helps the team the most inside right now."
Williams is 6-foot-2, 238 pounds. He said people see how big he is and automatically think he's slow, but that isn't the case. He showed he can make a quick adjustment to close the gap if he starts taking the wrong angle on a running back. Williams made 34 tackles the last three weeks after making three in the first 13 games.
Frye showed little if any improvement from the beginning of the season to the end, but he was handicapped behind an inefficient line. The incumbent will remain until the Browns bring in somebody better. Anderson makes quick reads and has a strong arm, but his feet might as well be in cement. Dorsey is smart, but he just does not have an NFL arm.
Droughns never hit the hole as crisply as he did in 2005, and as a result his rushing total dropped from 1,232 yards to 758 running behind the same line that did not block well for Frye. Droughns also had shoulder and ankle injuries. Smith remains a good blocker, but he is limited as a receiver and runner and could be phased out next season. Harrison was limited to 20 carries because his blocking skills are poor. Barclay filled a roster spot when Wright (knee) was placed on injured reserve. Wright is quick, but he is not an every-down back. Vickers has to block better to knock off Smith.
Winslow was a bright spot in a dreary year. He tied a franchise record with 89 catches and was proud to have played in 16 games after missing 14 in 2004 and 16 in 2005 with injuries. He rubbed opponents the wrong way when he claimed to be the best tight end in the league, but he never said anything demeaning about an opponent. Heiden is underrated as a backup. He rarely drops the ball and he is a willing blocker. A touchdown catch by Dinkins just before halftime sparked a rally against the Raiders.
Edwards returned from a torn ACL to play all 16 games and catch 61 passes, but he was a major distraction the last half of the season. Jurevicius was the exact opposite. A team player all the way, Jurevicius caught 22 passes in a span of four games after catching 18 in nine games. He missed three games with injuries. Jurevicius was supposed to be a mentor for Edwards, but the message of being unselfish never sank in for Edwards. Northcutt is a timid receiver. He was at his worst in Pittsburgh, when he dropped three passes. He will be a free agent in March and will not be re-signed. Wilson caught only two passes. He was on the inactive list for nine games. Next season he will challenge as the third receiver with Northcutt out of the picture. Cribbs would like to be an Antwaan Randle El type player. He threw one pass on an option play and it was incomplete. Mosley was added to the roster from the practice squad for the final game because of injuries to Jurevicius and Northcutt.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Kevin Shaffer, LG Joe Andruzzi, C Hank Fraley, RG Cosey Coleman, RT Ryan Tucker. Backups -- C/G Rob Smith, C LeCharles Bentley, T/G Isaac Sowells, C/G Lennie Friedman, G Fred Matua, T Nat Dorsey, T Kelly Butler.
Problems along the line began when Bentley was injured on the first play of training camp, and they never stopped. Tucker missed seven games with a mental disorder. The Browns were 2-5 in those games. Whether Bentley and/or Tucker will play in 2007 is something Phil Savage has to determine before free agency begins. Andruzzi is broken down with knee injuries, and Coleman, entering free agency, probably won't be re-signed. Matua is untested, Butler slow and Dorsey slower. Smith is a capable run blocker, but he was unhappy with his pass blocking when he played against Houston in his only start. Re-signing Fraley is a priority because of the uncertainty of Bentley recovering from a torn patellar tendon. Friedman played well subbing for Andruzzi. The Browns gave up 54 sacks. Not all were on the line, but this is an area that needs major rebuilding.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- DLE Orpheus Roye, DRE Alvin McKinley, NT Ted Washington. Backups -- E Simon Fraser, E Nick Eason, NT Babatunde Oshinowo, NT Ethan Kelly, NT Orien Harris, NT J'Vonne Parker.
Roye battled shoulder, hamstring and knee injuries all season. Washington is 38 and was inconsistent. McKinley is entering free agency and did nothing to make the Browns want to re-sign him. All three should be replaced, but it won't be easy in one offseason given the needs on the offensive line and elsewhere. Kelly (knee) and Parker (foot) ended up on injured reserve and are backups at best when healthy. Fraser had 4.5 sacks, second most on the team, but he was a liability in run defense. Oshinowo is listed at 300 pounds but is too small to play nose tackle in the 3-4 defense. Harris was signed from the Steelers' practice squad late in the season.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Willie McGinest, MLB Andra Davis, ILB D'Qwell Jackson, WLB Kamerion Wimbley. Backups -- ILB Leon Williams, ILB Mason Unck, ILB Chaun Thompson, OLB David McMillan, OLB Matt Stewart, OLB Nick Speegle, ILB Clifton Smith.
The Browns decided to make linebacker the foundation of the defense by using three of their first four draft choices at the position last April. Wimbley led the team with 11 sacks, Jackson was second with 115 tackles, and Williams made 10, 17 and seven tackles in his last three games. Davis led the way with 133 tackles despite missing the last two games with a concussion, but only four were for losses. That in part is because the defensive line did not occupy blockers well enough. McGinest, who made 67 tackles, is well past his prime, but he is valuable as a team leader. With four new linebackers, including McGinest, there was no place for Thompson, McMillan or Stewart to settle in. Unck is one of the top special teams players on the roster; he finished second to Cribbs with 23 stops. Smith and Speegle were late-season additions because of injuries to Davis and Jackson (toe).
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- RCB Gary Baxter, LCB Leigh Bodden, SS Sean Jones, FS Brian Russell. Backups -- S Brodney Pool, S Justin Hamilton, CB Daven Holly, CB Jereme Perry, CB Ralph Brown, CB Daylon McCutcheon, S Ben Emanuel, CB DeMario Minter
Jones was the only starter in the secondary to play all 16 games. Russell (staph infection, three games) and Baxter (pectoral, both patellar tendons, 10 games) finished the season on IR. McCutcheon missed the entire season recovering from knee surgery, and Bodden, the Browns' best cornerback, missed seven games with sprained ankles. Some good came from the injuries. Holly emerged as a nickel back and tied Jones for the team lead with five interceptions. Brown and Perry are candidates to play the dime back next season. They will get competition from Minter, a fifth-round rookie who also missed the entire season recovering from knee surgery. Emanuel was added with three games left when Russell was placed on IR. Baxter vows to be the first player to recover from twin patellar tendon tears and play the next season. Baxter's intention is good, but the Browns will be looking at cornerbacks in free agency and the draft. Russell can be a free agent. The defensive coaches want him back because he is the glue that holds the secondary together.
Dawson had the worst year of his career in 2006. He was just 5-for-10 between 40 and 49 yards. He was 28 of 42 (67 percent) from that distance over the first seven seasons. He was working with his fourth holder, Zastudil, in four years, and the middle of the field in Cleveland was treacherous in November and December. Pontbriand's snaps were automatic, and Zastudil nestled 25 of 78 punts inside the 20. Northcutt finished with an 11.1-yard punt return average. His skill there will be missed, but he is a liability as a receiver, and the Browns do not have the luxury of using him exclusively as a punt returner. Cribbs is a threat to break a long return on every kick. Toward the end of the season, his average slipped, partly because some of the injured players had been on the kick return team, but he still averaged 24.5 yards a return.