Gone are the days when NFL head coaches entered their first season with the license to develop a team over the course of a few years. The firing of Cleveland Browns head coach Rod Chudzinski marked the third consecutive season of a coach being fired after their first year with a team. Nothing is promised by desperate front offices. In 2011, Oakland fired Hue Jackson at the end of his first season after posting the franchise’s best record since 2002. The bar is at an all-time high for new hires. Last season, three coaches (Andy Reid, Mike McCoy, and Chip Kelly) took their teams to the postseason in their first year, while Chicago’s Marc Trestman and Arizona’s Bruce Arians missed a playoff berth by just one game.
Seven teams parted ways with their coach this offseason, and all seven new hires know that there are immense expectations to not only win, but to win immediately. We’ll be taking a look at a different first-year head coach each week, determining what they bring to the table, and just how well they will fit in with the current personnel.
Mike Pettine, Cleveland Browns
- Baltimore Ravens, 2002-2003. (Coaching Assistant)
- Baltimore Ravens, 2004. (Assistant Defensive Line Coach)
- Baltimore Ravens, 2005-2008. (Outside Linebackers Coach)
- New York Jets, 2009-2012. (Defensive Coordinator)
- Buffalo Bills, 2013. (Defensive Coordinator)
The fact that Cleveland’s offseason included a search for a new head coach is anything but surprising. But even for the Browns this offseason was unique. With the purging of a toxic front office and the firing of 2014’s two most sought-after coordinators, Cleveland’s new head coach would have to play the dual role of a confident football mind and an impetus of cultural change. With those necessities in mind, Mike Pettine may just have been the best possible candidate for the Cleveland Browns.
Perhaps for the sake of consistency and familiarity, Pettine elected to retain special teams coordinator Chris Tabor from the previous regime. This may be a positive for Pettine, as long as Tabor is able to improve on Cleveland’s abysmal ranking in penalties and tackling efficiency on special teams.1 Also noteworthy is the fact that Pettine brought Jim O’Neil with him from Buffalo to serve as the defensive coordinator. O’Neil was the linebackers coach for the Bills, and he also coached under Pettine with the Jets as the assistant defensive backs coach.
Since Pettine was a relatively late hire, and since offensive coordinator was the last major role on the coaching staff to be filled, the market for offensive coordinators was not an especially deep one by the time Cleveland got around to the interview stage. Kyle Shanahan’s bluntness reportedly turned Cleveland’s front office off of him early in the interview process, but he was eventually hired to head the offensive side of Pettine’s team. While Shanahan’s playcalling abilities and overbearing approach with position coaches have been criticized, his experience with RG3 in Washington should give him a solid foundation when it comes to implementing the young, mobile Johnny Manziel in Cleveland’s offense.
Actual football acumen is certainly vital to any franchise coach in his first season, but the immediate effect of Pettine’s hiring may have been felt most in the culture surrounding the Browns franchise. After the utter failure of the front office that has characterized Cleveland in recent years, Pettine’s personality emerges as a direct no-nonsense response. His entire persona seems to be geared towards his team demanding absolute respect and avoiding embarrassment, and he has proved that he possesses the ability to restore dignity to a team. In his sole year as defensive coordinator in Buffalo, he installed a new multiple-front scheme and transformed one of the worst defenses in the league into a top ten unit. Buffalo’s defense ranked second in sacks, and two players posted double-digit sack numbers.2) The Bills ranked tenth in yards allowed, fourth in pass yards allowed, and second in interceptions. Also, his time in Baltimore under Rex Ryan certainly piqued Cleveland’s interest, as Pettine is already accustomed to the physical nature of the AFC North.
Pettine’s ability to implement new schemes dates back to his tenure with the Jets. New York had the number one scoring defense in Pettine’s first year, and the Jets defense consistently ranked in the top ten during his tenure. Cleveland’s current defensive roster is certainly encouraging to Pettine, as well. Buffalo’s secondary was characterized by inconsistency and injuries, yet they compiled the second most interceptions in the league last year. Former Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis also put together one of the greatest seasons for a cornerback in NFL history under Pettine. This bodes well for cornerback Joe Haden, who made the Pro Bowl and was second-team All-Pro in 2013, and Pettine will certainly be able to make use of the hard-hitting Donte Whitner, who has made two Pro Bowls and developed a reputation for his vicious hits, as well as top-ten draft pick Justin Gilbert.
Pettine was certainly a steal for Cleveland, and his negative attributes are certainly minor in comparison to most of the new coaches of the 2014 season. The most worrying aspect of Pettine’s coaching history is the way that New York’s defense declined in nearly all statistical categories with each year that Pettine coordinated the defense. In his final two seasons with the Jets, they ranked in the bottom twenty in points allowed. While this can certainly be attributed to the anemic Jets offense, it is worrying for a candidate that has never been a head coach at the college or NFL level. Furthermore, there are concerns as to just how much of New York’s defense can even be claimed as Pettine’s, rather than the brainchild of Rex Ryan himself.
In his season with Buffalo, there were concerns about the balance of Pettine’s defense. While ranking second in interceptions and sacks, Buffalo ranked 28th in rushing yards allowed and 23rd in average yards per rush.3 The glaring issue is that Pettine’s blitz heavy defense allowed opposing offenses to exploit the lack of run support and gash the defense for sizeable chunks of yardage.
The Browns enter the 2014 season with a number of playmakers on defense, and the uncertainty of looming suspensions and position battles on offense. Pettine and O’Neil should have no problem in turning Cleveland’s defense into a classically AFC North brick wall. Pettine’s biggest challenge lies in the management of the offense, and especially in the management of Kyle Shanahan’s direction of the players and offensive coaching staff. If he can keep Cleveland’s defense in the top ten and offense in the top fifteen, Pettine could be able to kick the Cleveland curse and put up the best season since 2007.