WFNY Roundtable: Meet the Browns staff

Cleveland Browns Paul DePodesta
Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Following the Cleveland Browns football organization is never boring. Amazing at it would seem to an uneducated outsider, the amount of turmoil, weird injuries, odd on-field rulings, off field shenanigans, and bizarre twists leave a Browns fan always wondering what could possibly top the last set of happenings. Then, something else even more perplexing shows itself.

The latest set for the fans of the Browns to behold was the firing of both Head Coach Mike Pettine and General Manager Ray Farmer after only two years before bringing in Head Coach Hue Jackson, Vice President of Player Personnel Andrew Berry, and Paul DePodesta (from the New York Mets!) to be something called the Chief Strategy Officer.

WFNY has been bringing you all the details and angles throughout these hirings, so here is a recap of some of those posts before we put our final thoughts on them with a staff roundtable discussion.

Related Paul DePodesta Articles:

Related Hue Jackson Articles:

Browns Coaching Staff

Hue Jackson, Head Coach
Pep Hamilton, Associate Head Coach / Offense
Al Saunders, Senior Assistant / Wide receivers
Bob Saunders, Quality Control / Offense
Kirby Wilson, Running Game Coordinator / Running backs
Hal Hunter, Offensive Line
Mark Hutson, Assistant Offensive Line
Greg Seamon, Tight Ends
Ray Horton Jr., Defensive Co-ordinator
Rumored Hires: Louie Cioffi, Defensive Back & Robert Nunn, Defensive Line
Special Teams
Chris Tabor, Special Teams
Shawn Mennenga, Assistant / Special Teams
Stan Watson, Quality Control / Special Teams

Offensive Coaching Staff

Of the seven candidates interviewed, was Hue Jackson the correct hire for the Cleveland Browns? What are you expecting from Jackson in his second go-round as an NFL head coach?

Craig: Considering how much of an emphasis the Browns should pay to their future quarterback, it seems like a strong choice. His desire to call his own plays gives me pause, but I am sincerely hoping that Jackson will get a chance to develop his own QB prospect whether it’s someone the Browns draft this season or a reclamation project like Robert Griffin III should he be in the cards.

Joe: Of the seven candidates interviewed, I wanted either Hue Jackson or Matt Patricia. I loved that the Browns got their man and did not wait for the process. They interviewed their candidates and then went all out to get their top choice. I believe Jackson is the right pick because of his success in the league, coaching scheme, personality and experience. He marked almost every box that I wanted the Browns head coach to have. I am expecting success in his second go-round just like the success he had in his first try. He showed that he is a NFL-level head coach. He is now able to tweak and improve upon his first chance by reflecting on what worked and what did not. I am so excited for the Hue Jackson era.

Michael: I have no idea if Hue Jackson was the correct choice at head coach, but his hire certainly injected a positive vibe throughout the fanbase. Such a small victory was huge for Jimmy Haslam and staff given their past two hiring processes. Outside it, I preferred Matt Patricia only due to the fact his background seemed more conducive to the analytical-based organization Haslam is building. The positive on Jackson is he is a proven offensive mind who has previous head coaching experience.

Josh: Although a game hasn’t been played yet — absolutely. He was not only the top candidate out their for the job, but he is familiar with the division and has an offensive mindset, something that will hopefully make the Browns’ offense play better in 2016. I expect that he will not only get the best out of his players, but with prior head coaching experience, he knows what it takes to be successful.

Scott: Given that I was only interested in Matt Patricia because he has a beard and wears his hat backwards with a pen over his ear (HE’S JUST LIKE ME!), I’m completely down with the Hue Jackson hire. I was all about him when the announcement was made, and have only become more so since hearing him speak—and not just in his presser, but to all of the various outlets that have asked him a handful of questions about philosophy and such. I can’t think of any other candidate who would match this let alone surpass it. Now we won’t know if he was the right hire for a few years, but given all of the information we have at this point, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

Will: How Can You Be Sure?

Richard:  I think the best we can say at this point is that this is not a dubious or desperate head-scratching decision. He seems highly respected and has some experience in the top spot. I like that he seems to be a strong leader and a creative thinker about the game. I also like that he’s been able to bring in several other experienced, respected assistants. It may not be entirely rational, but his hire and the other staff-building developments have given me a slight sense of curious optimism.

Is Jackson calling the offensive plays a mistake?

Craig: I won’t go so far as to call it a mistake, but it seems like an unnecessary risk.

Joe: I believe it was the right call for Jackson to call the offensive plays. He is one of the best play callers in the league, so why wouldn’t you want him calling the plays. He has the experience that gives him the perspective to what to expect as a head coach. He knows what he is getting into. He has been a head coach and knows what it takes to be one. His play calling will not be too much for him.

Michael: Calling plays takes constant time and mental energy to navigate the best path forward for the offense. Whoever is calling the offense shouldn’t be paying any attention to the defense because they need to break down the opposition defense during such time. So, yes, I believe it is a mistake unless Jackson is willing to ignore the defense completely. Now, what I think Jackson should do is inject his thoughts into the offensive game-plan throughout the week and even over-ride the play calls at specific times to ensure it is his vision. Bruce Arians takes this approach in Arizona.

Josh: No. Due to the fact that he has previous head coaching experience, Jackson knows what it takes to be a head coach. So if he wants to call his own plays on offense, let him. He also brought in a very good support system, which will only help both him and the team be as successful as they can.

Scott: While I think it’s a bold move, I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather be making those calls. Hiring Ray Horton, Hue Jackson becomes the de facto offensive coordinator anyway. To go a step further, this team effectively has three head coaches, each of whom are in charge of their own domain. It’s sort of like having three aces—they’re all important and carry a lot of weight, but the suit only matters once you need to rank them against one another. If the team wins, there will be little need to do so.

Will: Million Dollar Question

Richard:  Fine with me. He’s going to have strong, experienced people in support positions, so if play-calling is one of his strengths, put it to use. And if he’s around for ten years, he can bring someone along slowly to fill in or take over. Ten years? Did I just say ten years?

Which of the other hired coaches are you most excited about and why?

Craig: Chris Tabor! Stability! In all seriousness I’m excited for Ray Horton round two. I pointed out that Mingo’s rookie year successes occurred with Horton. I’m hoping he can bring these guys around because even though they’re aging, I still believe there’s some talent on this defensive roster. Plus Tashaun Gipson was geeked to have Horton back. I’ll listen to him.

Joe: I am excited about Al Saunders as Senior Assistant. He has so much great experience in the NFL along with a lot of success. He can definitely be a coach who Hue Jackson can lean on. His hire gives the Browns offense another bright mind.

Michael: Hal Hunter is an under-appreciated offensive mind who has done some phenomenal work with offensive lines, running games, and passing games in the past. He was an offensive coordinator for Philip Rivers in San Diego. And, he has held some patchwork offensive lines together for both the Chargers and Indianapolis Colts. His 2015 OL for the Colts was disappointing, but Hunt’s overall 30 years experienced body of work is promising.

Josh: Every single one. This is the first time in a long time that I have actually been excited about who the Browns brought in to lead the team. They may not have the talent at this point and time, but I would say that they do have a good enough coaching staff to eventually be successful.

Scott: Kirby Wilson as “running game coordinator” is awesome because of the completely made up title but because he’s been a part of some serious backfields and I would love for this team to have a consistent, season-long running attack. Couple this with the potential of a rookie quarterback needing a running game to provide him with a floor and Duke Johnson being one of the more electric players on the Browns’ current roster, I’m all about seeing what this guy can do.

Will: The Tourist

Richard:  No one in particular, at least not yet. I’m just looking forward to the first game in 2016. Remember the 2015 opener against the New York Jets? They were clearly unprepared. Lots of penalties. Basic competence is what I’d like to see first before I get too excited.

Defensive Coaching Staff

Is hiring Ray Horton back as DC a smart move by the Browns or will his re-hiring end up like Mike Brown with the Cavs? What did you like and dislike about the Horton defense? What players do you think are going to thrive or be extraneous with Horton at the helm?

Craig: It’s not Mike Brown. It might or might not work, but I think Horton has abilities as a coordinator. I hope he’s here for three years and a chance to build it in his vision.

Joe: I am OK with the hiring of Ray Horton. He did not have great success his first go-round with the Browns, but I am hoping he can use his past to improve upon what he did. I like the pressure Horton’s defense produces. The Browns have not been able to put pressure on the quarterback and so hopefully his defense can create the pressure the unit sorely needs. On the negative side, Horton’s defense puts a lot of pressure on the secondary. He uses a lot of blitzes, which makes the secondary have to play sometimes in single coverage. This can cause big plays to happen. Hopefully the secondary can get healthy to be able to do this with their top talent. I think Paul Kruger could get a boost from this defense, allowing him to be his best self, rushing the passer. On the down side, I think Donte Whitner could struggle in this defense because he will be called upon to cover sometimes man to man, which he has declined at doing because of his advancing age.

Michael: Well, O’Neil’s defense was bad against the run and pass in 2015, plus lacked in turnovers and sacks. So, even if we continue to be bad against the run and pass, but the Horton pressure results in more turnovers and sacks, then it would be an improvement. Truly, I want a great defense, but I’ll settle for an exciting one in the short-term.

Josh: I can’t clearly remember Ray Horton’s first time in Cleveland, but I do like the re-hire. He seems to know what he is doing on the defensive side of the ball and lets be honest, could we get much worse than Jim O’Neil’s at the helm? Either way, hopefully Horton can get the best out of his players that

Scott: I’m a big Horton fan, mostly because I was in Berea the day he unbraided his cornrows and walked around the cafeteria with the biggest ‘fro I’ve ever seen. The down side was that his team was awful in the red zone and cave up so, so many third down conversion that the defense could not get off the field and was toast by the third quarter. I do hope that, over time, this defensive unit can stick with it’s 11-14 best players rather than rotating out like they’re playing hockey. You don’t see J.J. Watt on the sidelines and he goes harder every down than arguably any other player on his side of the ball. In terms of what players? I don’t think I can fairly guess until we see who’s still here once the dust settles. I think there’s going to be a lot of turnover come February 8.

Will: Optimistic

Richard:  After one year in Cleveland I don’t know if I’m able to divorce talent from coaching, and Horton didn’t have the most talented roster to work with here. I did like his aggressiveness and I like the fact that he was a coach in Pittsburgh for three years. As for players, I think their research will tell them to get younger and faster and they’ll be reluctant to sign older free agents.

Are you worried the defensive staff has yet to fill out? Are there any rumored (or non-rumored) coaches who might excite you to see hired onto the defensive staff?

Craig: I’m not concerned. They obviously need to fill the rest of the staff, but they did a nice job aggressively filling all the other important slots on the coaching staff. It’s hard to be disappointed with what they’ve built, you know, on paper.

Joe: I am not really worried that the defense staff is not filled out yet. The name I heard pop up who I would love to get is Mike Singletary. I would love to get his enthusiasm and knowledge in Berea to improve the linebacker corps of the team.

Michael: Honestly, Horton has done a ton of bellyaching in the press (through his agents) about wanting to be a head coach to not have coaches lined up to coach under him immediately. One of a head coaches main jobs is to hire a competent staff. So, he gets leeway if he’s waiting on any Superbowl coaches or National Signing Day (as college coaches often leave en masse after getting kids to sign National Letter’s of Intent), but I want to see him get solid hires to sign on the dotted line soon.

Josh:  It’s only February, there’s no reason to worry.

Scott: Yeah, worrying is silly at any point, let alone February.

Will: Everything in its Right Place

Richard:  Not worried. The main pieces are in place.

Special Teams Coaching Staff

Was it a mistake retaining the same special teams staff? Why is Tabor immune to regime changes?

Craig: Tabes is fine. No reason to switch him out. Even the Browns’ struggles on field goal protection was more a problem with Cam Erving than Tabor.

Joe: I am not a huge fan of Tabor, but I really don’t think his presence as special teams coach is a huge negative. He is a solid coach who has had his ups and downs. Tabor is immune to regime changes because he has a high reputation amongst coaches. I think fans tend to dwell on the big mistakes his units have suffered, while looking past the good he has done as coach like his solid coverage units.

Michael: I was probably the most displeased with special teams of the Browns at WFNY even ahead of the “protection issues,” but Tabor has done a fine job in his years as coach. I have a feeling one of the things I tell my grandkids will be about a coach who stayed on staff despite coach after coach around him being fired.

Josh: It’s special teams, can a coach really change that much? As long as we have a good kicker, punter, and can get down the field in coverage on punts and kicks, I don’t care who the Browns special teams coaches are.

Scott: I’m more impressed than anything. Here’s hoping he’s provided some better players on a fit basis going forward.

Will: Lucky

Richard:  Analytics show that Tabor’s sideline enthusiasm is in the top echelons of the NFL.

Browns Front Office

Paul DePodesta, Chief Strategy Officer
Sashi Brown, Executive Vice President, Football Operations
Andrew Berry, Vice President of Player Personnel

Do you worry about the Harvard Connection replacing the Good Old Boys network on the Browns? How much will the Browns be hurt by their relative lack of scouting experience in key stakeholder roles for the NFL Draft?

Craig: As long as the Harvard guys who aren’t football guys don’t pretend to be able to be scouts, the Browns should be fine. When I worked at an engineering firm, some of the best managers didn’t understand all the engineering. They were process and management experts who could help maintain focus and motivation.

Joe: I do not have one ounce of worry about the Harvard connection. I believe the group just happened to be all from Harvard. Every one of them has a good reputation in the league or professional sports. It is not like the Browns are hiring under qualified people. In terms of the lack of scouting experience, I have a little pause. But, I believe the analytical minds of the top brass will trust the scouts. I think the front office knows their limitations and will rely heavily on the knowledge of the scouts. The top brass will make the final call, but the scouts will get them into position to make the choices possible.

Michael: It is fun. No other way to state it. I love hearing Phil Savage and other anonymous sources whine and complain the Browns are eschewing the old system for something unproven. Even if it fails, then we will have failed trying something new and upsetting the establishment. We have failed in most every other way, so might as well be inventive about it.

Josh: Since the Browns have failed so much recently, why not try this version of an NFL front office. And, we all remember how bad the “Good Old Boys” were at evaluating talent and drafting players, so this new regime can’t get much worse, right? With plenty of time before the draft, the Harvard Connection have plenty of time to figure out what’s going on and who to possibly take in the draft and among free agents. I have a gut-feeling that they won’t do as bad as drafting players like Justin Gilbert and #JFF as some of their top picks.

Scott: Nope. I’m all for it. There are countless financial analysts who didn’t go to school for finance. Instead, they become experts in fields like biochem or insurance or energy and then learn how to layer on the analytical component. To me, it’s easier to teach smart people football than it is to teach football people to be smart.

Will: Fitter Happier

Richard:  I find this new kick-start fascinating. The Good Old Boys for the Browns haven’t been very good at talent evaluation and acquisition for decades, but the Good Old Boys for a few teams have been outstanding. So I don’t think it’s a matter of age or years of experience that make the biggest difference, but rather sound critical thinking and communication skills … knowing the risks to avoid and the probabilities of which to take advantage. The Browns coaching staff is quite experienced and the front office is not, so I get the feeling that communication between the front office and coaches will be very important in these early weeks and months: Establishing a team philosophy, defining it and getting everyone on the same page.

Do you believe the Browns shift to an analytical focus in the front office can pay dividends? Can a football team be run like a baseball team? What are you concerns?

Craig: I do. Joe Banner was onto something with his QB study. Even though Banner led to many other issues, it’s pretty clear that analytics would have kept the Browns focused on Bridgewater and Carr. Seems pretty wise to me.

Joe: I think the analytical focus can definitely pay dividends. Analytics is about using all the information possible to find trends and get advantages. I like when decision-makers use all the information available to come to a conclusion. I think the team will not be run like a baseball team because the statistics are just not as correlated as baseball. The analytics will be used to aid the scouting aspect of football, but will not lead like in baseball. I will only be concerned if the analytics takes over the decision-making over scouting. It is an aid, not a final say.
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Michael: It’s interesting. While analytics can help any industry in a multitude of ways, I am incredibly intrigued to see how the Browns employ it specifically to the football field. Can they find inefficiencies in how other teams are run and exploit them to our advantage? Will that mean scouting, play-calling, cap management, or something else entirely?

Josh: The previous approaches obviously haven’t worked yet, right? Why not try something new that can possibly bring a new side to the sport of football. I believe they’ll be able to change their focus to the football side of things easily, especially since they are very knowledgable. Either way, the Browns are at the bottom, the only direction this current front office can go is up.

Scott: I’m operating under the premise that it can’t get any worse. If analytics create even a modicum of added value, why not? It’s a copycat league and if you’re copying someone else, you’re already doing it wrong,. It seems weird and impossible that the lowly Browns would lead the way in any capacity, but they have a chance to do so. If they still suck three years from now, it won’t be because Paul DePodesta likes numbers.

Will: Paranoid Android

Richard:  I don’t think that analytics is a totally new, revolutionary approach, but rather a tool for improving critical thinking, for measuring and testing assumptions. One of the most intriguing quotes I heard about Paul DePodesta is that he is in the business of testing and questioning conventional wisdom. Music to my ears! The Browns will  obviously need to determine what kind of team they want to be, they’ll need to establish parameters for what kind of players they want and which positions are most important, but I suspect the new Harvard guys will discover in their processes some of the sound principles behind talent evaluation and acquisition and how the historically best teams having been doing it all along. I doubt they can go from 3-13 to 13-3 in one year, so my concern (once again) is that this new crew is given an ample opportunity to establish a sustainable foundation.