Browns, WWW

The future rests on the right coaching decision now: While We’re Waiting

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Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

It just occurred to me that we are just one week from Christmas. With both Christmas and New Year falling on Tuesdays, this will be my final WWW of 2018. So, let me first wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Holidays!

It’s weird to be writing a year-end post and the Browns not being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. I think most of us have been pleasantly surprised with the way the team has played since removing Hue Jackson and Todd Haley. I know I sure didn’t see any of this coming. As much as I wanted Hue gone, I didn’t think Gregg Williams and Freddie Kitchens were going to salvage the season.

I said the Browns aren’t mathematically eliminated, but they are virtually eliminated. The most unlikely of all scenarios have to happen for Cleveland to get into the playoffs. So we can just assume the Browns are not going to be in the playoffs1. The question then turns to the future. And the most immediate question for the Browns for once isn’t “Which QB should we take in the draft?”. Rather, the question now is “Who should coach the Browns next season?”.

There are so many layers when evaluating possible scenarios for this question that it can make the head spin. When Williams was named the interim coach, nobody expected there to be any danger of him removing that interim tag. Williams has been a football lifer. He got a brief taste of head coach life when he got the job with the Buffalo Bills in 2001. In 2002, the Bills acquired Drew Bledsoe and went 8-8. After falling back to 6-10 the following year, Williams’ contract expired and he was not kept on.

Williams bounced around as Defensive Coordinator for several teams before landing in New Orleans where he helped turn around the Saints defense and win the 2009 Super Bowl. However, Williams would clash with Saints’ head coach Sean Payton and when the NFL’s “Bounty Gate” investigation was revealed, Williams was fired. He originally signed with the Rams to be their DC, but the NFL instead suspended him indefinitely for the Bounty Gate scandal.

When Williams was reinstated by the NFL, the Rams’ coach Jeff Fisher claimed he never would have hired Williams had he known about the Bounty Gate scandal. In other words, Williams did not have a job waiting for him. He would bounce around again a bit for a few years until Fisher ultimately did hire him back with the Rams in 2014. When Fisher was fired in 2016, his entire staff was also fired, including Williams.

It just so happened that Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson had just fired his defensive coordinator, Ray Horton. With a job open, and Williams available, the two sides agreed and Williams was officially the DC of the Cleveland Browns. It was far from a match made in heaven, though.

After a season of uneven results, many were unhappy with Williams’ defense in 2017 as the Browns went 0-16. Halfway through the 2018 season, Hue Jackson was fired along with offensive coordinator Todd Haley and thus, Williams was named interim head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

I mention all of this history for one reason only. It’s to illustrate just how unlikely Williams’ success as head coach this season has been and how incredibly unlikely it would have been for him to keep the job. Williams has bounced around the NFL and been a spark for controversy. Bounty Gate is the most famous, but Williams’ clashes with Payton in New Orleans were legendary, with Payton reportedly claiming that Williams was uncontrollable.

His performance as a coach has been uneven, too. As head coach of the Bills, he didn’t do much to inspire confidence. He’s had good years as DC, but just as many bad years. You don’t coach as long as Gregg Williams has if you’re a terrible coach. I’m not saying he was bad in any way. Just that he doesn’t have the resume of what you would look for when hiring a new coach in 2019 to watch over your prized young franchise QB.

But here we are, the Browns sit at 4-2 under Williams’ watch after going 3-36-1 under Hue Jackson. The players seem to enjoy playing for Williams as he’s able to leverage their “us against the world” mentality. For so long we, as Browns fans, have wondered when the players would get fed up with all the losing and turmoil and get mad about it. That seems to have finally happened with Williams perhaps the perfect coach to harness that energy.

Yet you have to wonder if he’s really the right guy for the job long term. How long until that energy is no longer needed and the focus needs to be instead on innovation, development, and winning? Furthermore, how much of the success belongs to Williams anyway? What if Freddie Kitchens and Baker Mayfield deserve more of the credit?

Speaking of Kitchens, in Peter King’s Football Morning in America column this week, he spent a good portion of it highlighting people gushing about Kitchens.

Kitchens has coached under Gene Stallings, Nick Saban, and Bill Parcells. Not a bad way to build a resume and gain experience. His ideas on offense have been a revelation for the Browns’ offense. The offensive line, which seemed like it couldn’t protect to save its life for the first part of the season has suddenly been put in a position where it can find some degree of success. The offense overall looks fresh, innovative, and confusing to defenses. All hallmarks of what you want in a coach today, as King notes:

“Make the defense think, and even the fastest and most instinctive defenders have to pause. “Freddie might be the Sean Payton of 13 years ago, when he got hired by New Orleans,” [Dan] Orlovsky said.

“I know this: You have to have creativity to create confusion, and maybe hesitation, for the defense in this game today,” Kitchens told me. “So the team we’re gonna play next week is gonna have to work on a lotta stuff we won’t even have in the game plan.”

Kitchens sounds exactly like the kind of coach teams in a coaching search should investigate. Everyone’s looking for the next Payton, the next Sean McVay. Could it be the barrel-chested Alabamian who, despite never having been a coordinator before, has turned the Cleveland offense into must-see TV in his seven weeks on the job?”

It seems obvious that Kitchens is a guy the Browns need to keep. Keeping Williams is a way to keep Kitchens, presumably. But perhaps so would hiring Bruce Arians. As WFNY’s John Colosimo pointed out, Arians could be the perfect coach to foster some continuity while having an established, experienced coach in place. If Arians is truly fine with not calling plays and letting Kitchens run the show on offense, it’s an attractive option.

Furthermore, with Arians being older and not necessarily a long-term option, he could be keeping the seat warm until Kitchens is ready to move up. When you hear people compare Kitchens to names like Payton and McVay, it’s hard not to get excited and it makes it that much more important that he’s given a chance to develop in Cleveland as a coach.

But what if another big name coach wants the job? One who wouldn’t necessarily keep Kitchens around. Imagine if Lincoln Riley really does want to coach Mayfield again and wants the Browns job. He would be highly unlikely to keep Kitchens. It would disrupt continuity. But it would also give the Browns one of the brightest coaches, one that is reportedly being coveted by several NFL teams.

And what if Browns GM John Dorsey feels an obligation to Gregg Williams? What if he feels Williams has done enough to warrant a shot at keeping the job? What if the Browns want Williams to stay as DC and not head coach? Would Williams be ok with moving back down to DC under a different coach? Would a new coach be comfortable with the guy who the team just had some degree of success with still being on the staff under him? These are all the many questions that have to be looked at.

The Browns coaching job will probably never be more attractive than it is right now. This makes it hard to give the job to an interim coach without opening the search for interviews. There are so many layers and levels to this situation. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how it plays out. The last offseason was about landing the franchise QB. This offseason will be about finding the right guy to lead the franchise with said QB. If Dorsey makes the move right here, there’s no telling how bright the future of the Cleveland Browns might be.

  1. Prove me wrong, karma/fate! []