This front office never wanted Rob Chudzinski.
Looking back at the situation, Chudzinski was simply the right hire at the right time for the Browns, but he was never meant to be the coach of the future. He was meant to be the scapegoat, the guy who warmed the seat for the coach in waiting and then took the fall after a less-than-impressive evaluation year. The Browns brass had one key objective this season and it wasn't wins. It was to see which offensive players would be worth keeping as the team moves on to its future, a future without Rob Chudzinski.
There was a plan all along, and it wasn't what fans were lead to believe. In order to see the pattern, you have to take a step back and look. Let's start from the beginning.
"We want an individual who is a head coach, who is a strong leader, who's tough because this is a tough business, but also is smart, very organized, has great attention to detail and is aggressive. That's the kind of football team we want to have, and candidly, I think it's the kind of individuals we are."
-Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, 12/31/11
After firing Pat Shurmur, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam stated the next head coach would be a "strong leader" that would bring stability to the franchise. The front office set their sights on then Oregon Ducks head coach Chip Kelly and flew to Arizona to meet with the offensive innovator. Things didn't go through as planned with Kelly, however. On January 5th, after a seven-hour dinner, reports were leaked that Kelly was close to signing a deal with the Cleveland Browns. On January 6th, however, Kelly was removed from consideration from the head coaching job. While waiting on Kelly, the Browns lost out on their fallback, former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone, who signed with the Buffalo Bills on January 6th.
During this span, rumors were swirling that Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was the next favorite for the head coaching vacancy if Michael Lombardi was to become the next Cleveland Browns General Manager. McDaniels, widely lauded as an offensive guru, failed in his first attempt at head coach, compiling an 11-17 record as the Denver Broncos head coach before being fired with four games remaining in the 2010 NFL season. However, Haslam wanted to hire a head coach before they addressed the General Manager position which quickly extinguished the fire behind the McDaniels rumors. McDaniels, when asked, said he wasn't planning on leaving New England and that he would take his name out of consideration. The Browns found their head coach shortly thereafter in Rob Chudzinski and then added Michael Lombardi as General Manager only a week later.
These are the facts. Now, for the speculation.
"The top quality in a coach that we're going to look for going forward is somebody with some really strong dynamic leadership. I think there was also an element of feeling the need to kind of maybe create a fresh energy and a fresh start. Sometimes something new, even if it's not any better, can create that kind of momentum and energy so I think it was things like that."
-Cleveland Browns CEO Joe Banner, 12/31/12
Josh McDaniels, in all actuality, wanted the Cleveland job, but he didn't want to have to struggle through an evaluation year without a quarterback nor did he want to add another losing season to his resume. So McDaniels, knowing that Lombardi was going to eventually be named GM, declined an interview and claimed to be happy in his position at New England. Behind the scenes, however, he spoke with Lombardi about being interested in the job, and told him that he would take it in 2014 if it were available. Lombardi brought this information to Banner and Haslam and, together, they formed a plan.
(To really get the Ocean's Eleven-eqsue feel, it helps to read the following in George Clooney's voice)
For this plan to work, they'd need the right coach. They'd need a coach that the fans would like but also wouldn't be too shocked to see fired. After interviewing big-name prospects and claiming that the organization would bring in a coach the fans could be proud of, the philosophy suddenly switched. Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner went from entertaining the likes of Chip Kelly during seven-hour long marathon dinners to cranking out a series of a quick interviews with relatively mediocre, no-name coordinators.
After a string of such interviews, they stumbled across Rob Chudzinski, a homegrown boy and lifelong Cleveland Browns fan who just wanted an opportunity to coach his dream job. Chud, an offensive coordinator, had experienced some success in Cleveland previously, leading the Browns to a 10-win season as offensive coordinator and helping Browns quarterback Derek Anderson earn a Pro Bowl nod, the only one of his career. If there was anything to be gotten out of Brandon Weeden, Chudzinski would find it and bring it out of him.
The situation presented itself perfectly. Chudzinski just wanted a shot to coach his Cleveland Browns and the front office wanted a guy that could get whatever there was out of this roster and then take the fall for a less-than-stellar evaluation season, leading the way for Josh McDaniels to come in and start getting immediate wins.
The Trent Richardson trade was perfect.
Richardson's style of running isn't a fit in McDaniels' scheme. Knowing this, Cleveland turned Richardson into extra draft ammunition and set themselves up to make a move for a franchise quarterback in the 2014 NFL Draft. They replaced Richardson with a 32-year old back who's best days are behind him and supplemented him with a stable of practice squad caliber players. The fact that Richardson has gone on to perform equally as mediocre in Indianapolis is only icing on the cake. Lombardi knew Richardson wasn't going to be a good fit in McDaniels scheme and the Colts were offering a first round pick. He was able to set up his coach while subtly sabotaging Chudzinski, killing two birds with one stone.
Cleveland spent 4 of their 5 draft picks on defensive players in the 2013 NFL Draft. They acquired defensive coordinator Ray Horton, brought in pass-rushers Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves and ended up finishing the season as a top-10 ranked defense. Granted, the defense was responsible for it's fair share of losses, but overall the defense is stacked with talent and headed by a successful coordinator with a decorated resume. McDaniels will inherit this strong defense, which is one less thing he has to worry about as a head coach. The Denver Broncos defense finished last in the league in 2010 under McDaniels, giving up nearly 400 yards per game. Building a strong defense for McDaniels to inherit was just another step in Lombardi's master plan.
Josh McDaniels knows the value of having a talented quarterback. Having coached Tom Brady for seven years, McDaniels has seen firsthand what it takes to be a successful quarterback in the NFL. One look at the Cleveland Browns roster last year shows they were clearly lacking in that department. The 2013 NFL Draft class was weak in terms of NFL ready quarterbacks, with most quarterbacks given second-fourth round grades. McDaniels wasn't going to come in and take over with Brandon Weeden as his starting quarterback. He wanted his guy but his guy was, at the time, still ineligible to play in the NFL.
Johnny Manziel is a perfect McDaniels quarterback. He's a polarizing player with a big name and an even bigger reputation. He's Drew Brees but with one more Heisman, two times the cockiness and three times the hype coming out of college. According to nearly all analysts, Manziel's best fit in the NFL is in a spread offense, which happens to be the scheme McDaniels adheres to. He is the dual-threat player that McDaniels likes and has the potential to be the game-changing player that Cleveland hasn't seen in the past two decades. He just wasn't available last season and, as previously stated, McDaniels wasn't going to suffer through a year of having Brandon Weeden.
This hinges on Johnny Football turning into a franchise-caliber quarterback, of course. Knowing the NFL as he does, Lombardi wasn't willing to place all his chips on one player. So Lombardi hedged his bets and brought in Brian Hoyer, the quarterback he's been claiming all along to have starting caliber potential. Brian Hoyer, while never being coached by Josh McDaniels, is well-versed in the New England offense, serving as Tom Brady's backup for three years in New England. In case Johnny Football fails, or if it takes him longer to learn the playbook than anticipated, Brian Hoyer will be there to pick up the slack. Once again, Lombardi looks like a genius.
The Cleveland Browns lead the league in pass attempts per game (42.6), which is out of the ordinary for a Rob Chudzinski offense. Carolina, under Chudzinski, never finished above 22nd in pass attempts per game, throwing the ball roughly 30 times per game every season.
However, the Denver Broncos were top ten in the league in pass attempts in both seasons under McDaniels.
In order to get a real evaluation for their future coach, the Browns had to emulate McDaniel's offense as closely as they could. This meant passing early and often, even if it was contrary to the philosophies of Turner and Chudzinski.
McDaniels will inherit an offense that features four Pro-Bowl players, all of which under 30 years old - left tackle Joe Thomas, center Alex Mack, tight end Jordan Cameron, and wide receiver Josh Gordon.
Cleveland has seven picks in the first four rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft that McDaniels can use to acquire his franchise quarterback, a second wide receiver, a slashing runningback, and a bookend right tackle.
It seems highly unlikely that the current regime would possess the foresight to pull of such an in-depth feat. It's more likely that they are just going against their word and making panic moves. However, if there is anything to this elaborate plan and they are, in fact, able to pull it off, it would go down in history as one of the greatest moves in the history of the Cleveland Browns.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, they're Cleveland.