By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The firing of Browns first-year coach Rob Chudzinski blindsided the players, media and fans on Sunday night.
But like the trade of running back Trent Richardson in September – the first defining moment of this regime -- the decision was discussed at length internally and was made with conviction. In the end, neither Chudzinski nor his coordinators were as stunned as everyone else.
Sources inside the organization told ESPN Cleveland that owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner arrived at the decision prior to Sunday’s 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Nothing that happened in the game was going to save Chudzinski’s job, a source confirmed.
As late as November, Banner was singing the praises of Chudzinski for keeping the team together during a difficult stretch of quarterback injuries and other unforeseen circumstances, such as the Richardson trade.
But as the losses mounted, friction escalated between management and the coaches.
The coaches became unsatisfied with the front office’s response to holes in the roster. For example, management wanted to blend in more younger players and expected the coaches to get them up to speed. When the toll of additional injuries taxed the roster, Chudzinski was expected to win with a threadbare roster.
A case in point was the quick de-activation of cornerback Chris Owens on injured reserve to give playing time to rookie draft pick Leon McFadden, whom the coaches had buried on the bench. Owens later asked for his release once he was medically cleared from a knee injury and was signed by the Miami Dolphins.
There were disagreements between Chudzinski and General Manager Mike Lombardi, though Banner regarded them as healthy and not out of line.
Other smaller issues arose. At one point, Chudzinski was urged by Banner to “shake up” the locker room by cutting wide receiver Greg Little or guard Shawn Lauvao. Chudzinski declined, and that was interpreted as Chudzinski not holding players accountable for their failings.
In recent weeks, a disagreement arose about a future role for receivers coach Scott Turner, the son of coordinator Norv Turner. Chudzinski, a source said, wanted to switch Turner to running backs coach. Norv Turner objected and the brushfire became another strike against Chudzinski.
Ultimately, the reasoning behind the dismissal was summed up in the following sentence from the team’s official statement announcing the firing at 9:35 Sunday night:
“We needed to see development and improvement as the season evolved and, unfortunately, we took a concerning step backward in the second half of the year.”
The losses – seven in a row, nine out of the last 10 and 12 overall – reduced Chudzinski’s credibility to almost zero. Haslam, said one source, was furious with the loss to the New York Jets. He felt the players quit on the coach that afternoon.
“The team not only didn’t improve, it got worse,” said an organization source. “That’s very unusual for a first-year coach and staff.”
The fact that every first-year staff in the NFL had a better record than the Browns – Jacksonville’s was the same 4-12 and included a win in Cleveland – was a death blow to Chudzinski’s tenure.
The bad PR stemming from firing a coach after only one season did not faze Haslam and Banner.
When they explain their decision at a press conference Monday, they will recite recent examples of coaches being one and done -- seven since 2000 -- most recently Jacksonville’s Mike Mularkey after a 2-14 season in 2012, Oakland’s Hue Jackson after 8-8 in 2011 and Seattle’s Jim Mora after 5-11 in 2009.
Before the firing became official, team leaders, such as Joe Thomas and D’Qwell Jackson, reacted angrily to questions about Chudzinski’s future after the game. An organization source said player reaction was “a concern,” but that the new coach would be tasked with reinstalling confidence and unity.
As for potential successors, Penn State’s Bill O’Brien and New England assistant Josh McDaniels have been mentioned in several media quarters. Both have strong associations with Lombardi, who was extremely influential in last year’s search despite not being officially introduced to the media until eight days after Chudzinski was named coach.
O’Brien was interviewed by the Browns in January, which helped him receive a new contract from Penn State. O’Brien is considered a favorite for the vacancy with the Houston Texans, but the team has said it will interview other candidates.
The Browns have to comply with NFL rules by interviewing a minority candidate. It’s possible that defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who auditioned for head coach last year, will receive another interview to comply with the rule.
Otherwise, it is expected that Chudzinski’s assistant staff will be released after exit interviews Monday morning.
How will Haslam and Banner deal with fan outrage over the quick hook given to Chudzinski while they profess to favor continuity and stability?
One clue was contained in the team’s official statement on Chudzinski’s firing.
In part it read: "Our fans deserve to see a consistently competitive team. We have high standards, and there's an urgency for success. When we believed we were not positioned to achieve significant progress in 2014, we knew we had to admit that a change was needed, and move forward.”
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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