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Note to Mike Pettine: Your quarterback will determine your success, not your defense

Jan 27, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi |



The Morning Kickoff …

The matter at hand: Long before new Browns coach Mike Pettine ascended through the NFL ranks as a defensive coordinator, he was a high school quarterback for his dad, a legendary coach, at Central Bucks West in Doylestown, PA.

“My dad was always a guy that fit the system to the players,” Pettine said. “The years I played for him, we didn’t have a big offensive line and we had some pretty good receivers, so we were actually ahead of the curve, spreading the field a little throwing the ball. I was a sprint-out quarterback -- pass-sprint, three-step, and then ran it a little bit.”

That experience will serve him well because Pettine’s new job depends not on defensive concepts but on quarterback play.

Is Mike Pettine a better defensive coach than was Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel or Eric Mangini? I doubt it. Those former Browns head coaches could draw up defensive schemes with the best of them. Their defensive acumen isn’t why they didn’t win.

The No. 1 task of an NFL head coach in this era is to identify his quarterback, form a productive relationship with him, and win with him.

Start with this year’s Super Bowl teams – John Fox and Peyton Manning (Denver), Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson (Seattle).

Other notable defensive-specialist head coaches and their winning quarterbacks: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady (New England), Chuck Pagano and Andrew Luck (Indianapolis), Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh), Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton (Cincinnati), Ron Rivera and Cam Newton (Carolina), Mike Smith and Matt Ryan (Atlanta).

All those coaches were fine coaches who could draw up the right defenses with the best of them. Yet every one of them is totally dependent on his quarterback for job security.

Why defense?: Joe Banner always favored offense over defense, but you can be sure that his analytics department noted that both Super Bowl coaches this year and three of the four finalists were from the defensive side.

“If we were going to go with a defensive coach this year, we wanted to make sure it was somebody who had an aggressive mindset,” Banner said.

The stereotype of the defensive-minded head coach is our very own Marty Schottenheimer, of course. Martyball was a combination of power running, converservative play-calling and “prevent” defense with a three-point lead.

Pettine vows not to fall into that.

“I’ve seen defensive coaches that become head coaches make that mistake (of being conservative),” Pettine said. “We want to play great defense, but at the same time, I don’t want to feel like, ‘Hey, it’s the AFC North, it’s gonna be low scoring, it’s bad weather …’

“The object of the game is to score points, outscore your opponent. You want to build as high-powered an offense as you can and then have the ability when you have a lead to throttle it back. Again, I think Belichick is the model for that philosophy -- defensive head coach, one of the greatest defensive minds this game has seen, yet he is known more for his high-scoring offenses. I think he’s used his expertise to help the other side of the ball.”

Pettine is in the midst of a search for an offensive coordinator. The guy he chooses may be a tip-off to the Browns’ draft intentions at quarterback. Then again, the quarterback the Browns choose is far more important than the coordinator.

The 21st quarterback: Whether or not Brian Hoyer begins the 2014 season as the Browns’ starting quarterback, Pettine’s future likely depends on the selection of the next quarterback – No. 21 on the long list of Browns’ starters since 1999.

Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner were fired ostensibly because Banner lost confidence in their ability to choose the next Browns’ quarterback. Both leaned toward the traditional pocket passer. Banner and GM Mike Lombardi favor the mobile quarterback schooled in the college spread offenses in vogue.

Pettine said, “I think there’s a lot of different ways to get it done. I think you have to have some flexibility in your system and I think you have to build around what your quarterback can do. If he has some running ability, I think you have to take advantage of it. If he doesn’t, I think you need to build it where he can get the ball out of his hand quick.

“In today’s NFL, you’re seeing more and more use of the mobile quarterback – Russell Wilson, (Colin) Kaepernick, EJ Manuel. I think trends in football rise. I think a lot of the college stuff is getting to the NFL. But I think you can win both ways. So that’s gonna be a long, hard discussion with the offensive staff, how we want to build it and also look at what quarterbacks are available and have the flexibility in the system that whoever we take, we’re limited in what we can do because of him. We need to tailor what our package is based on his strengths.”

Pettine said that as a defensive coordinator, the threat of a quarterback running with the ball always consumed his game-planning.

“We had to waste a lot of time in practice, we had to waste meeting time, we had to devote a lot of time in our walk-throughs to handling the zone read, then throwing the bubble (screen) if the offenses saw the run being defended,” he said. “Those are things that take a lot of time to defend properly.

“So on offense if there’s at least the threat of that, I call it body punches, where you’ll never know the affect it has on a defense. There’s a limited amount of practice time in today’s NFL. If you can force a defense to prepare on some of those things that are different, that are unique, and take that time – whether it’s wildcat, zone read, option – that defense has to spend half the time preparing for 10 percent of your package, then you’ve done something to be successful.”

I don’t know if Pettine got it in writing to have a say in the quarterback the Browns draft. I do know the next quarterback will have more to say about his tenure here than blitz schemes, run fits and man-press coverages.


Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and

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

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi




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