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Where does the Browns' coaching search go from here?

Jan 07, 2013 -- 6:00am

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By Tony Grossi

The Morning Kickoff …

The spin is in: Did Chip Kelly over-play his hand or play it brilliantly?

The out-of-the-box Oregon coach was wined and dined by the Browns and Philadelphia Eagles in Arizona over the weekend for seven hours and nine, respectively. Both teams returned empty-handed.

Kelly reportedly is taking back his state-of-the-art offensive concepts to Oregon, where he no doubt will receive a big pay raise from NIKE chairman and unofficial Ducks team owner Phil Knight.

The fact that the Browns did not lose Kelly to the Eagles takes owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner off the hook, to some degree. But the fact is they singled out Kelly as the coach to fast-tempo the Browns into the 21st Century.  

When they realized Kelly was slipping away, the Browns hurriedly conducted a second interview with Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, whom they reportedly liked as a fallback choice. By the next morning, the Browns lost Marrone, too. He signed with the Buffalo Bills.

During the week, another coach of interest to the Browns whom they interviewed, Bill O’Brien, took himself out of the running and returned to Penn State.

Failing to land Kelly may not be as bad as Mike Holmgren finishing second in the sweepstakes for Robert Griffin III a year ago. But the realities are the same. If not RG3, then who? Brandon Weeden? And if not Kelly, then who?

The Lombardi factor: Each of the top three candidates – Kelly, O’Brien and Marrone -- was linked to Mike Lombardi, the NFL Network analyst who is hoping to parlay his friendship with Banner into a position in Banner’s fledgling football operations department.

Lombardi has forged relationships with all three coaches. The fact that all three were among the Browns’ earliest and most serious interviews suggests that Lombardi was actually driving the coaching search.

At the same time, Banner has held off on formally interviewing GM or player personnel candidates because he and Haslam said getting the coach was the first priority and then “the other pieces will fall into place.”

Haslam also said of the coach and personnel executive, “I do think it’s extremely important for the two individuals to be locked at the hip.”

Thus, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the plan was for Lombardi to come along in a package deal if either one of his three recommended college coaches became the Browns’ final choice.

Failing to deliver Kelly, O’Brien or Marrone should cause Haslam to rethink a future role for Lombardi. The owner and Banner are aware of the PR problems Lombardi presents as a result of his history with the old Browns organization in the 1990s. It would be far easier to slide Lombardi through the back door while Browns fans were rejoicing about the arrival of, say, Kelly. But now?

Further, Lombardi has a better chance of being embraced by a college coach with whom he has a strong relationship than an established NFL coach who may have a different opinion of him based on Lombardi’s sordid histories with his former teams. Art Shell, for one, is not likely to give Lombardi a favorable reference.

Lombardi still may have a hole card to play. If Haslam doesn’t find his coach soon, there is a chance the Browns could try to convince New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to change his mind and leave the Patriots. Lombardi has frequently lauded McDaniels as a future great coach in his media platforms.

Where do the Browns go from here?: Reportedly, the Browns intend to interview Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who was Butch Davis’ coordinator in 2001 through 2004; and Marc Trestman, the Bernie Kosar-era Browns assistant who reinvented himself in the Canadian Football League and coached the Montreal Alouettes to two Grey Cup championships and a 59-31 record in five seasons.

They could re-interview Arizona defensive coordinator Ray Horton and fired Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt.

They may also dip into the standard pool of NFL assistant coaches, which includes Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer of Cincinnati, Mike McCoy of Denver and Greg Roman of San Francisco.

Haslam also could fly down to south Florida today and make a final pitch to Alabama’s Nick Saban after the BCS Championship Game. I’m told Saban isn’t budging, but Haslam might try again.

Failing all that, the Browns could reverse course and consider hiring a reputable personnel executive first and then lean on him to extend the coaching search.

Unless Saban changes his mind, or Haslam has a plan to lure Bill Cowher out of semi-retirement, there doesn’t appear to be another head coach candidate strong enough to lead his football team and the personnel department both.

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 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

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