Up to this point, Rob Chudzinski has flown well below the radar screen with the Browns fans. That is about to change as we approach our next minicamp and the focus turns more clearly to the team. Needless to say the Browns fans and media have had so much to worry about off the field they have had little chance to look elsewhere. The curmudgeon (as I affectionately call him), Joe Banner, has taken the heat off Chud in this early phase of the new Browns regime. Our owner has also done a great job of assisting in keeping the focus off Chudzinski. Now I personally wish he had chosen another path to do that but what do I know?
In my Browns draft analysis (thank you to the hundreds who read that) I outlined why we, as fans, have solid reasons to distrust the front office as we enter this newest “reboot” of the “new” Browns history. Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi, Jimmy Haslam and everyone above Chudzinski now must prove their worth for the fans to get behind them. Haslam has the additional burden of just staying out of jail and/or remaining the owner of the team. This was not how I, and I suspect most of you, expected things to go as the initial burst of enthusiasm with our new owner sizzled through the atmosphere. We expected a solid owner beyond reproach with an unbridled enthusiasm for the Browns and flair for success. His status began to stutter as he started “his” Browns with the hiring of Joe Banner. Adding Mike Lombardi simply added to the skepticism as did his abrupt “departure” from the Browns because of his “love” for Pilot Flying J. All of this happened even before the bombshell hit with the FBI raid, which we all now know likely prompted Haslam’s shift of focus. So any “free pass” that existed for all of them drifted away as easily as a tumbleweed in a windy old Texas town. We now root for all of them to overcome their obstacles and succeed because it is our only option as fans.
Rob Chudzinski and the team is the only logical way for the Browns to start to wash away the dirt and cleanse the organization. We all know that it is the wins and losses on the field that ultimately determines their success or failure. So Chudzinski sets in the unenviable position of being the only logical redemption for the rocky and perilous start of the Joe Banner era and the easiest one for him to blame if things don’t go well. He has a proven Head Coach standing right below him running the Browns offense and a defensive coordinator that might be a bit more committed to his rise up the coaching ranks then the Brown’s success. Now don’t misunderstand my intentions in pointing out the obvious, this all could work out fabulously! But to think the Toledo St. John’s graduate will get a free pass because he was a lifelong Browns fan and Ohioan is unrealistic and flies in the face of the obvious organizational stress created by Haslam and Banner. My point here is that even the fans can not ignore how critical Chudzinski’s performance is to their hopes and dreams about the Browns not just in 2013 but beyond.
In my opinion, Rob Chudzinski is a good person and football man. He has all the street cred in Cleveland to be a thunderous success. Ohioan, Brown’s fan, successful player at Miami University, and a proven assistant coach on the professional level. He is clearly all business and has every incentive possible to be a success with the Browns. That is a great script going into this job. However, those high expectations often have the opposite effect in a town that is starved for a winner and craves redemption for itself. Now in my mind Cleveland needs no redemption, but I think the stress of the “Cleveland Curse” affects all fans and how they view their teams even if they choose to deny it. So as we analyze in advance this backdrop for Chud, it becomes clear why a free pass is not only unlikely but virtually impossible. This is especially true because the Browns still dominate the hearts and minds of Cleveland sports fans despite their recent long run of futility.
Now let’s take a brief look at the 2013 Browns and see how this all will, and should, fall in Chud’s lap. First and foremost among Brown’s fans is the QUARTERBACK position. As I have sat as a season ticket holder ever since the reboot of the Browns, I am amazed still at how much fury and anger and rare cheers are raised by the quarterback position. I have NEVER sat in the stands where the starting quarterback has been even supported by the majority of the fans. Now I have often heard the backup quarterback touted as the answer but rarely the starter. It is almost as if we as fans set up a self-fulfilling prophesy about the Browns quarterback position. Although I personally believe this has been caused by more than the actual player picked for the position, it is a fact that we have never had a quarterback that was successful enough to quell the hoards of naysayers. So therein lies Chud’s nearly insurmountable problem. Find a quarterback that can lead your team to victory. So what does he have to work with? An aging second year player that is talented but unproven learning a new system that is apparently not an easy one to master. An aging veteran player who has a fair number of NFL starts under his belt but never a track record of proven success. A third year player who has been third string QB his entire career and barely whiffed the field as a starter late last year. WOW. Now that is something to be really excited about! If we all agree that the quarterback position is the most important player in today’s NFL, this looks to me like a setup for failure.
But, despite the fact that the odds are stacked against him, Chudzinski can prevail and come out of this as a savior instead of a failure. The key for him is making the right choice of the limited options and designing the offense that can play best to the strengths of the “winner”. This is not exactly the same for each player available. I will not go into the analysis of each quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses but we all know Weeden isn’t very mobile, doesn’t like to drop back, does not throw accurately on the run, but has a big arm. So with all this in mind, it is no wonder that Chud has wisely withheld the naming of his starting quarterback. The reasons are simple. He does not know who his starter should or will be. I am certain he has an idea in his head but is intelligent enough to know he needs to see them on the field, in pads, and hitting. This means that he might not name his starter even going into the preseason. We all know that this will rile the media and ignite the fans. This, in turn, intensifies the focus on the single most important decision in Chud’s young head coaching career. Since this has been the refrain of Browns fans and media ever since the ousting of Kosar by the now “genius” coach Bill Belichick, I see no reason for it to change under Chudzinski.
So instead of analyzing the team’s “keys to success” for winning a ball game, let’s look at the keys to success for Chudzinski to succeed in this most important decision:
1) Pick the right guy !! With the limited options and variables, not an easy task. Look at the best choice for the ENTIRE season instead of the safest choice for the first few games. It takes great skill to predict success going forward. Good luck.
2) Avoid the stupidity of our previous head coach and design the offense from game one specifically for the strengths of your choice.
3) Leverage the brilliance you have on your staff for offensive innovation, Norv Turner, to the utmost! Never let your ego get in the way of making the right decision even if it did not come from you.
4) Coach your choice “up” once you make it and stick by him until it is clear you were wrong. Your best chance to succeed is building the confidence of whomever you choose instead of breaking it down hoping for the “toughness” of your choice to overcome your negativity.
5) Deflect and parry the stones and swords that will come from the media with even the slightest failure. They are relentless, you need to be as well.
6) If your choice CLEARLY does not work hard enough to learn what you and Norv are trying to teach or exert the leadership necessary to lead your team, change your choice before changing point number 4 above. In other words, always follow point number 4 but change quarterback’s quickly when you are proven wrong.
7) If you ever need to change your choice by way of injury or your free will, redesign the offense to reflect that change immediately. Might be good to design one for each choice and save it in your archives, you never know who you will have next.
Now if Chud makes that choice right and follows the “keys to success” above, there is still no guarantee that his offense will resemble anything more than a 3 and out wonder. So now he needs to turn to the rest of the offensive cards he has been dealt. Now returning to our front office, it is clear they decided to let the offense “rot” in it’s own pot by barely stirring the soup on the stove.
It is well known that Chudzinski and Norm’s offenses have often featured the tight end. Well, we got two back-up players in free agency and have one remaining that probably can catch but will not scare anyone as a blocker. That is a very weak group from which to choose and play. Maybe they will surprise us, but I am not holding my breath on that one. So again Chud needs to rely on his and Norm’s innovation and ability to redesign to strengths. The addition of Bess is a big one considering his success in third down conversions. Often that territory is reserved for the tight end in Chud’s offenses. In this offense, there will need to be more emphasis on slot and wide receiver conversions of third downs. He can succeed with this, but it will not be easy unless Cameron can really blossom this year.
The wide receiver corps, in my view, is the deepest and best we have had since before 1999. The off season additions of Nelson and Bess compliment the more explosive and raw talent of Little, Gordon and Benjamin. We have other pieces and parts with quality at that position as well in Norwood and Cooper but I think the numbers game will make it tough for both of these players to make the team or be a significant factor in the offense. This position should work out fairly well for Chud.
The offensive line, clearly the strength of the offense, still has significant deficiencies that were not effectively addressed in the draft. We are not a very good “run blocking” team up the middle. Our guards seem more suited to pass protection and mobility blocking schemes. They also don’t really have the feet for a true “pulling” offense even though they seem better in space than power blocking. This is a significant problem for Chudzinski because they can not use Richardson to their advantage in borderline pass/run third downs. Again, this is often the area for a quality tight end to come through, but that does not seem available right now. So the deficiency at guard will be one that I thinks tugs the offense down throughout the year. I just hope it is not a poisonous problem. Greco did look decent and hopefully Pinkston can come back strong, but I have little hope for Lauvao who I think is simply waiting for a better player to come along.
I have absolutely no concern about Richardson who has the ability to be a dominant back in the NFL. I just hope that Chudzinski recognizes that Richardson, despite his size and toughness, runs better in space like a scat back instead of plowing up the middle like a fullback. The effective use of Richardson, not on display in 2012 because of injuries and offensive scheme paralysis, will be the key to any success Chud might have with this offense. He had better make the decisions correct in this area as he must with the quarterback.
So, when we add up all the ingredients left out of the soup for Chudzinski and Turner, it becomes clear that this will be a monumental task for this brain trust to develop an effective and efficient offense. Without that, Horton’s aggressive and gambling defense will turn a possible strength of the team into a huge liability. Horton’s defense will score and turn the ball over more than previous versions for the Browns, but it will result in big scoring plays for the opposition when the players can not execute precisely. That makes it critical for the offense to be reliable, ball controlling, and effective.
In the end, the responsibility of making all of this work is the head coach. The Browns fans and media have no incentive to give the “Haslam/Banner” era 5 more years to succeed. They don’t need to necessarily make the playoffs but they need to show huge improvement in scoring and wins to succeed in 2013. Anything less will be another dismal failure and some nails in Chudzinski’s coffin. Banner will decide if the nails are enough to close it and the Browns fans won’t have enough energy to pry open the lid.