Another year, another overhaul for the Cleveland Browns, who started the 2019 season with hope of an epic turnaround but ended it in search of a new coach and a new general manager … again.
Given that more or less every call I made or text I sent this week had something to do with the NFL’s coaching carousel, I wanted to make this week’s column a collection of things I’m hearing from various sources about the various situations. And I wanted to start in Cleveland, where they just can’t seem to get this thing right, and tell you what I’m hearing about their latest efforts to do so.
As owner Jimmy Haslam said in his Thursday news conference, the Browns’ plan is to hire a coach first and then a general manager. This sounds backward to old-thinking NFL types, but it’s a very new-thinking NFL move that’s working already in several places.
Four of this year’s 12 playoff teams — the 49ers, Seahawks, Bills and Chiefs — are franchises with which the coach either picked the GM or had significant input on who it would be. Two others — the Texans and Patriots — are teams on which the coach is the GM. Although there’s a more traditional-looking power structure in place in New Orleans, it’s clear that head coach Sean Payton has significant say in personnel acquisition.
Most NFL teams understand how important it is that the head coach and front office be of one mind on the salary cap, roster structure and other issues. But increasingly, there are those who believe the head coach should be the center of the power structure because he’s the front-facing one, the day-to-day hands-on one, the one who’s more visible in public, in the locker room and on the practice field. It’s the head coach who’s in charge of putting the organization’s plan and vision into practice, so it stands to reason that he should have a strong hand in establishing that plan and that vision.
This is where the Browns find themselves as 2020 dawns. As they did last year when they went looking for a head coach, they’re casting a wide net. On Thursday, they interviewed former Packers coach Mike McCarthy and Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman. This weekend, they will head to San Francisco to interview 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. After that will come Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, either Sunday in Buffalo if the Bills win Saturday’s playoff game or Monday in Cleveland if they lose.
The Browns also plan to interview Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who, like Daboll, can’t interview until next week because his team is playing this weekend. They’ve asked permission to interview Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, but that interview has not yet been scheduled. And don’t rule out Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, who is in the same boat as McDaniels and Daboll but got an extremely long look from the Browns for this job a year ago. Sources tell me that there were people in the Browns’ building strongly in favor of hiring Stefanski, but now-former GM John Dorsey had final say and picked now-former head coach Freddie Kitchens.
Based on the conversations I’ve had with people close to this situation, I’m watching McCarthy, McDaniels, Daboll and Saleh as the strongest Browns candidates, though the Stefanski candidacy remains viable and interesting.
If McCarthy is the guy, the name I’m told to watch for as a potential GM is that of Jon-Eric Sullivan, the co-director of player personnel in Green Bay. McCarthy, of course, knows him from his time with the Packers.
If McDaniels is the guy, he could conceivably come with someone from New England, such as player personnel director Nick Caserio or pro scouting director Dave Ziegler. Daboll also has New England roots and could end up paired with someone from the Patriots’ front office or even former Chiefs GM Scott Pioli, who worked in Cleveland and New England with Bill Belichick before he left for Kansas City.
It’s also thought by many around the league that Cleveland could go with someone such as Andrew Berry, the Eagles’ vice president of football operations, who worked in the Browns’ front office from 2016-18 and remains well-regarded by ownership and other members of the front office.
A key element to watch is the influence of Browns chief strategist Paul DePodesta, whose tenure in Cleveland predated that of Dorsey. DePodesta and Berry arrived in Cleveland around the same time, when the Browns were trying to go analytics-heavy under then-GM Sashi Brown. Stefanski is perceived as a coach who’s open-minded on analytics, and several sources say he was a favorite of DePodesta’s during last year’s interview process. McCarthy has spent much of his year off from coaching diving into analytics and studying new approaches, and he surely will be selling that to the Browns and other potential employers this time around.
The Browns continue to believe that they have a roster talented enough to win if they beef up the offensive line and get someone in who can get Baker Mayfield‘s development back on the right track. Expect an offense-minded head coach, and don’t be surprised if the Browns lean toward someone who has done the head coach thing before after how badly it went with the inexperienced Kitchens in charge in 2019.
Other coaching/front-office search notes from around the league:
As I write this Thursday evening, the expectation around the league is still that the Cowboys will move on from coach Jason Garrett, whose contract expires Jan. 14. That they have not yet done so is a source of great consternation to their fan base and to the outside world in general. We’re accustomed to these things being done a certain way, after all. If you’re getting rid of your coach, you do it the Monday after your season ends. You don’t have a week’s worth of meetings with him about it.
But these are the Cowboys, and they obviously do things their own way. Plus, Garrett has been head coach for 10 years, has been on the staff since 2007, and he played there in the 1990s. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has made it very clear that his relationship with Garrett goes beyond football. Moving on from this particular coach will not be an easy thing for Jones to do.
But move on we still believe he will. By not extending Garrett’s deal before or during the season, Jones made it clear that Garrett had to show something this season. Missing the playoffs with a roster Jones thought was Super Bowl-worthy surely sealed Garrett’s fate. It’s a matter of when, not if, and the people to whom I spoke Thursday were extremely skeptical of the idea of Garrett staying around in a front-office role.
The question of who will replace Garrett is shrouded in mystery, but here are some things I believe about the Cowboys’ eventual search, based on conversations with sources close to the situation:
I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a defense-minded coach, given the level of disappointment the organization felt about the way the defense performed this season. A change in defensive philosophy could be welcome, and it’s possible that the Cowboys would want to stick with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and give him a second season to blossom. Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier could get looks.
I’m keeping an eye on Sunday’s Vikings-Saints game. If the Vikings lose, there are people around the league who wouldn’t be surprised to see Jones take a run at coach Mike Zimmer, a former Cowboys defensive coordinator for whom Jones feels a strong affinity. Zimmer has a year left on his Vikings contract, so it’s possible that the Cowboys would have to trade a draft pick for him in this scenario, but don’t rule it out. If the Saints lose, Allen could be a possibility, as could assistant head coach Dan Campbell, who played for the Cowboys from 2003 to ’05 and had a brief stint as interim head coach of the Dolphins in 2015.
We can’t rule out the college guys, including Urban Meyer, Lincoln Riley and Matt Rhule, assuming Rhule isn’t too far down the road already with another team.
Signs keep pointing to Rhule here, though I know Carolina remains interested as well. He spent one year as assistant offensive line coach in New York in 2012 under Tom Coughlin, and he has roots in the area. The question will of course be who will come with him to shepherd the development of second-year quarterback Daniel Jones.
Although the Giants aren’t looking for an offensive playcaller to be their coach this time — they’ve tried that twice in a row, with poor results — much of their decision-making will necessarily be governed by what’s best for Jones.
In the same vein, Ron Rivera’s choice for offensive coordinator in Washington bears watching, as the development of Dwayne Haskins is a major part of the story to come there. I’m told that current offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell is a possibility to remain in that role, but that’s not certain.
It also was interesting to hear Rivera, in his introductory news conference, refer to “a couple good veteran quarterbacks” who might get a shot to play. Alex Smith remains on Washington’s roster, with $16 million in guaranteed salary coming this year. From what I understand, Smith has not given up on the idea of playing again, and if his recovery from that horrific broken leg in late 2018 moves along, he could be a factor in Washington’s QB picture next season. Don’t rule it out.
The question of general manager in Washington is also up in the air. The team did some research into former Texans GM Rick Smith, though it sounds as if the interest there has cooled. They also did some background work on our ESPN colleague Louis Riddick as a possible candidate for that spot.
You continue to hear Rhule’s name here, as well as those of McDaniels, Bienemy and Daboll, among others. And of course, Carolina has already interviewed McCarthy a couple of times.
Carolina is in no apparent hurry and is looking to add some folks to its front office around GM Marty Hurney. I still have my eye on Titans VP/player personnel Ryan Cowden as a potential front-office hire in Carolina, given his roots in the Panthers organization.
Keep an eye out for a potential front-office restructuring in Houston. Although coach Bill O’Brien is likely to retain personnel control, there remains a strong chance of him luring Caserio away from New England for a GM or personnel role. Caserio’s contract expires this offseason, so the Patriots wouldn’t be able to keep him away from Houston this time.