In early 2014, when the Cleveland Browns were searching for a head coach to replace Rob Chudzinski, team owner Jimmy Haslam had a favorite. After sitting for an interview with New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, all that was left in Haslam’s mind was for the franchise to advance a job offer and start working on the details. This was his guy.
And somehow, Ben McAdoo (of all people) blew it up.
Four years later, it’s a lost piece of Browns history that has been filled in by some league sources: How an executive in Cleveland’s football operations got in Haslam’s ear about interviewing McAdoo for the job; how Haslam paused his pursuit of McDaniels; and how McDaniels – miffed at being placed on hold – pulled his name out of consideration and stopped returning phone calls from the Browns. The rest of the story is, well, Browns fans know where it went. From the hiring and firing of both Mike Pettine and Hue Jackson, to a 13-58-1 record since the McDaniels pursuit fell apart.
It’s hard to know if anything would have gone differently if McDaniels had gotten that job offer back in 2014. There’s a chance he would have accepted it and had a good hand-in-hand relationship with former Browns general manager Mike Lombardi. There’s also a chance McDaniels would have pulled the still-unfathomable pump-fake he delivered to the Indianapolis Colts this past offseason – accepting and then backing out of the job after filling some parts of his coaching staff.
Either way, it’s worth considering this week, since any serious coaching search by the Browns should include McDaniels, who (despite what he did to the Colts) remains one of the brightest offensive minds in the game. With that in mind, here are three big-name candidates who belong in the Browns’ search, along with some nuggets from league sources about each potential candidate:
Josh McDaniels, Patriots offensive coordinator
Whether McDaniels will be in the mix for coaching vacancies next offseason depends on who you speak to. Those close to McDaniels say he hasn’t completely closed the door on leaving the Patriots at some point – even with the Colts fiasco still fresh, his re-worked contract and head coach Bill Belichick opening up the inner workings of the franchise to him. But his reasons for leaving in the coming offseason haven’t really changed from the factors that led him to stay in New England last February. His family is still firmly entrenched in the New England area. He’s making more money. He’s still happy coaching Tom Brady. And, of course, he has gained newfound access to the finite details of New England’s franchise operations. Undoubtedly, there are plenty of reasons to stay.
But there is a flip-side to McDaniels. Those who know him well say that he will always be a coach who likes being courted, while also having a brand of ambition that keeps his mind open to new opportunities. Of course, none of that matters if NFL teams view him as a Runaway Bride. The Colts weren’t the first team to run into a wall with McDaniels. He could have had that Browns job back in 2014 and also the San Francisco 49ers gig that ultimately went to Kyle Shanahan. But he has always seemed more out of reach than accessible to the teams that court him. That would seem to be something that should scare off teams. But as one executive who defended McDaniels said last offseason, “He’s a great offensive coach and someone will think that’s worth chasing – even with what he did to the Colts.” Another source familiar with the Browns suggested that McDaniels and general manager John Dorsey wouldn’t be a good fit from a chemistry standpoint, while another added that Belichick has a low opinion of Haslam’s handling of the Browns franchise.
Lincoln Riley, University of Oklahoma head coach
His relationship with Baker Mayfield has made him the natural No. 1 contender for the Browns job. But there were a few issues raised by some league sources Monday. One thought is Riley would be both expensive – maybe even $10 million-per-year expensive – and require a six-year contract with no offset language to leave Oklahoma. That six-year deal with no offsets is what Shanahan got with the 49ers and is considered an extremely deep commitment by league standards. Another league source said that while Riley’s offense could thrive in the NFL, there would have to be some significant work done on his blocking schemes to protect Mayfield. Essentially, the opinion is Riley’s offense would need solid work to adapt it to some of the hurdles of NFL defenses.
One other subplot surrounding Riley that isn’t going away soon: sources around the NFL believe the Dallas Cowboys ownership is infatuated with him. More to the point, if Dallas moves on from Jason Garrett and can’t find a way to pursue New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton (which they likely can’t), Riley is very high on the list of both Jerry Jones and his son, Stephen. That’s being repeated in several places around the league, including from some inside the Cowboys franchise. If it’s legitimate, that will be hard for the Browns to compete with. Particularly with the thirst and motivation Jerry Jones has to make a landscape-changing move.
Dabo Swinney, Clemson University
Listening to some people around the NFL who know Swinney, I’m convinced he will eventually take a shot at the next level of football. His backers in the league – some of whom suggested Monday the Browns would be wise to take a big swing for him – have thought about his candidacy down to a granular level. From the potential coaching support staff that Swinney could have lined up quickly, to executives who would be willing to work with him and Dorsey, to how his offense could be tailored to maximize Baker’s growth in the NFL. That’s a lot of thought on a guy who doesn’t instantly jump to the top of most Browns coaching lists.
For his part, Swinney has had an opportunity to shut down NFL talk in the past but declined to completely close the door. But one league source suggested given Swinney’s massive college football salary – nearly $9 million per season – it would likely take a Jon Gruden-type of commitment to get him locked down. As in, maybe 10 years and $100 million. Why? Well, he may be in line to replace Nick Saban at Alabama, should Saban choose to go be grumpy in some other wildly successful life pursuit. But as one league source said Monday, “Following Nick Saban’s record at Alabama is a lot harder than following [Saban’s] record in the NFL. Dabo is his own guy, too. I don’t think he’s all that interested in being a successor to anyone in college.” Added another, “He’s the guy Haslam can hire to come in and rebuild the whole culture – and they still need that.”
All of that said, it seems unlikely Dorsey would be OK bringing in someone with a Gruden contract, which would shift the balance of power in the organization almost completely to the coach (much like it has in Oakland).
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