Is Gregg Williams the right Browns coach for Baker Mayfield?

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

In 2011, when the Kansas City Chiefs were slugging it out after firing Todd Haley late in the season, an unexpected long-term candidate emerged. He was defensive-minded, understood the rhythms of the locker room and brought a mindset veteran leaders embraced. More importantly, he was winning, finishing the season 2-1 after Haley’s departure and breathing new life into the organization. So much so, he went from interim head coach to the chosen man when the season concluded.

His name was Romeo Crennel. And in Chiefs coaching lore, he’s known as the right interim choice in 2011 who became the wrong permanent head coach in 2012. Six years later, his one-season tenure (2-14) is the forgotten blip in team history, having been succeeded by Andy Reid in 2013 with little regret and zero second-guessing.

For the Cleveland Browns, this is a worthwhile piece of history to study. There is a Gregg Williams conundrum developing for the franchise. Once considered the unlikeliest of permanent hires when he was elevated to interim head coach in late October, he’s now sitting on a 5-2 record and riding a wave of Browns euphoria not seen since 2007. Cleveland fans can surely remember that last high point, when the team went 10-6 in (you guessed it) Romeo Crennel’s third season as head coach and appeared to be turning a corner. The Browns weren’t, of course. As it turns out, Crennel was the wrong head coaching hire in both Kansas City and Cleveland. That should be some food for thought for Browns fans, given that Crennel would later pull off a mini-rejuvenation with the Chiefs, convincing ownership he was the right man for the job when he actually wasn’t.

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Gregg Williams is 5-2 as Browns interim head coach. (Getty Images)
Gregg Williams is 5-2 as Browns interim head coach. (Getty Images)

At this critical juncture, falling into that kind of mistake is precisely what Cleveland doesn’t need. It’s why the Browns’ chief decision-makers – as unclear as they may be – have to look at Williams and remove the emotion lifting the organization right now. This comes down to one question, and it has nothing to do with a 5-2 spurt against mediocre teams.

Is Gregg Williams the right coach to pair with Baker Mayfield for the next 10 years?

The coach-player model the Browns seek

I can say with full confidence that the Browns are approaching their coaching search with that question at the forefront. If the answer to that long-term chemistry question leads to any doubt, the candidate in question is a nonstarter. There will certainly be a laundry-list of attributes that are important for the next head coach, but his match with Mayfield will be paramount.

This is what Cleveland is looking for:

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

Sean Payton and Drew Brees.

Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes.

Sean McVay and Jared Goff.

We can talk all we want about schemes, energy and leadership, but this search will begin with the viability of the next coach to fit with Mayfield for a decade or more. The kind of coach-quarterback relationship that can survive losing seasons, staff shuffling, coordinator departures, schematic tweaks, micro-rebuilds and any other stressful pitfalls. The Browns believe they have one-half of that equation for long-term success in Mayfield. Now the goal is finding the other half, without making a decision corrupted by emotion or familiarity.

Is Williams that coach? There are two important beliefs about the Browns process.

First, it’s unclear who is going to make the call on this one. Since Hue Jackson and Haley were fired, I’ve heard a few things about how the Browns are working internally right now. Initially, the word was that team owner Jimmy Haslam was going to make the final call on a head coach with general manager John Dorsey being the lone point man. But I’m not so sure about that anymore.

Dorsey clearly didn’t get his chosen man as the interim coach. Regardless of what anyone says publicly, I’m absolutely certain that Haley was Dorsey’s preference as the interim coach. And I think Haley didn’t ascend to that position because someone else had significant influence in the process.

Most people will read that and think, “Well, it must have been Haslam who made the call on Haley’s firing.” Initially, that’s what I was led to believe. But I’m not so sure of that anymore. After some conversations with those who know the Browns, I’m now more certain than ever that chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta has been more influential than anyone outside of the organization understands. I think everyone (including me) has been led astray about the current power structure in Cleveland. Especially where it concerns Dorsey.

Here’s what is clear: Haley believed he was in line to step into the interim coaching job if Hue was fired, and he got that belief from Dorsey and some of Dorsey’s subordinates on the personnel side of the organization. And when that didn’t happen and Haley was fired, he was completely blindsided by it. Which means one of two things – either Dorsey and his subordinates stabbed Haley in the back (which they didn’t), or Dorsey was overruled in the process when it came to his chosen interim. I believe it was the latter, with DePodesta having a more significant hand in the process than anyone realized and Haslam giving the green light to fire Haley. Boiled down, I think DePodesta has more power than most people realize, while Dorsey has less.

Second, it’s a fallacy to assume that Dorsey is making the call on the head coach. Certainly not unilaterally sending up a name to Haslam. If anything, Dorsey will have some sway, DePodesta will have some sway, and Haslam will make his call based on the information at hand. That doesn’t guarantee some Dorsey-inspired “get the Green Bay Packers band back together” scenario with Mike McCarthy.

Will McCarthy be in consideration? Surely. But Williams will get a legitimate head coaching interview, too, with longer odds at landing the job. And not because Williams is a defensive coach and the Browns are looking for an offensive mind to pair with Mayfield. From what I can ascertain at this stage, the Browns are looking for the right coach … not the right offensive mind.

The Browns have good reason to believe they wisely used the No. 1 pick in the last draft on quarterback <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/30971/" data-ylk="slk:Baker Mayfield">Baker Mayfield</a>. (AP)
The Browns have good reason to believe they wisely used the No. 1 pick in the last draft on quarterback Baker Mayfield. (AP)

The case against Gregg Williams

So what does that mean? In a way, I’d liken it to what the Baltimore Ravens did when they hired John Harbaugh in 2008. Harbaugh had a coaching resume mixed between offense and defense, but he was actually a top-level special teams coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles when the Ravens came calling. I believe the Browns are willing to have a similar open mind in this search. One that will consider all types of coordinators or former head coaches for the job, as well as both NFL and college candidates. All in favor of finding the one guy who can handle the rigors of a top job while also dovetailing with the next decade of Mayfield.

It’s worth considering that Williams is 60 and most NFL head coaches are in the winter of their careers at that stage. It certainly doesn’t eliminate Williams from the job, but most of the successful NFL head coaches in their 60s had already established their top-end reputations before hitting that plateau.

The sour reality is that Williams represents a head coaching retread after going 17-31 with the Buffalo Bills from 2001-2003. And no coaching retread, Marv Levy excluded, has experienced a second head coaching life and massive success after breaching 60.

So yes, Williams’ age is an issue if you’re looking at pairing a guy with Mayfield for 10 years. It’s not the only sobering reality in play, either. The Browns have to recognize that the team wasn’t dead when Williams took over. In fact, Cleveland had already started playing very competitive football by the time Jackson and Haley began spiraling. So you can’t say Williams completely reshaped what was happening. It only looks that way because he has won some of the games that the Browns had been losing earlier in the season.

And what of those five wins? Well, the Browns have managed that run of success against the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals (twice). Subtracting the losses to the Browns, that foursome is a collective 24-30 this season. And three of those four teams – the Panthers, Broncos and Bengals – all have head coaches who are currently on the hot seat. That’s not exactly a murderers’ row of competition. That’s perspective to consider when it comes to Williams’ candidacy. Not to mention his previous head coaching record and the bounty scandal in New Orleans as the Saints’ defensive coordinator.

Then there is this reality: Since 1997, Williams has been a defensive coordinator with six different NFL teams. Seven if you count two different stints with the Rams. Yet he has been a head coach in the NFL only once, despite whatever he may say about all the head coaching jobs he has been offered. That’s a lot of tread laid down with a lot of different teams and coaches. And it becomes curious when you’ve been in and out of so many organizations at a coordinator level but never landed another head coaching job.

Why not keep Williams and Freddie Kitchens?

None of this means he hasn’t been a good interim for the Browns. Just from the standpoint of the record, he has been exactly what the franchise needed him to be, with a huge assist from offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens. But that’s a whole other part of this deal. If anything, Kitchens should be as high on the head coaching candidate list for the Browns as Williams. If only for the fact that the 44-year-old Kitchens has shown flashes of brilliance in limited time for Cleveland, while also appearing to fit well with Mayfield. It can be argued that Kitchens’ age, history with quarterbacks and relationship with Mayfield already make him a better candidate than Williams.

That will lead some to suggest, “Why not hire Williams and keep Kitchens in the fold?”

There’s a simple answer to that. You can’t rely on Kitchens sticking around. That’s how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended up firing Lovie Smith after only two seasons because they thought Dirk Koetter was the right fit for quarterback Jameis Winston and were afraid of losing him to another head coach opening. If the Browns like Kitchens that much, he should be above Williams when it comes to sorting candidates.

That may be what ultimately happens. For now, Williams is the conundrum. It’s been a long time since the franchise felt this good about nearly two full months of the football schedule. Maybe not since Crennel’s breakout in 2007. But Cleveland knows how that ended. That alone should suggest a long, hard and sobering look at Williams.

And after that, maybe a difficult admission when this season is over: that Gregg Williams has been what the Browns needed now, but not what they need next.

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