Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.
At the root of every Jimmy Haslam organization blowup is dysfunction – on the field and behind the scenes.
That was truly the case in only the first year of the John Dorsey-Freddie Kitchens marriage.
Although Dorsey raised the talent level significantly in his two full seasons as GM, it can be argued that he fell short of maximizing the trove of assets bequeathed him by predecessor Sashi Brown.
Unquestionably, Dorsey’s biggest mistake was tasking an unprepared Kitchens to manage and mold the collection of big egos into a team. Haslam made a huge concession in siding with Dorsey on this issue, neglecting the advice of Paul DePodesta, chief strategy officer, who favored equally unproven but more polished Kevin Stefanski.
DePodesta reportedly also favored Sean McDermott over Hue Jackson in the previous coaching search, and, further, was the biggest advocate of making Gregg Williams the interim head coach – ahead of Todd Haley -- when Jackson was fired in the middle of the 2018 season.
While most of DePodesta’s recommendations went unheeded by Haslam, the outcomes enhanced DePodesta’s exalted status as the smartest and most unbiased advisor in Haslam’s inner circle.
On the field, Kitchens proved painfully unsuitable for the job. As the heat intensified, Dorsey and his personnel staff clashed increasingly with DePodesta and the analytics staff. Based in LaJolla, CA, except on game days, DePodesta had the most direct line to Haslam.
As DePodesta’s visibility increased in the last month of the season, it all was coming to a head.
While the record under Dorsey wasn’t horrible, the dysfunction and discord between the football staff and the DePodesta-led analytics staff was untenable. Something had to give, and this time Haslam sided with DePodesta.
The Browns insist DePodesta’s status hasn’t changed. But he is clearly the lead voice this time in not only the coaching search but the total reorganization process.
It appears DePodesta’s vision is to create the football dynamic that has worked so well in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
That is to have the head coach be the dominant, forceful leader and support him with a lead personnel executive and confidante of the coach. In Pittsburgh, coach Mike Tomlin is the strong leader and Kevin Colbert the quiet evaluator of talent; in Baltimore it’s coach John Harbaugh and now Eric DeCosta.
So while DePodesta technically is not head of football operations, he will lead the process to replicate the Pittsburgh and Baltimore models. And with his enhanced influence with Haslam, DePodesta will oversee the operation to make sure it stays on course.
Here are three likely scenarios from which DePodesta and Haslam will choose:
1. Mike McCarthy and Eliot Wolf and/or Andrew Berry
The former Green Bay Packers coach checks the most boxes of the reported coaching candidates – strong personality, experienced disciplinarian, proven winner, offensive-minded, quarterback-conscious. McCarthy’s publicized determination to embrace analytics is a clear appeal to owners such as Haslam, who have invested heavily in statistics-based decision-making.
McCarthy’s history in Green Bay with Wolf is an indicator they could work smoothly together. If Haslam wants to bring back Berry, as widely reported, his personality is perfect to blend in and support Wolf’s conventional scouting with analytics assistance.
McCarthy’s hard-nosed coaching of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers would seem a welcome – if not necessary – attribute to turn around Baker Mayfield’s stunning regression.
2. Josh McDaniels and Nick Caserio or Dave Ziegler
McDaniels brings a boatload to the job – the pedigree of culture-building from 16 years under Bill Belichick, unquestioned offensive expertise and a reported high opinion of Mayfield prior to the 2018 draft.
The major risk with McDaniels is his extremely negative experience in 28 games as Denver Broncos head coach in 2009-10. His proponents will say that he’s much more mature now and would avoid the mistakes he made then.
Even though McDaniels could be ably assisted on the personnel side with either former John Carroll teammate Caserio, whose contract as Patriots GM runs out in May, or Ziegler, the Patriots pro personnel director who joined McDaniels in Denver, there may be an obstacle in McDaniels finally accepting Haslam's overtures and returning to Northeast Ohio to coach the Browns.
Two sources said DePodesta’s omnipresence could be unacceptable to McDaniels.
They point to new successes being enjoyed by the most recent coaching branches of the Belichick tree. Bill O’Brien in Houston, Mike Vrabel in Tennessee, and Brian Flores in Miami each have a trusted personnel leader but none has an overseer bending the ear of the team’s owner. Thus, each has a much better chance of surviving a bad year – even a very bad one – than Dorsey and Kitchens did.
3. Robert Saleh and Wolf and/or Berry
Saleh, is the only defensive coach and probably the strongest minority candidate. He rose swiftly with the Seattle Seahawks under former coordinator Gus Bradley and then joined him with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Saleh got his big break when Kyle Shanahan named him defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers – and he has impressed everyone in molding the talent-laden 49ers into a defensive force. Even their late-round or undrafted players tackle with ferocity.
Saleh would address an overlooked need for a defensive cultural overhaul. As for the offensive side, it's obvious that reported Browns interviews with Shanahan offensive assistants Mike LaFleur and Mike McDaniel would be served to gauge their value in developing Mayfield and the talent around him as probable key components of Saleh’s coaching staff.
Saleh could be provided ready-made personnel staff in Wolf with Berry.
While I totally disagree with blowing up the Browns’ football operations for a fourth time in seven years, it does not mean the pieces can’t be picked up and reassembled into a stronger organization.
It’s all we can hope for at this point.