Second Thoughts: Browns Need A Strong, Dominant Personality To Lay Down The Law On Defense

GM Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski remain in "perfect alignment" after two consecutive losing seasons. (TheLandOnDemand)

GM Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski remain in "perfect alignment" after two consecutive losing seasons. (TheLandOnDemand)

Second thoughts: Browns need a strong, dominant personality to lay down the law on defense

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.

Second thoughts on the dismissal of defensive coordinator Joe Woods … 

1. Although Kevin Stefanski would not rule out other staff changes, his prompt move to fire defensive coordinator Joe Woods on Sunday night after the team’s busses returned from Pittsburgh indicates he had made the decision much earlier – perhaps weeks ago. Safety John Johnson, for one, called the timing “shocking.” It may also be that Stefanski realized there would be a run on available defensive coordinators this hiring season, so he wanted to line up interviews fast. Indianapolis, Carolina and Denver fired head coaches during the season; Houston and Arizona followed suit on Monday. The Rams may be another if Sean McVay retires, as speculated. Also, some teams may make a change at coordinator, like the Browns, without firing its head coach. Stefanski said he doesn’t have a timetable to name a new coordinator.

2. The Browns have identified four candidates they will interview, starting this week. They are: Brian Flores, 41, former Miami head coach and Bill Belichick defensive assistant, currently senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach with Pittsburgh; Jarod Mayo, 36, former Patriots linebacker and New England inside linebackers coach the past four seasons, who has received a few head coach interviews in recent years; Sean Desai, 39, who was Chicago Bears defensive coordinator in 2021 and moved to Seattle as associate head coach/defense; and Jim Schwartz, 56, a one-time Belichick personnel scout in Cleveland, former Detroit Lions head coach, and a defensive coordinator with Tennessee, Buffalo and Philadelphia who returned to Tennessee as senior defensive assistant in 2021. Of the four, Schwartz checks several boxes that gives him an edge, in my opinion. He runs a wide-9 defensive front, like the current system. He has had several successful stints as a DC, including with the Eagles’ 2020 Super Bowl championship team. GM Andrew Berry got to know him in Berry’s 2019 season on GM Howie Roseman’s staff. And Schwartz always has embraced the use of analytics. Stefanski said nobody on his current is a candidate for coordinator. He answered “it remains to be seen” if there will be more than the four candidates interviewed. “We feel good about some of the candidates that we have identified already and are open-minded,” Stefanski said.

3. It was interesting that Stefanski on two occasions said he made the decision to fire Woods. Sometimes a team will use the pronoun “we” in announcing a firing, inferring that others were involved in the decision. This does appear to be solely Stefanski’s decision. However, when I asked if GM Andrew Berry and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta would be involved in the interview process, Stefanski said, “I think with this type of decision you want to get everybody’s input. Obviously, I will spend a lot of time with candidates and cover everything from A to Z, but I think it is important to get input from everybody.” My guess is that DePodesta will sit in to gauge if the candidates fit the heavy-analytics culture of the organization – which is why I think Schwartz has a leg up – and that Berry wants to get a feel for the type of players the new coordinator needs to play in his scheme. Stefanski said he is not particularly looking for a coordinator to match the scheme already here. “We are going to look very hard at all these candidates, and schematically, they look at our roster and they look at our tape and we can start talking ball and what we could do differently,” Stefanski said. “Those are all conversations to make sure that then our personnel matches up in the vision of what we want to do.”

4. Flores is the prize of this hiring season. Even though his lawsuit against the Miami Dolphins for discrimination is proceeding, he is a highly respected defensive coach and could receive some head coach interviews. The Steelers would not receive a compensatory draft pick if Flores leaves for a better job because he hasn’t been with them for the required minimum of two years. Flores probably would have his choice of defensive coordinator offers. If so, the Browns might be seen as less desirable because Stefanski is heading into his fourth season without a contract extension and may be seen as a coach on the hot seat in 2023. If Flores thinks he could make a big difference in the defense and be a candidate to replace Stefanski if things don’t work out, that might make the position more attractive to him. Otherwise, it might be more likely he favors joining an entirely new staff on a team embarking on a fresh start.

5. Berry shared the podium with Stefanski on Monday, symbolizing that the “right alignment” created by DePodesta in 2020 and sought so long by owner Jimmy Haslam is still very much intact despite two losing seasons in a row. Everyone knows the underperforming defense was the No. 1 reason the Browns missed the playoffs. Berry was asked if he believes a new, energetic coordinator is the answer to the defense’s problems. He said, “Kevin mentioned it a little bit earlier, it is never just about one thing. I want to be clear, this shouldn’t just be a coordinator issue. The defense’s low performance is not just about Joe. Part of it [is], when you look back to being at this point, decisions that you look back at the offseason you would have done a little bit differently. Also, I think there is accountability with our guys as well, right? We want our guys to seize the moment. We all share accountability with it, as Kevin mentioned it earlier.”

6. Cornerback Greg Newsome opined that the defense performed best when Woods scaled back some of his complex schemes. Johnson said, “I wouldn’t say it was too complex schematically, but I will say that in certain moments in a game maybe we didn’t need to trick ourselves trying to trick other teams. Maybe just line up, put our cleats in the ground and make plays. That’s when we’re at our best. When we’re panicking, that’s when you see guys running wide open. I don’t think it’s a schematic thing. It’s a poise thing. We need a calmness out there.”

7. Johnson, who was critical of younger players not being committed to their jobs in October, said there were “way too many … way too many” discipline issues on defense. “You want to focus on winning, focus on football,” he said. “It’s hard to do that when you got all [that] small stuff. It’s a job, it’s a profession. You gotta come ready every single day. We got other stuff to focus on. Gotta put it in the past. I think maybe a new job position might open up a new spark for us to get it together.” He went on: “I just feel if we were all doing what we were supposed to do, if we all had the same goal in mind, we all had a sense of urgency, certain stuff like that doesn’t happen. What’s the saying? Where there’s smoke there’s fire. So obviously there was something underlying that wasn’t addressed and it boiled over. Just have to move on from it. The time is now to do that. Because once we start back up, there’s no time for that. So the time to get it off is now.” Asked what he’d be looking for in the next defensive coordinator, Johnson said, “I don’t like talking about scheme too much because I think anything works. I think getting your players to play, that’s the bottom line. That’s football, period. Going to battle for you, run through a brick wall for you. That’s what I’m looking for.” I interpret that as the Browns need a strong personality on defense to lay down the law.