By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
Once new Browns coach Mike Pettine hires coordinators and the rest of his assistants, his focus will suddenly shift to helping the organization make its most important decision of what owner Jimmy Haslam has dubbed “the crucial offseason.”
It’s all about the quarterback, and even a defensive-minded coach like Pettine won’t hesitate to admit it.
“When you prioritize the positions of the National Football League, there’s the quarterback and then there’s about 10 open spots, and then you start talking about the next open position,” Pettine said shortly after he was hired Thursday. “It would be foolish, even being a defensive guy, to ignore that issue. I’m not going to be that defensive coach that says, ‘Listen, we’re going to win it on defense and we’re going to run, and we don’t need to have a great quarterback.’ To win in this league, you have to have a great quarterback, and that’s something we’re going to put our full focus and attention on.”
The quest to find the right quarterback will require much more time and be more vital for the Browns than their recent 25-day search to replace coach Rob Chudzinski, who was fired after going 4-12 in his lone season on the job. After all, Pettine’s success will depend heavily on the quarterback.
“We’re going to spend thousands of hours researching whether to pick a quarterback in the draft or not,” Haslam said Thursday.
All signs point to the Browns not only picking a quarterback, but also doing so early in the first round of the NFL Draft, which begins May 8. The team has 10 selections, including two in the first round (Nos. 4 and 26 overall). If the Browns don’t ultimately choose a quarterback at No. 4, it’ll probably be a result of them trading to another premium slot to nab one.
Will it be Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Central Florida’s Blake Bortles or Fresno State’s Derek Carr?
Several national NFL writers and draft analysts believe Manziel is the answer. Even though the draft is months away, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported last week, citing unnamed sources, that the Browns would be willing to trade up for Manziel if necessary.
Browns CEO Joe Banner laughed at the notion that the Browns could have already made such a determination.
“I’m not taking [Manziel] off the board,” Banner said Thursday. “But I’m definitely not saying it’s been decided.”
The cupboard isn’t bare for the Browns at quarterback. They have Brian Hoyer, who won the two games last year that he started and finished before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the first quarter of his third start.
“I think he’s a winner,” Pettine said of Hoyer. “I think the intangibles with Brian are off the charts. I think he’s a football junkie, and I think you can tell he loves the game. He came from a system where he learned from [New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady], one of the best in the game, and that showed on the field. A lot of people, based on his background, kind of fall asleep on him a little bit. I think he’s a winning quarterback in this league.”
The Browns expect Hoyer, 28, to be ready for organized team activities in May, but nothing is guaranteed on the comeback trail from a torn ACL. It would be surprising if Jason Campbell, 32, and Brandon Weeden, 30, are still with the team next season, and Alex Tanney, 26, is a project with no NFL experience.
So the roster, even with Hoyer, indicates the Browns still need a long-term answer at quarterback.
Banner has the ultimate authority in football operations, but he insists roster decisions will continue to be made in collaboration with General Manager Mike Lombardi, Assistant General Manager Ray Farmer and the coaching staff. In other words, Pettine and whoever becomes his offensive coordinator should have prominent roles in picking the next quarterback.
When the coaching search began, many observers expected the Browns to hire an offensive-minded coach in anticipation of a quarterback hunt. Although Pettine has been a defensive assistant since he entered the NFL in 2002 with the Baltimore Ravens, his roots are on offense. He played quarterback under the guidance of his father, Mike Pettine Sr., who was a coaching legend at Central Bucks High School West in Doylestown, Pa.
“We didn’t have a big offensive line, but we had some pretty good receivers,” said Pettine, who played free safety at the University of Virginia. “So we were actually kind of ahead of the curve, spreading the field a little bit, throwing the ball. I was a sprint-out quarterback, half sprint, three step, and then ran it a little bit.”
The younger Pettine later became an offensive-minded head coach for William Tennent and North Penn high schools before making the leap to the NFL.
“I think you’re going to find that he interjects a lot of his ideas on the offense,” Mike Pettine Sr. said Saturday in a phone interview with the Beacon Journal. “He’s not a guy that just knows defense. He was a quarterback. When he coached in high school, he didn’t have much say or much concern with the defensive side of the ball. He left that up to his assistant. I had to face his teams. You never knew what to expect, very imaginative and on the cutting edge with a lot of things. You see a lot of coordinators and they’ve been put into an area very narrow that they’ve always been on one side of the ball. Even though it seems that he’s always been on one side of the ball, I think he’s pretty prepared to certainly jump in and have meaningful input on the offensive side.”
Banner agrees. He made it clear Pettine would not have been hired if he didn’t possess “a mindset of being aggressive on offense.”
“Some people think — and in most cases, it’s probably true — that’s more likely to be an offensive-minded guy,” Banner said. “But here we have a defensive coach who’s actually got a very aggressive mindset about how you run an offense, how you play offense, and how you try to score as many points as you can. You’re not into a shortening-the-game mindset.”
So what type of quarterback does Pettine believe can best implement his offensive philosophies?
“There’s a lot of different ways to get it done,” said Pettine, who spent the 2013 season as the defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills and the previous four years in the same role with the New York Jets. “I think you have to have some flexibility in your system, and I think you have to build around what your quarterback can do. If he has some running ability, I think you need to take advantage of that. If he doesn’t, I think you need to build it where he can get the ball out of his hand quick.
“In today’s NFL, you are seeing more and more use of the mobile quarterback, whether it’s Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, EJ Manuel. Trends in football rise. A lot of college stuff is getting to the NFL, but I think you can win both ways. That’s going to be a long, hard discussion with the offensive staff [about] how we want to build it and then also look at what quarterbacks are available and have the flexibility in the system that whoever we take, we don’t just say, ‘Well, we’re limited on what we can do because of him.’ We need to tailor what our package is based on his strengths.”
On Feb. 2, Super Bowl XLVIII will illustrate Pettine’s point because it’ll feature a classic, drop-back quarterback, the Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning, and a new-age, mobile passer, the Seattle Seahawks’ Wilson.
Teams can win with either style, though Pettine conceded the cutting-edge, mobile quarterbacks are able to devastate defenses in more ways.
“It goes a long way in keeping defenses honest,” Pettine said. “Just speaking from my perspective, we had to waste a lot of time in practice, we had to waste meeting time, we had to devote a lot of time in our walk-throughs to handling the zone read. Those are things that take a lot of time to defend properly. If there’s at least a threat of that, I call it body punches where you will never know the effect that it had on a defense. There’s a limited amount of practice time, a limited amount of meeting time in today’s NFL. If you can force a team and those defenses to prepare on some of those things that are different, that are unique, that take that time whether it’s Wildcat, whether it’s zone read, whether it’s option, that defense has to spend half their time preparing for 10 percent of the package, I think then you’ve done something to be successful.”
Pettine will soon embark on a mission to help the Browns secure a quarterback who’ll give defenses hell and finally bring a winning football team back to Cleveland.
The future of the entire regime hinges on it.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.