Rob Chudzinski has been unflappable. Through the series of disruptions in the first nine games of his head coaching career, Chudzinski remained a calm, collected, confident presence to an outside world predicting distraction, disaster and defeats for his young team. His voice never cracked, his expectations never lowered, his focus never wavered.
The situation hasn’t seemed too big for him.
“For us to be where we’re sitting at with everything that has gone on, I think he’s done a remarkable job,” said defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who interviewed for the job Chudzinski, 45, was hired for in January.
The portrait of Chudzinski would be inaccurate if it was painted in all cool colors. There’s plenty of fire in the former tight end.
It’s one of the reasons his players have embraced him.
“He’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind and it gets us going,” captain and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said before players departed for the weekend. “He’s a fiery guy and we’re like, ‘Show us more of that.’
“Whatever we need to have corrected is corrected, but he doesn’t call anyone out. He’s telling everyone, this is what we need to do to win this ballgame.”
Halftime at Kansas City was the most obvious example. After the defense didn’t force a punt in the first 30 minutes, Chudzinski gave a not-so-friendly reminder of what was expected. The defense responded by allowing 50 yards and three points while forcing five punts.
“We needed it,” said Jackson, who was surprised when told of Chudzinski’s mostly vanilla news conferences. “Really? He’s a great poker player then.”
The Browns beat the Ravens in their last game before their bye — something predecessors Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur couldn’t do — to improve to 2-1 in the AFC North and 4-5 overall. Chudzinski is off to the best start for a Browns coach since Butch Davis in 2001.
Perhaps it’s coincidence, but Davis was on the coaching staff when Chudzinski played at the University of Miami in the late-1980s — “He was at the U when the U was the U,” Jackson said — and hired Chudzinski as an assistant with the Hurricanes and Browns. Davis introduced him to the NFL.
Davis didn’t have to deal with the pile of surprises that came across Chudzinski’s desk to begin his tenure.
Running back Trent Richardson, who was supposed to be the focal point of the offense, didn’t live up to his billing, then was traded after an 0-2 start. The locker room was suddenly on edge and outsiders wondered if the Browns would win a game this year.
Chudzinski started three quarterbacks in eight weeks — Brian Hoyer due to injury, Jason Campbell because of Brandon Weeden’s ineffectiveness. Neither move was automatic — Hoyer jumped Campbell on the depth chart — but both were successful.
No. 1 receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for the first two games.
And kicker Billy Cundiff didn’t arrive until a few days before the season.
So much for easing into the new gig.
“I don’t think there was any major surprises,” Chudzinski said. “I think that every day there’s a new challenge. You might come into work expecting a certain amount of things or certain things, and you never know what comes across your desk during the course of the day. I would say that’s the biggest thing that you realize, and you realize pretty quickly.
“There’s been a lot of things that happened and a lot of things going on: different situations, some unique, some that you expect and some things that don’t happen very often that we’ve had. I go back to the kind of people that we have here and the identity that we’re creating. These guys, it’s a resilient group, a group that loves playing football and have been able to handle really whatever has come across in the course of the time that we’ve been here.”
The first nine weeks weren’t perfect. He’s been unable to fix the substitution and communication problems that have led to too many wasted timeouts, the Browns have been outscored 107-67 in the second half and the staff couldn’t fix Weeden, who regressed after a rookie year with some promise.
But bumps in the road were to be expected. That the Browns haven’t fallen off a cliff could be considered a miracle for many who’ve watched the previous 14 years of mostly train-wreck football.
Chudzinski was a vast departure from Shurmur, who was fired after two years. He brought in dramatically different offensive and defensive systems and changed most of the coaching staff. The new front office also overhauled the roster.
The fact that the growing pains haven’t crippled the team is a credit to the coach.
“He’s such a good leader,” said left tackle Joe Thomas, who knew Chudzinski as offensive coordinator here in 2007-08. “He’s shown smarts as a coordinator and it’s a little bit sometimes hard to translate if you’re good as a coordinator into a head coach. But Chud has found a way in his rookie season to be a good head coach. I think he probably has surpassed even my high expectations.”
Chudzinski showed strong self-confidence quickly after CEO Joe Banner went off the grid to hire him. Chudzinski hired Norv Turner as offensive coordinator and Horton on defense. Turner has been a head coach three times and was Chudzinski’s boss in San Diego. Horton has a huge personality and aspires to be a head coach.
“I think Chud has done a great job of relying on a lot of guys on staff and guys who have been there and are experienced,”
Turner said. “I think he’s doing a great job of managing the whole thing.”
“One of my sayings is, ‘Everybody is either a lesson or a blessing,’” Horton said. “He’s been a blessing because of how the situations have gone on this year with everything from starting and changing of culture and handling trades and personnel and halftime. It’s nice to watch and I think he’s done a fantastic job.”
Consistency has been a key for Chudzinski. Players can sense panic, smell fear and see if a coach has lost his way.
“He told us from Day 1 we were going to be an attack-style team, that we were going to go for it on fourth down and we were going to take some chances in the kicking game and everything thus far has held true and that goes a long way throughout the locker room, especially for a guy like myself,” Jackson said. “I’ve had a lot of coaches say one thing and then depending on how the season goes you’re entirely a different team. He’s done a great job with that and that’s a true testament in what he believes in.”
The aggressiveness on gameday was evident — and pivotal — again in the win over the Ravens. Chudzinski went for it twice on fourth-and-1, resulting in a first-quarter touchdown and extending the clinching field-goal drive.
“I’ve been impressed,” Campbell said. “When he gets in these critical situations, he’s not a guy that shies away from it. It just shows you he’s going all-out to win. It shows how much he really believes in us as players to put us in those situations.”
Chudzinski likes that the players and fans understand how he wants his team to play.
“I was actually with my family out getting pizza on Friday night and ran into a fan who just stopped in and said he really likes the way we play,” Chudzinski said. “He didn’t say anything about wins or losses, he just said he likes the way we play.”
It doesn’t hurt that Chudzinski grew up in Toledo chomping on dog biscuits, dreaming of being Ozzie Newsome and pulling for the Browns.
“You can tell he’s from Ohio, he loves the Browns and it’s a side of him that he gets us going,” Jackson said. “It’s something you really don’t see from a lot of head coaches. They try to carry themselves in a certain light, and he’s into the game, man.
“You can tell his roots come from Ohio and you can just imagine the pep talks he’s given us before games and at halftime. He’s calling how it is and we respect the heck out of him.”