BEREA — Jimmy Haslam has owned the Browns for a little more than a year and is already conducting his second coaching search. That happens when you fire two coaches in your first 15 months on the job.
Haslam sat in the same seat Monday as he did 364 days earlier and said many of the same things. The names had changed, this orange tie had stripes and a Browns helmet pin had been added to the lapel of his dark suit.
“There’s nothing — and y’all have every right to write it — that galls me more than to read on Monday mornings ‘same old Browns.’ It’s our single mission to change that,” Haslam said during a 30-minute news conference hours after firing Rob Chudzinski and nearly a year after canning Pat Shurmur. “We deserve the skepticism, we accept it. We have to prove to you all we’ll get the right guy.”
The significant difference from a year ago was that Haslam and CEO Joe Banner inherited Shurmur. They hired Chudzinski and believed he was the right guy to lead the turnaround.
After a 4-12 season and a seven-game losing streak to end the year, Haslam and Banner admitted they made a mistake in giving Chudzinski his first head coaching job. Actually, they made the decision Saturday before the finale in Pittsburgh after a week of discussion.
“As unpopular and undesirable for us to be sitting here right now and acknowledging that we didn’t get it right, the fact that we’re making this change makes a statement that we’re not going to accept not being really successful, and I think that whether you agree with the decision or not, that that’s an important message for our fans to hear,” Banner said. “We’re going to demand of everybody, including especially and starting with ourselves, that we be successful and if we’re not, we’re going to do what we need to do to get there.”
The search for a replacement began immediately as the Browns requested permission to interview several assistant coaches around the league. Haslam wouldn’t put a timeframe on the length of the search.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, a Canton native, is an early front-runner. The Browns want to interview him this weekend during New England’s bye week. They also requested permission to interview Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
Banner said they hadn’t decided if they’d interview a member of Chudzinski’s staff — defensive coordinator Ray Horton interviewed last year — and didn’t think they’d interview any of the same outside candidates from a year ago. That would eliminate Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
“We want an individual who’s a strong winner who knows how to win football games,” Haslam said.
The firing shocked Chudzinski, the players and the fans. After all, just a year earlier Haslam and Banner had preached the value of stability.
“We understand the importance of continuity,” said Haslam, who reminded those listening of the “track record” of Banner and himself in sticking with personnel decisions. “But I think it’s really important for you to hear this, we also understand the importance of getting it right.”
According to Haslam and Banner, the reason for the firing was simple: The team regressed as the season progressed. Banner praised Chudzinski when he was 4-5 at the bye, but the Browns didn’t win again.
“We had a young team, but if we reflect on it we would all say a young team should get better and we simply didn’t feel like that was happening,” Haslam said.
Banner compared Chudzinski unfavorably with first-year coaches in the league this season and in the past. Haslam referred to his preseason comments that he expected improvement throughout the year.
“We felt the trajectory was actually moving downward,” said Banner, who defended the front office’s questionable roster moves and talent evaluation. “We felt that the answer was more than time and that led us to conclude we needed to make this change.”
The Browns haven’t won a playoff game since 1994, before they moved. They’ve had only two winning seasons since the return in 1999 and have lost at least 10 games 12 times in 15 years.
Chudzinski was supposed to stop that cycle. He grew up a Browns fan in Toledo and had his dream job.
“I was shocked and disappointed to hear the news that I was fired,” Chudzinski said in a statement released by the team. “I am a Cleveland Brown to the core, and always will be. It was an honor to lead our players and coaches, and I appreciate their dedication and sacrifice.
“I was more excited than ever for this team, as I know we were building a great foundation for future success. While clearly I would have liked to see the long-term vision through to the end, I am very grateful to Jimmy Haslam and the Haslam family for letting me live my dream.”
Chudzinski was fired Sunday night after the bus ride home from Pittsburgh. He met with the players Monday and receiver Josh Gordon described him as emotional but professional.
“I can’t say what’s fair, what’s not fair,” Gordon said. “It’s the business of the league.
“But I figured any coach in the NFL would get at least two (years). I didn’t even know that was possible.”
Chudzinski was the first coach in franchise history to be fired after one season. The next Browns coach will be the seventh since 1999. The Browns have fired four coaches since the end of the 2008 season, while the rest of the AFC North hasn’t made a move.
Chudzinski has three years left on a four-year deal and is owed $10.5 million. Shurmur has another year left on his four-year deal.
“These are expensive moves, OK?” Haslam said. “And so we’re not only just saying it, we’re talking with our pocketbook here. We’re doing everything we can to get this right.”
Haslam insisted the Browns job remains an attractive one, despite firing the last coach after only a year. He cited the 10 draft picks coming in May – two each in the first, third and fourth rounds – and tens of millions in salary cap space.
“I have no idea whether we’ll interview three people or 10 people, and they are intense sessions with these individuals,” Haslam said. “I feel confident that we’re going to be able to convince people that this is not a good but a great place to coach where they’ll have great support and everything they need to be successful. We’ll know a year from now or two years from now or maybe six months from now if we’re successful with that. But we feel confident we can do it.”
Haslam said he and Banner fully realize the stakes have been raised as they head into another offseason of uncertainty.
“You all have heard this way more times than I have because most of you have been around here a lot longer,” he said. “This is THE crucial offseason for the Cleveland Browns. Joe and I accept that, we accept the responsibility. We understand how important it is.”
Follow Scott on Twitter @scottpetrak for updates.