Were Browns fans watching their next coach Sunday night during the Chargers-Broncos playoff game?
They should hope so.
San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt interviewed with the Browns on Saturday. Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase denied a request to interview until his postseason is over, but was the Browns’ first target and reportedly remains their top candidate.
They are the best options available to the Browns in the coaching search entering its third week. The Browns should rank Whisenhunt first and Gase second and be satisfied with either.
Whisenhunt was my pick even before the Browns decided to meet with him for the second straight season and second straight search. He took a franchise with no history of success, the Arizona Cardinals, to the Super Bowl after the 2008 season and would’ve won if not for two of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history — James Harrison’s 100-yard interception return for a touchdown and Santonio Holmes’ toe-tapping touchdown in the final minute.
That should automatically move him to the top of Cleveland’s list. No one needs to be reminded the Browns have never been to a Super Bowl, let alone come within a whisker of winning one.
Whisenhunt, 51, went 45-51 in six years with the Cardinals and won back-to-back NFC West titles. He won a Super Bowl as coordinator of the Steelers in 2005 and was back in the postseason this year in his only season in San Diego after being fired by the Cardinals after 2012.
If the Browns hire Whisenhunt, it would make the decision to fire Rob Chudzinski after one season palatable, if still premature. But they need to overcome some tall obstacles to land Whisenhunt.
First, they chose Chudzinski over Whisenhunt last year after two interviews. Would Whisenhunt trust the same management team a year later? And would he pick the Browns over the Lions?
Detroit is reportedly the favorite to hire Whisenhunt and was likely working on a contract Sunday night after the Chargers lost 24-17 to the Broncos. The Lions can offer quarterback Matthew Stafford, receiver Calvin Johnson and a feared defensive line.
That’s tough competition for the Browns.
If they don’t get a deal done with Whisenhunt for the second straight year, they should do everything possible to secure Gase. He doesn’t have the experience of Whisenhunt, but is considered an up-and-comer in league circles — he’s the fourth-youngest coordinator in the NFL — and was targeted early by the Browns.
Gase, 35, was in charge of a Denver offense that scored an NFL-record 606 points and led the league with 457.3 yards per game and 340.3 yards passing per game in his first year as a coordinator. Of course, it helps to have Peyton Manning running the show at the line of scrimmage and turning bad calls into good ones.
But Gase isn’t a Manning creation. His first NFL job was as a scouting assistant with the Lions in 2003. He started coaching in the NFL in 2005 and has worked for Detroit, San Francisco and Denver. He was Broncos quarterbacks coach in 2011-12, and Tim Tebow looked the most like an NFL passer during the playoff run of 2011.
While Whisenhunt has options, Gase should be persuaded to accept the offer if Cleveland makes it. NFL head coaching jobs don’t come around every day, and there’s no guarantee he’ll ever be in demand again.
But the Browns haven’t been able to sit down with Gase because he’s focusing on the postseason. That opportunity could come next week if the Patriots beat the Broncos in the AFC championship. But if Denver makes the Super Bowl, the Browns would have to decide if they’re willing to wait until February.
The Browns should have enough to lure Whisenhunt or Gase. If not, they will have to further extend the search and possibly broaden it.
Next in line could be Auburn’s Gus Malzahn. Hiring him would have some sizzle, but he appears happy where he is.
Then come the fallbacks.
The Browns want an offensive mind — that was one of the reasons Chudzinski was hired — but have interviewed defensive coordinators Dan Quinn of Seattle and Todd Bowles of Arizona and reportedly might meet with Carolina’s Sean McDermott. All three are solid candidates with strong reputations, but the Browns would be settling and there’d be no buzz among the fans.
Whisenhunt and Gase sound better by the second.
Draft picks set
The Browns’ second first-round draft pick is set.
In addition to their pick at No. 4, the Browns have the Colts’ No. 26 selection courtesy of the Week 3 trade for running back Trent Richardson. The draft starts May 8.
The Colts were eliminated from the playoffs Saturday with a loss at New England. San Diego, which lost Sunday to Denver, will draft 25th because it went 9-7 in the regular season compared to Indianapolis’ 11-5 record.
Richardson totaled 563 yards rushing and three touchdowns with a 2.99 average per carry in 16 games this season.