Rob Oller commentary: Browns take a risk in hiring Chudzinski

Saturday January 12, 2013 2:53 PM
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The Cleveland Browns hired a coach in northern Ohio native Rob Chudzinski who has the right bloodlines, which is a bonus but hardly a harbinger of success.

What will make or break Chudzinski in Cleveland is whether the lifetime Browns fan and longtime offensive coordinator also has the right electrical lines. Is he suitably wired to be a head coach?

Never mind that Chud, as he is affectionately known inside the NFL, knows how to run an offense. League history is littered with coordinators, both offensive and defensive, who failed in the transition from assistant to head coach because they were not built to be the boss.

The guy in charge must do more than design an effective offense. He must manage the people who run that offense … and the defense … and special teams … and … everything. Can Chudzinski multi-task? Can he both organize and inspire his assistants? His players?

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who helped introduce Chudzinski at a news conference yesterday, is confident that he can.

“Rob can control the room and can focus the team and lead the team. No doubt about that,” Haslam said.

Uh, sorry, but there is doubt, because until now Chudzinski has not been asked to do it. The 44-year-old from Toledo has spent his entire coaching career near the elbow of the head coach — including two turns as a Cleveland assistant — without shouldering the burden of being the leader, which makes this a risky hire. Not a bad one, mind you, just risky.

The safer approach would have been to go with a successful previous head coach to minimize the uncertainty. If strong leadership, in its many forms and functions, is the necessary ingredient in forecasting success, then hire a coach with a winning résumé. Did Haslam try to woo a proven NFL winner? We only see he didn’t land one, so where does that leave the Browns?

The honest answer is that no one knows. Browns CEO Joe Banner did not guarantee that Chudzinski will pan out, saying he and Haslam relied on anecdotal evidence from other NFL coaches and players in convincing them that Chudzinski can run the whole program.

“We focused on criteria we’ve seen in other coaches who have been successful,” Banner said. “But you never know.”

So, Chudzinski might be the next Pat Shurmur, whom the Browns fired last month after two subpar seasons.

On the other hand, Chud might also be the next Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints coach who has been wildly successful despite never having been a head coach before taking over the Saints in 2006.

Better yet, the Browns can look to their own division to find successful assistants-turned-head coaches. Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh and John Harbaugh of Baltimore lacked head-coaching experience before taking the reins, proving that running a successful business — and NFL coaches are company executives — mostly comes naturally. Motivational seminars and how-to books can help, but leadership is something you either have or don’t, at least at the level needed to win in the NFL.

The tricky part is that it is nearly impossible to know whether a coach has “it” until he’s under the gun, which explains why many coaching hires do not work out. Consider that seven NFL teams fired their coaches on Dec. 31 — Black Monday — the day after the regular season ended.

Even those who win consistently — Tomlin, Payton, Bill Belichick of New England, Mike McCarthy of Green Bay and Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants — have leaned on fortunate timing and smart drafting as well as their strong leadership skills to get ahead. Read that to mean all have benefited mightily from top-notch quarterback play.

Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden is a work in progress, which means Chudzinski must make up for that gap by displaying an above-average ability to organize, manage and lead.

“I have a plan in place. I have great people around me. I have a great staff,” Chudzinski said.

But is he wired for the job? The scary thing for Browns fans: No one will know until the switch gets flipped next fall.

Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD

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