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Worst Coaching Decisions of the Cleveland Browns: Part 2

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Many great men were in over their heads, never called for an interview, or sent packing  

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns

Over the years and into various decades, the Browns have had quite a few head coaches. Which is odd because initially the club had only two men head their franchise for the first 23 years: 16 seasons under Paul Brown and another seven coached by Blanton Collier.

The next 49 years have seen 20 different names etched on the “Office of” door nameplate including the new guy who just replaced the other new guy. Among those names were two that were given the title of “Interim Head Coach.” That is an average coaching tenure of 2.45 years per man. Ouch.

10. Nick Saban (1991 - 1994)

Six national college football championships. Eight SEC titles. 12 SEC Western Division titles. An undefeated season. Back-to-back National Champions. Six National Championships at two different schools. Two-time national Coach-of-the-Year. Four-time SEC Coach-of-the-Year. Career .788 win percentage. $8.6 million a year salary.

That is what Nick Saban has done as a college football head coach.

Saban was an assistant coach with the Browns as the defensive coordinator from 1991-1994. Under Saban’s tutelage, Cleveland’s defense improved each season and in 1994 was ranked seventh. In his final year with the Browns, Saban’s pass defense was one of the few clubs to allow less than 200 passing yards a game, ranked fifth in rushing touchdowns allowed (9), was number one in fewest average points per game at 12.8, number one in total points scored against (204), seventh in sacks with 38, and number 10 in the interceptions (18), pass defenses (18) and fumble recovery (13) departments.

This defense featured Michael Dean Perry, Carl Banks, Antonio Langham, Pepper Johnson, Eric Turner, Rob Burnett, Bill Johnson and Anthony Pleasant. Turner led the NFL in interceptions with nine. Burnett was one of the league leaders in sacks. Perry, Johnson, Turner and Burnett all made the Pro Bowl.

The Browns went 11-5-0 that year and then won one playoff game before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers 29-9 in the Divisional Round. But all anyone talked about, was Cleveland’s defense.

The following season, the Browns were being discussed about a Super Bowl run. Head coach Bill Belichick was not able to retain Saban as he moved on to become head coach of Michigan State. News that Cleveland would relocate to Baltimore came out when the Browns were 3-1-0 in 1996 and then finished a disastrous 5-11-0.

Saban never had a losing season with Michigan State and in his final year went 10-2-0 with a Citrus Bowl victory. The Browns came back as a franchise and never called their former defensive coach to interview for their head coaching position.

One can only wonder if the success Saban has had could have been the success the Browns would have had.

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

9. Freddie Kitchens (2019)

With a young quarterback to groom, Kitchens was given the keys to the kingdom based on him being successful in eight whole games as the offensive coordinator in 2018. Kitchens had never been a head coach at any level, nor had he been hired as a coordinator for a full season before being named the head coach.

The idea was that he was an offensive guru and could develop Baker Mayfield to the next level. His offense possessed running back sensation Nick Chubb and four-time Pro Bowl receiver Jarvis Landry. Then, the Browns traded for Odell Beckham, Jr. and instantly Kitchens’ roster was projected as an immediate playoff club by almost every media expert.

Instead, the offense struggled behind an inadequate offensive line and Mayfield regressed in almost every quarterbacking category including the second most interceptions thrown. The defense lacked intensity and quality depth. Kitchens’ play calling was vanilla and his offense was one of the most penalized teams in the league. The end result was a 6-10-0 record.

Kitchens did not even make it to Black Monday to find out his fate as he was fired right after losing to the NFL’s worst team.

8. Forrest Gregg (1975 – 1977)

Rarely does a great athlete become a great head coach. After a fine playing career with the Green Bay Packers in which he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player, Gregg was a player/coach with the offensive line in Dallas and then a full time coach in San Diego. After the 1973 season, he got a call from Browns’ owner Art Modell.

Gregg was hired as Cleveland’s offensive line coach under then-head coach Nick Skorich. Under Skorich, the Browns had made the playoffs in his first two years and then posted a 7-5-0 season. In Gregg’s first season on the Browns staff, the bottom fell out and Cleveland plunged to a 4-10-0 record to which Skorich took the hint and retired.

Modell began a search for a new head coach, and was drawn to Gregg as a possible candidate despite him never having a head coaching gig at any level, and the fact that he had only two full seasons as a position coach.

The final list was whittled down to former Browns’ offensive tackle Monte Clark and Gregg. Clark had been the offensive line coach for the Miami Dolphins for four seasons plus was their offensive coordinator in 1974. Despite Clark’s Cleveland connection and a more experienced resume, Modell chose Gregg as the next Browns’ head coach.

The Cleveland fan base was all for this choice. In their minds, Gregg was a no-nonsense player who had intensity and would instill discipline. This meant he would be just the man to turn things around.

But the situation got worse before the glimmer of better squads could even become a reality. In Gregg’s first season the Browns plummeted to 3-11-0 after losing their first nine games.

For the 1976 season, it first appeared that this year would become another fiasco as Cleveland lost three of their first four games. Then the Browns went on a tear and went 8-2 down the stretch to post a 9-5-0 record, but barely missed the playoffs. The Browns offense had turned around after drafting running back Mike Pruitt and wide receiver Dave Logan to pair with WR’s Reggie Rucker and Paul Warfield plus the steady play of quarterback Brian Sipe.

For his efforts of turning around the roster, Gregg was named NFL Coach-of-the-Year and things were looking very promising going into 1977.

The winning momentum was again in effect as the Browns began the year 5-2-0 which included two division wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and the Houston Oilers. At this point, they were leading the AFC Central division. Then, many dreadful things happened.

RELATED: WORST COACHING DECISIONS OF THE CLEVELAND BROWNS PART 1

Both the Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers beat Cleveland which were both divisional losses, plus Sipe broke a shoulder blade. Backup QB Mike Phipps had been traded away which meant untested Dave Mays was now leading the team who also had a job as a part-time dentist. With Mays under center, the bottom dropped out and Cleveland lost four of their remaining five games to finish 6-8-0, good enough for dead last in the division.

Players complained that Gregg was a 1960s era player trying to coach in the modern NFL. Gregg suspected that the front office had employed a spy that would report to Modell about problems and gossip players would be saying in practices and the locker room. In a team meeting following yet another loss, Gregg heard a noise inside a closet and found player personnel director Bob Nussbaumer inside taking notes.

With the tension from a dramatic turn in the win-loss column, plus intense scrutiny from the front office, Gregg contemplated retiring from coaching. In the second to last game after a 19-15 divisional game against the Oilers in which Cleveland committed eight turnovers, Modell asked Gregg to resign after the season finale the next week against Seattle to which Gregg agreed. However, Modell leaked the story that Gregg had been fired after leading the division to a last place finish in the same year. This infuriated Gregg who demanded Modell then actually fire him to which he got his wish and ended his tenure as head coach of the Browns.

Gregg finished with a 18-23-0 record for a .439 win percentage.

Cleveland Browns v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

7. Mike Pettine (2014 - 2015)

Pettine was a highly sought-after assistant coach after stints in Baltimore, New York and Buffalo. He was known for elevating the defensive units in which he was hired to fix. He followed fellow Ravens’ assistant coach Rex Ryan to the New York Jets to which their defense was ranked number one in 2006.

In 2013, the Browns had 406 points scored against them. Management decided a keen defensive mind was needed and hired Pettine. Initially there was hope when Cleveland improved to 7-9-0 while the defense allowed 337 points. All the while, Pettine never had the GM support which provided a constant wedge. But the following season the defense was ranked 27th and the Browns fell to 3-13-0 despite starting the season 2-3-0. Pettine was fired right after the Browns’ 28-12 lackluster loss to the Steelers along with GM Ray Farmer.

As head coach of Cleveland, Pettine’s rosters went 10-22 and lost 18 of their final 21 games. A quick look at the 2014 and 2015 draft classes for the Browns didn’t do Pettine any favors. He would conclude his Browns career with a paltry .313 win percentage, but would also draft RB Duke Johnson, LB Christian Kirksey, and OG Joel Bitonio. He was also the head coach when the club decided to pick QB Johnny Manziel.

Chris Palmer

6. Chris Palmer (1999 - 2000)

The “new Browns” were reinstated into the NFL in 1999. The franchise was successful in being able to retain their team name, colors, uniform designs, history, retired jerseys and so on as if the organization had simply took a few years off just like clubs did during World War II.

The new Browns needed everything. The first thing the new Browns received was a brand spanking new stadium which was built on the land that the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium stood for 65 years.

The new owner was billionaire Al Lerner who paid $750 million for the club. He hired as team president Carmen Policy who hired Dwight Clark as the Director of Football Operations. Next, interviews for the head coach began. One in particular stood out: Chris Palmer, a student of the Bill Parcells coaching tree. Palmer was an offensive mind with an emphasis on the development of quarterbacks which the Browns would certainly draft one very high.

Lerner, Policy and Clark cancelled other interviews and decided on Palmer, the first offensive head coach for the Browns since Sam Rutigliano. He was signed to a five-year $5 million contract for his chemistry, offensive background, calm disposition, decency, quarterback development skills and character.

But with all new startups, the going was rough. Very rough. The new Browns roster was stocked with rookies, free agents and NFL castoffs.

The defense ended their new campaign dead last in eight different categories: total defense, points allowed, yards allowed per game, total points scored against, sacks, interceptions, pass defenses, and interceptions for touchdowns. The offense did not fare much better as it was dead last in total offense, total yards per game, scrimmage plays, points per season, average points per game, total rushing yards per game, rushing average per attempt, lowest rushing attempts per season, fewest field goals made, fewest field goal attempts, most extra points blocked, most kickoff returns, fewest kickoff returns for touchdowns and fewest punt returns for touchdowns.

The end result was a 0-7-0 start en route to a 2-14 season and a sixth place finish in the AFC Central Division. The Browns lost every home game. Part of the problem was that when rookie quarterback Tim Couch was drafted first overall, Palmer’s plan was to allow veteran Ty Detmer to lead the team for a solid season, and then insert Couch the second year. Instead, Couch was the starting signalcaller in the second game of his rookie campaign and was killed by defenders via a porous offensive line.

The following season Cleveland began with a 2-1-0 record, but lost 12 of their next 13 games. The final five games the Browns were beaten by an average score of 35-8 and were pretty much the same ole stuff to finish 3-13-0. The offense was again ranked dead last while the defense climbed briefly to 26th under the direction of DC Romeo Crennel.

It was an experiment that failed badly in Cleveland as Palmer was fired with an accumulative 5-27-0 record (.156 win percentage).

Next up for the conclusion: Worst coaching decisions 1-5

Poll

Which do you view as the worst Browns coach in this section?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Chris Palmer
    (53 votes)
  • 88%
    Freddie Kitchens
    (681 votes)
  • 4%
    Mike Pettine
    (36 votes)
770 votes total Vote Now