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Worst Coaching Decisions of the Cleveland Browns: Part 3

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Two Hall of Fame coaches round out the list  

Cleveland Browns Marty Schottenheimer Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

One thing you will notice about this complete list of the 15 worst coaching decisions of the Browns management regarding head coaching hires, or head coaching should-have hires – the absence of Bill Belichick.

Belichick is a first ballot Hall of Fame candidate without any doubt. He has eight Super Bowl rings: two with the New York Football Giants as their defensive coordinator and six with the New England Patriots as head coach. His hand-drawn defensive plan to combat the high-scoring Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV currently resides in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a testament to his defensive prowess.

RELATED: WORST COACHING DECISIONS OF THE CLEVELAND BROWNS PART 1

He was the head coach of the Browns from 1991-1995. Belichick’s plan for success was intended to become Cleveland’s plan for success. So, why isn’t he on this list? Isn’t he a definite fail as far as the Browns’ management which should have retained him?

Yes and no. Yes, former Browns’ owner Art Modell made a huge mistake when he fired Belichick and his all-star roster of assistants. However, if Belichick had been retained, he would be coaching the Baltimore Ravens instead of the New England Patriots. To be factual, Modell did the new Browns a favor by not placing Belichick as head of a divisional foe.

San Diego Chargers vs Cleveland Browns - December 21, 1986
Cleveland Browns special teams coach Bill Cowher (left)
Photo by Dennis Collins/Getty Images

5. Bill Cowher (1985 - 1988)

Wow. It is extremely hard to believe that the Browns once employed Bill Cowher, one of the greatest coaches division rival Pittsburgh Steelers has hired, but unfortunately, it’s true.

So, why didn’t Cleveland hire him as their head man?

Cowher’s very first coaching job was with the Browns at the age of 28. He was hired as the special teams coach in 1985 under Marty Schottenheimer. He worked special teams for two seasons until he was promoted to defensive backs coach in 1987. Cowher had played linebacker in the NFL for three clubs, including Cleveland from 1980-1982.

Cowher coached Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon who emerged as one of the NFL’s elite defensive backfields with Felix Wright at strong safety.

Browns owner Art Modell was not satisfied with Schottenheimer despite his teams going to the playoffs all four years as the head coach with three division titles. The shtick for Modell was the fact that Schotts could get to the AFC Championship Game, yet couldn’t win one. And so when it was “mutually agreed” for Schottenheimer to “resign”, all of his assistants were also fired, um, no longer employed by Cleveland.

Scottenheimer then became head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs and Cowher was hired as the defensive coordinator. Three years later, the Steelers had their new head coach for the next 14 years.

Cowher was enshrined into the Pittsburgh Hall of Fame in 2011 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a coach in 2020. He is not enshrined into any Cleveland Hall of Fame because the Browns passed on hiring him when Schotts left and hired Bud Carson instead; who was subsequently fired halfway through his second season following a 42-0 home loss to the Buffalo Bills.

Would Cowher’s success with the Steelers ultimately had become the Browns’ success?

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers 12-30-2012 Photo by David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images

4. Pat Shurmur (2011 - 2012)

Shurmur is a decent offensive coordinator. He is also a bad head coach. The league is full of decent to good to great coordinators which make bad head coaches - Wade Phillips and Norv Turner come to mind. Shurmur is very bright and can be flexible, but often lacks creativity. And as long as his offensive roster is full of good players, Shurmur does his job and does it well.

Before Shurmur took over the St. Louis Rams offensive reins, they were 2-14-0. After he got there, they went 1-15-0 followed by 7-9-0. He was instrumental in the development of Rams’ quarterback Sam Bradford, but most other areas of the offense struggled.

When he came to the Browns for the 2011 season, Shurmur’s offenses had not been that successful finishing 28th and 21st in passing both years he was the OC with the Rams and won only eight games total within the 2009 and 2010 seasons. But Cleveland hired him - his first head coaching job at any level. It seems Browns’ GM Mike Holmgren and Shurmur had the same agent.

The hiring did not spark a sudden rush for Browns season tickets. Most fans went “Pat who?” when the announcement was made. But Shurmur was a quarterback coach and Cleveland had just drafted Colt McCoy and felt there were good things in store for the young signalcaller.

At this point, the Browns had been a mess for so long and wanted some sort of order and permanence. Unfortunately, Shurmur only clouded the head coaching situation and added to the unstable nature of the position.

With the Browns, Shurmur hired defensive guru Dick Jauron to run that side of the ball, and did not hire an offensive coordinator. Shurmur would call all plays, so the position did not seem to be needed in his eyes.

The 2011 season began 2-1-0 and then 3-3-0, but the offense was having problems scoring points. Then the club lost 10 of its last 11 games to finish 4-12-0. The offense had promise with McCoy behind center Alex Mack and Joe Thomas at left tackle, Peyton Hillis the starting running back with receivers Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi plus Ben Watson at tight end. All of that looked great on paper, but the results were a 24th ranking in the passing game, 30th in both total points scored and points per game average, 27th in touchdown passes, as well as 24th in total passing yards.

A big change happened in the following summer. Owner Randy Lerner sold the Browns to Tennessee businessman Jimmy Haslam and his wife Dee. Cleveland drafted quarterback Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson in the first-round of the NFL draft plus wide receivers Travis Benjamin and Josh Gordon, and the outlook for 2012 appeared to improve. An offensive coordinator was hired in Brad Childress.

The result was minimal. The Browns lost their first five games and at one point were 2-8-0. The bleeding only stopped after losing their last three games as Cleveland went 5-11-0. Scoring points remained the Achilles heel as they ranked 24th in total points scored.

The day after losing 24-10 to the Steelers, Shurmur along with GM Tom Heckert were fired by an owner that did not hire either men. Under Shurmur the Browns went 9-23-0 (.281 win percentage) and never progressed on offense.

Add the fact that the Browns management at the time was in such disarray, it is no wonder the chemistry and continuity of the entire franchise had issues.

Shurmur is known for being a poor time manager and lack of passion. Later, as the head coach of the Giants, to nobody’s dismay he had a losing record in both seasons he was employed before being fired. He is now listed as the seventh-worst head coach via win percentage in the history of the NFL. Sound familiar?

Cleveland Browns Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

3. Marty Schottenheimer (1984 – 1988)

In the 1990s, no NFL head coach won more games than Marty Schottenheimer. Unfortunately, that success was not with Cleveland who had fired him 11 years earlier.

When Schottenheimer was named as the Browns head coach halfway throught the 1984 season, the 41-year old defensive-minded assistant took over a 1-7-0 ballclub and went 4-4-0. The following season, Cleveland won the AFC Central Division and a playoff berth. That was the magic of Schottenheimer who instilled a no-nonsense approach. The Browns had developed into an opportunistic, tough ballclub which blossomed with new quarterback Bernie Kosar and a stiff, complex defense. It only lasted four full seasons, but Schott never coached the Browns to a losing season and made the playoffs each year.

The problem then? Modell believed Schott could never win the big game. Ever.

In the playoffs, lost by three to the Miami Dolphins, win by three in double overtime over the Jets, lost by one to the Houston Oilers. Then, there were the AFC Championship Games – two in fact. In 1986, the 12-4-0 Browns got the ball first in overtime, punted, and then watched Denver Broncos’ quarterback John Elway orchestrate a 98-yard drive in overtime in order to get in range for the winning field goal. The next year, it was the Broncos victorious again after Cleveland was down 28-10 only to tie the game 31-31. Then, with 1:05 remaining, the Browns drove to the two-yard line and fumbled.

Despite Schottenheimer compiling a 44-27-0 record in four-and-a-half seasons, three AFC Central Division crowns, two AFC Championship Game appearances, a 3-4 playoff record, making the playoffs all four years, and an elite status in the NFL, Modell wanted a more offensive-minded man at the helm and felt the playoff losses were the result of not being able to score points when the game was on the line.

Issues between the two men became evident and the offensive differences were not going to mend itself. Four days after losing to the Oilers by a single point, a news conference was called and Schott was out.

Since Schottenheimer has left, the Browns have had only had four winning seasons among 28 years. Six years after he had done it in Cleveland, Schottenheimer was back in the AFC Championship with the Chiefs and a fella by the name of Joe Montana.

He is only one of five guys who have won over 200 games. And yes, in the playoffs, his squads seemed to be snake-bit.

As good as he was as a head coach, he was a better person. Coaching at any level is a stressful environment. To have that much success for 30 years is an achievement in itself. Unfortunately for Browns’ fans, Schottenheimer’s time was cut short in Cleveland and certainly the franchise would have been further down the road if he had stayed as the head coach.

Four years as head coach and four years making the playoffs including two AFC Championship Game appearances with three division crowns and that wasn’t enough? What?!?

Cleveland Browns v New York Giants Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

2. Hue Jackson (2016 - 2018)

In 2019, medium.com put out a list of the 12 worst NFL coaches of all-time. Hue Jackson’s 0.196 win percentage was barely beat out by former Detroit Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg’s career 0.156 winning percentage for the top spot.

Without a doubt, Jackson was the worst head coach in Cleveland Browns history. His 3-36-1 record as a head coach in his two-and-a-half seasons is the worst ever for at least a 40-game coaching span.

Once looked upon as an offensive guru waiting to make any hapless club a success, Jackson came to Cleveland after two seasons as the offensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals under head coach Marvin Lewis. Before getting the Browns’ head coaching position, Jackson had coached 28 years which included five colleges, one NFL Europe club, and six NFL teams (including the Bengals twice). He was even an NFL head coach before after taking the Oakland Raiders gig in 2011, but that lasted only a single season.

At every juncture in his NFL coaching careeer, Jackson had success at making players great such as WR Chad Johnson, RB Stephen Davis, QB Joe Flacco, RB Darren McFadden and WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Working as the OC with the Raiders in 2010, Oakland’s offensive was ranked number four.

As the Bengals OC, his team ranked 2nd in passing in 2015 and 13th in rushing.

On January 13, 2016, Jackson became the eighth head coach of Cleveland named since becoming the new Browns in 1999. Seven coaches were interviewed for the job. At the time, Jackson said this about his hiring:

“I think what our fans will be proud of and excited about is we’re going to be a football team that’s going to play very excited football. We’re going to be passionate about what we do and we understand there’s a lot of work involved in order to meet our goals.”

Yeh, hold that thought.

In the upcoming draft, the Browns had the number two pick and were having issues with another former first-round selection Johnny Manziel. Jackson was supposed to this “quarterback whisperer” and Manziel was earmarked as his greatest challenge. The Browns ended up releasing him in March instead.

That 2016 season ended with a 1-15-0 record. The offensive ranked 27th while the defense rated second against the pass but allowed the second most rushing yards. Jackson’s resume revealed he was good at two things: fixing the offensive woes, and a quarterback mentor. But rookie QB Cody Kessler finished as the 19th best signalcaller in his eight starts and the offense was in shambles. And neither of the veterans Josh McCown nor Robert Griffin appeared any better in the other eight games as starters.

The 1-15-0 season marked the worst regular season record for the Browns franchise ever. Until they played the 2016 season.

What was the plan to make the Browns a contender in 2016? Jackson’s answer was to instill a fire in each player’s belly.

Jackson lacked strong leadership as a head coach. He failed to succeed in putting his players in the best position to succeed. He had constant quarterback issues. The club had horrible draft picks such as selecting WR Corey Coleman instead of WR Michael Thomas in the same draft class. Jackson is a detail-oriented person but failed with motivation.

You know the story of 2016: 0-16-0. Afterwards, Jackson talked about he was a hero to his players for not walking out on going 1-31-0 over two seasons. He was not quitting on the organization (making millions by the way) or saying “uncle” just because times were rough.

“I don’t think anyone else could’ve done this job for the past two years.”

Considering so few head coaches have gone winless, you are absolutely correct, Mr. Jackson.

Just as Jackson conned his way into being hired as the head coach, he conned his way into keeping his job a third season before getting the ax after the first eight games.

After he was fired, the gloves came off and Jackson blamed play-caller Todd Haley, QB Cody Kessler, QB DeShone Kizer, the offensive line, poor drafting by GM Sashi Brown, passing on taking QB’s such as Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, WR Terrelle Pryor not becoming an All-Pro, Josh Gordon being Josh Gordon, having a roster full of practice squad players, Danny Shelton not stopping the run, K Cody Parkey’s poor field goal percentage, K Zane Gonzalez’s poor field goal percentage, wide receivers coach Al Saunders, the Bengals running up the score twice, the Steelers not letting the Browns win at least one of their two contests, having to play with street free agents, and not being able to have the time needed to revamp the offense.

Who Hue Jackson didn’t blame? Hue Jackson.

RELATED: POST-BROWNS HUE JACKSON STORY

In Jackson’s two seasons calling plays (2016-2017), Cleveland’s offense ranked 27th and dead last in the league. He was incompetent as a head coach and opened his mouth too many times which often proved this.

Maybe the biggest question is: why did Browns’ management keep him around after going 1-15-0 in 2016?

Football Players and Coach in Locker Room
Paul Brown (left)

1. Paul Brown (1946 - 1962)

Under Brown, the franchise that bears his namesake became legends. For several decades, Cleveland was the dominant team in two professional football leagues. In the upstart All-America Football Conference (AAFC) from 1946 to 1949, the Browns won all four championships before merging into the NFL.

While the AAFC was raiding NFL rosters and coaching staffs, NFL commissioner Elmer Layden had stated that “the NFL’s worst team could defeat the AAFC’s best team any day of the week.” When the Browns merged into the NFL for the 1950 season, they won the NFL title. After Cleveland defeated the Los Angeles Rams 30-28 in that game, the new commissioner, Bert Bell, called the Browns “the best team I ever saw.”

Coach Brown was an innovator and a strategist. He was totally in command of all aspects of his Browns as the original owner, Mickey McBride, gave Brown full reigns of the team’s checkbook, finances, player personnel decisions and road game scheduling.

In the AAFC, the Browns went 47-4-3 in their four years. The 1948 club went undefeated and untied. From midway in the 1947 season into midway of the 1949 season, the Browns went 29-0-2, a feat no other professional football club has ever achieved.

After merging into the NFL, from 1950-1958, Cleveland would capture their division eight times, went to the playoffs eight years, played in the NFL Championship Game seven different seasons, and won the NFL title three times. Paul Brown was NFL Coach-of-the-Year three times while two of his players, quarterback Otto Graham and fullback Jim Brown, were the league’s MVP a combined five terms.

During this same time period, the Browns went 93-30-2 for a 72% win percentage.

Then, several things changed. Graham, a five-time Pro Bowler and three time NFL MVP, had retired. After getting blanked in the conference playoffs 10-0 in 1958, the Browns failed to make the postseason in 1959 with a 7-5-0 record. The same thing occurred in 1960 making the first time the franchise had failed to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons. In 1961, Art Modell bought the Browns for $4 million.

Whereas McBride never delved into the football side of the Browns, Modell was quite the opposite and wanted to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the franchise. Modell expected to make many of the decisions of the team. This created a strain between himself and Brown. At the time, Paul Brown was one of the most powerful and influential men in the league.

The duos first season together created an 8-5-1 season and again a playoff misfire. The following year, Cleveland limped to a 7-6-1 record which meant four years in a row the franchise had missed the post-season. Modell and some players began to question Brown’s coaching methods, which was ruled with an iron fist, as well as his strict disciplinarian disposition. Then Brown traded for Syracuse rookie Ernie Davis without Modell’s consent. After Davis was diagnosed with terminal leukemia, he was still working out and appeared to get better. Modell instructed Brown to play Davis, but Coach Brown refused knowing the running back was not up to the task.

On January 9, 1963, Modell - the owner of the Browns - fired Paul Brown. The remainder of Modell’s legacy would later force Jim Brown to retire after yet another MVP season and then three decades later moved the Cleveland franchise to Baltimore.

Known as “Paul” to his players, he had a single losing season as the head coach in 1956 with a 5-7-0 record. It is certainly not by coincidence that this was also the first year without All-World quarterback Otto Graham who in 1955 was the NFL’s MVP plus the league’s passing leader.

RELATED: PAUL BROWN BUILT THE BROWNS

Many consider Brown as the greatest professional football coach ever. He is certainly one of the greatest NFL coaches to be let go by the Browns.

Many may argue that the game had evolved to which Coach Brown did not keep up with. After all, Paul Brown starting coaching Cleveland in its maiden year of 1946 and here it was 1962. And that may be a fair assessment. Coach Brown certainly had major issues with Modell taking away a lot of his power within the franchise such as the draft, trades and other methods of building the roster.

And when Coach Brown left, his offensive assistant Blanton Collier filled in admirably and in fact captured the 1964 NFL Championship; although there are those who will point to the fact that many of those players were Coach Brown’s players.

It was simply a matter of time for Modell and Coach Brown to part ways. After not making the playoffs four straight years - despite having a winning record each of those years - Modell saw the timing was right for public sentiment to agree with him.

And the truth is this: in the latter years Coach Brown was standoffish, felt alienated with lessened powers, and there was discontent in the locker room. The final five years of Coach Brown’s tenure Cleveland went 39-22-3.

While the head coach of the Browns: 214 games, 158 wins, 88 losses, 8 ties, .767 win percentage, seven league championships, one undefeated/untied season, four one-lose seasons, four two-loss seasons, 12 division crowns including 10 in a row, 12 title game appearances including 10 in a row, six time Coach-of-the-Year, Browns Ring of Honor, 100th Anniversary Team (as one of only 10 coaches named), Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee (1967) and only one losing season (1956: 5-7-0) coaching Cleveland 17 years.

The most pro football titles (in any league) are as follows: Green Bay Packers (13), Chicago Bears (9), New York Football Giants (8) and the Cleveland Browns (8).

The worst coaching decision for Browns management was not allowing Coach Brown to step down when he was ready – period.

Poll

Three men that appear on this Top 15 list were all non-hires by Cleveland that found success with other teams. Which would have made the greatest Browns head coach?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Weeb Ewbank
    (21 votes)
  • 15%
    Nick Saban
    (68 votes)
  • 79%
    Bill Cowher
    (349 votes)
438 votes total Vote Now