by Mary Kay Cabot
Northeast Ohio Media Group
PITTSBURGH, Pa.- Citing a "concerning step backward in the second half of the year,'' the Browns fired head coach Rob Chudzinski on Sunday night after only one season.
The announcement came at about 9:35 Sunday night, about five hours after the Browns closed their season at 4-12 with a 20-7 loss to Pittsburgh -- their seventh straight loss and 10th in 11 games.
The firing came after a lengthy meeting between Chudzinski, Browns CEO Joe Banner and owner Jimmy Haslam in which Chudzinski had an opportunity to plead his case, a source told cleveland.com.
The meeting was supposed to take place Monday morning, but Chudzinski, who has three years left on his contract at about $3.5 million a year, pushed for it to be moved up.
Chudzinski's two coordinators, Norv Turner and Ray Horton, are also expected to be gone soon, and it's doubtful anyone on the current staff will remain. The staff is expected to meet with the top brass early Monday morning.
A source said the Browns regretted having to fire Chudzinski after one year, but that they saw the team regressing and felt it was time to cut their losses.
Leading candidates to replace Chudzinski will be Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, a graduate of Canton McKinley High and John Carroll University; and Penn State's Bill O'Brien, the former Patriots offensive coordinator. O'Brien, the frontrunner for the Houston Texans job, interviewed for the Browns vacancy last year, but opted to stay at Penn State for a second season.
The Browns wanted to interview McDaniels last year, but he wasn't ready to leave New England. A source told cleveland.com last year that McDaniels would "jump at the chance'' to coach his hometown team when he was ready to return to the head coaching ranks.
The Browns called a press conference for 12:30 p.m. Monday and issued the following unattributed statement:
"We appreciate Chud's passion for the Browns, and we have great respect for him both personally and professionally. We needed to see progress with this football team. We needed to see development and improvement as the season evolved and, unfortunately, we took a concerning step backward in the second half of the year.
"Our fans deserve to see a consistently competitive team. We have high standards, and there's an urgency for success. When we believed we were not positioned to achieve significant progress in 2014, we knew we had to admit that a change was needed, and move forward.
"Browns fans are the most loyal and passionate supporters in the NFL. We're fully committed to bringing them the winning football team they deserve."
On Sunday, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam was so disgusted with his team's performance in Pittsburgh -- and 20-0 deficit in the fourth quarter -- that he stalked out of Heinz Field with about six minutes remaining, before the Browns averted their first shutout of the season, a source told cleveland.com. He was also incensed after last week's 24-13 loss to the Jets, a game in which the Browns felt they had superior talent and lost by a double-digit margin.
Despite using three quarterbacks this season, the front office felt the team was getting worse by the week instead of better, a source said. They felt that even if the team had won four games but looked to be improving, they wouldn't have made a change.
Meanwhile, the front office looked around and saw other first-time coaches excelling, including the Eagles' Chip Kelly (9-6), Arizona's Bruce Arians (10-6), San Diego's Mike McCoy (9-7) and Chicago's Marc Trestman (8-8).
It rankled the Browns that they lost to the Jaguars -- 32-28 -- on their home turf to first-time head coach Gus Bradley, who finished 4-12 and will draft ahead of the Browns but showed progress as the season wore on despite a lack of top-tier talent.
The Browns felt that if they had a fair chance at getting the team turned around, they had to act swiftly. As many as seven coaches could be fired, and competition for the top candidates will be fierce.
In addition to McDaniels and O'Brien, Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports reported that Lions coach Jim Schwartz will be a possible candidate if he gets fired. Lombardi was instrumental in bringing Schwartz to Cleveland during the Bill Belichick years, and the two have remained close.
The front office acknowledges that it made the wrong hire, a source said, but couldn't stomach the team losing 10 of its last 11 after beginning the year 3-2. There was growing sentiment in the organization that the team was better last year under Pat Shurmur when it went 3-3 in the final six games of the season to finish 5-11.
The Browns brought in high-priced free agents such as Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant and still did not improve over last season. The front office was unhappy with the meltdowns that occurred week after week -- consistently blowing leads in the fourth quarter -- and attributed it to coaching.
As speculation mounted during the Steelers game Sunday, the club issued a statement in the fourth quarter: "Our focus is on the game today. We will not discuss any evaluation of the season until this upcoming week.''
Chudzinski, who put on a brave face after the game, was asked if he'd be back next year.
"As far as I know,'' he said.
He said the firing talk didn't necessarily catch him off guard.
"It sort of comes with the territory,'' he said. "We'll get it started next week and (do) the things we need to do to make the Cleveland Browns better.''
He said he saw Haslam before the game, but that nothing about his job security was discussed.
"We haven't had any discussions other than we're going to talk next week on where we're at and make the assessments and evaluations and move on,'' he said.
Asked if he felt he felt he was on the same page with Haslam and Banner regarding the future of the club, he said, "definitely. No question about that.''
It marked the Browns fourth head coach firing in the past six seasons: Romeo Crennel in 2008, Eric Mangini in 2010, Pat Shurmur in 2012 and Chudzinski in 2013.
The sixth full-time head coach in the new era, Chudzinski was the first in Browns history to go one-and-done.
"It's a difficult job,'' said Chudzinski. "We've gone through a lot and had a lot of things happen this season. I got back to being proud of our guys and how they've been able to handle it and that was my goal -- to make sure that I kept the ship steady through those times. I feel the future is bright. I look forward to it.''
Several national reports cited Chudzinski's indecisiveness in big moments and his inability to hold players accountable. A source said Chudzinski was baffled by the notion that he didn't hold players accountable.
"I don't know anything regarding that at all,'' he said. "That's not an issue.''
The front office wanted him to make a statement in recent weeks by cutting a player such as receiver Greg Little or guard Shawn Lauvao, but that he wouldn't do it. Ultimately, that did not prove to be the crux of the issue -- lack of improvement was.
A source also said that Turner has been dismayed recently because the Browns wanted a title change for his son Scott Turner, the receivers coach.
News of Chudzinski's possible firing was met with shock and outrage in the Browns locker room.
"That’s ridiculous,'' said linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. "He’s a great head coach and that’s all I gotta say about that…. That pisses me off in a sense. That’s not going to happen. I don’t know how a report would get out like that about Chud. Chud’s a great coach. He’s had our attention from Day 1. We have great coaches that are coaching us up."
Jackson said the 4-12 record "was on the players this year. We didn’t win the games to let people know how good of a coach he was. It fell on the players this year. He’s not going anywhere, not in my opinion.''
Seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, who's had four head coaches since 2007, said, "to start over again, it would be devastating, “It sets everything back. You just hit the reset button. Anytime you hit the rest button, it severely damages the organization, and it lengthens the amount of time that it takes to get back to the playoffs and turn the team into a consistent winner.”
Thomas said he wouldn't ask out if the Browns fire Chudzinski.
"I’m a Cleveland Brown,'' he said. "I love being a Cleveland Brown. I don’t have a say in the decisions that are made at that level. I’d be disappointed, but I’m still a good solider, and I’m going to show up to work and do my best every day no matter what happens…..A lot of times they want to hear the players’ feedback and input and certainly, definitely, if they ask me, defend Chud because I think he’s done a good job.”
As for the accountability issue, Thomas said, "That was one of the things we're built on.''
NFL Network's Mike Silver said one Browns player texted him, "this organization is a joke'' and another "we are so dysfunctional. These billionaires need to pick somebody and stay with them. These aren't girlfriends.''
A lifelong Browns fan from Toledo, Ohio, Chudzinski -- who made it his personal mission to lead the Browns to a championship -- was at least the Browns' seventh option for their head coaching vacancy last season. Before the new regime of Haslam, Banner and Lombardi made him their first coaching hire, they interviewed Kelly, Doug Marrone, O'Brien, Ken Whisenhunt, Ray Horton and Trestman. They also sent out feelers to Nick Saban and Jon Gruden.
They were close to hiring Whisenhunt, but preferred Chudzinski's ability to bring coordinators Turner and Horton with him.
Lombardi's tight relationship with Belichick is also why O'Brien and McDaniels are high on the list this time around. Lombardi got to know both coaches very well when they were in New England, and McDaniels reportedly considered hiring Lombardi as his GM when he took the Denver head coach job.
Lombardi would've been happy with either O'Brien or McDaniels last year, but the timing wasn't right. O'Brien felt it was too soon to leave beleaguered Penn State after only one season, and they gave him a raise after news broke that he interviewed with the Browns.
O'Brien parted ways with then agent Joe Linta and hired Cleveland-based Neil Cornrich, who goes way back with Belichick and Lombardi to the early 1990s when they were in Cleveland.
McDaniels had bounced around a lot after getting fired as head coach of the Broncos in 2010, and his wife had recently given birth to their fourth child. He wasn't ready to uproot the family last January -- but perhaps he is now. A source close to McDaniels told cleveland.com last year he'd love to coach the team he grew up rooting for.
In New England, McDaniels played a key role on a staff that won three Super Bowls and four AFC Championship games.
Depending on what happens Monday morning, he could become the Browns' seventh full-time head coach since 1999 and fifth to hold the seat since 2008. He'll also be the second straight to grow up loving the orange and brown.
Question is, will he last longer than the maximum of two years for the last three guys?
For comparison's sake, the Steelers have had three head coaches since 1969.
Chudzinski is the the third straight coach to go one-and-done and fourth in five years: Jim Mora by Seattle in 2009, Hue Jackson by Oakland in 2011 and Mike Mularkey by the Jaguars in 2012.