Rob Chudzinski was somewhat of a dark horse candidate for the head coaching job when he was initially announced as Joe Banner’s choice to head the Cleveland Browns. There were discussions with Chip Kelly, now with the Eagles, among other candidates as well as wishful and rather idiotic desire from fans for names like Nick Saban and Bill Cowher. Ultimately, Chudzinski was said to have blown away the Browns front office in his interview and he said he was gunning for the Browns job, which he said was his dream job. Nine games into his first season with the Browns, Chudzinski has done a great job with in game decision making, overall strategy, and establishing a good mindset within the locker room.
Discussions specifically relating to the offense will be saved for another article, but what Chud has done well has been establishing a culture in the Browns that is extremely confident and not afraid of anyone, regardless of who is in the game. They have had three different quarterbacks at various points and won games with all of them, despite a nonexistent running game in a number of games.
The players are extremely supportive and have to this point, not just avoided saying negative things about him in public, but have gone out of their way to say positive things. Offense, defense or otherwise, there have been a number of players with high profiles in the locker room including Joe Thomas and D’Qwell Jackson that have loved what he has brought to the team. This has been something that started almost as soon as Chud walked into the building, but the way he handled things in training camp and the preseason really made him look like he was equipped for the job. Chud has been able to handle everything that has come his way without looking panicked or troubled. Everything comes off as being part of the process.
And the results on the field are obvious. The team is 4-5 and has been extremely competitive throughout the season. Chud has stood up for his players, occasionally at the criticism of the media and fans, but they seem to embrace it. Whether it has been Josh Gordon, Greg Little or Brandon Weeden, his support has been unyielding. That does not mean he will not make changes as they clearly have, both with Little and with Weeden, but he still makes it clear that he is there for his guys and they seem to respond to him. They seem to play hard and embrace what is happening in Berea. Only in the games against Green Bay and Detroit did things get out of hand in the end. They play hard and they have fought to the end, but it was not for a lack of effort.
In terms of gameday strategy and overall decision making, there are always going to be plays, decisions and challenges that can be second guessed. Overall though, he has been far more right than wrong and his willingness to be aggressive has paid off for him in a number of situations. When the team was 0-2 and playing the Vikings, they used a fake punt and fake field goal to create plays and get a touchdown.
The Browns used a flea flicker to open things up against the Kansas City Chiefs that resulted in a touchdown. They also had a drive at the end of the half that some teams might have sat on and they opted to put their foot on the gas and push which yielded a field goal to end the half.
Against the Baltimore Ravens, Chud went for it twice on fourth down plays that were both successful. Once on the goal line and then later on the last drive of the game when in the middle of the field. The Browns got the first down, kept the ball moving and ate up precious clock in the process that had the Browns with a six point lead with little clock left for the Ravens.
Last year, the Browns were far more conservative and were criticized for it. Pat Shurmur was extremely conservative and was averse to taking risks at virtually any point. The fans and the team have responded well to the chances Chud has taken and the positive results have worked to bolster his case. Chud has been aggressive and taken chances, but he has not been reckless with his calls.
There have been some issues with the play clock running out and using up time outs but that is down from last year as well. Most of those issues have come in the first half, allowing the Browns to keep their second half timeout for crunch time. And in late game scenarios, Chud has been good in managing the clock and knowing when to use time outs. That played a key role in this last game against the Ravens, when effective clock management left the Ravens down six and trying to mount a game winning drive with 15 seconds left in the game.
The one area where people are going to criticize Chud is when it comes to the quarterback position and who played at what given time. Brandon Weeden has been an abject failure, but in addition to the fact he did seem to look the best in preseason, the Browns had to make it painfully clear that Weeden is not the long term quarterback. Mission accomplished.
There were people who were upset that Chud and the team opted to move Brian Hoyer up over Jason Campbell when Weeden injured his thumb. Hoyer had youth and upside with the potential to be a long term backup while Campbell is what he is. Hoyer looked effective, led the Browns to two wins and some have anointed him the next starting quarterback of the Browns. Then Weeden came in with Josh Gordon in the lineup and was still terrible. They then went to Jason Campbell who has played well in two games. Campbell is not the long term answer for the position either but he is playing well and the Browns are in games and like with the Ravens, can win it.
As much as this season is about wins and losses, it is also about evaluation and figuring out what they have and what they do not. They were able to incorporate the talent retained from the past and add in more talent with an eye toward the future. They do not have a franchise quarterback; that much is clear. And while fans can debate it, the Browns have made it painfully clear that they need to find a franchise quarterback now that every quarterback on the roster has played. So while some may criticize Chud about how he handled the quarterback position, the quarterback he did not bring in was a disaster (thanks Mike (Holmgren) and the two the new front office brought in have at least been average players.
The Browns have a lot of holes on their roster, especially the offensive side of the ball. They were stuck in some bad situations like with the early season problems at right guard, trading Trent Richardson and having virtually no running game to speak of at this point. They also lost a quarterback to a season ending ACL injury in Hoyer.
Even without all of those things, the Browns find themselves at 4-5 and still alive in a playoff race for the AFC North with a 2-1 record within the division. They still have three games left against the AFC North including two against the struggling Pittsburgh Steelers. Almost unbelievably, the Browns could end up with a 5-1 record within the division. Even if they end up with a 3-3 record, that would be a step forward for the team.
The team has not backed off, has not relented and continues to fight. There is still a lot of time left in the season and much to analyze with Chud which will largely come down to how they attack the quarterback position going forward and build this offense, but so far, he has been a breath of fresh air this season. And at no point has he looked outmatched or outclassed; just outmanned. He has not been a revelation for this team, but he has been the best head coach since at least Butch Davis and could end up the best since the return of the franchise quickly with the way this team is trending.