Granted, that may not be saying much for a franchise that has made just one playoff appearance since 1994, has had only two winning seasons since 1999, and has lost 10 or more games six times in the past seven years.
It was Pettine, however, who broke that streak in his first year in charge by leading the Browns to a 7-9 record in 2014 and giving Browns fans hope that a better day is truly finally on the horizon.
Even in NFL.com views things a little bit differently.
The league’s official website ranked all 32 head coaches this past week and placed Pettine at No. 28 on the list, just ahead of San Francisco’s Jim Tomsula, Atlanta’s Dan Quinn, New York’s Todd Bowles and Washington’s Jay Gruden.
In judging Pettine, the site wrote that:
Pettine looked to have things turned around in Cleveland last season, getting off to a promising 7-4 start – and then the bottom fell out. Turning to Johnny Manziel at quarterback didn’t do anything to brighten the gloomy finish to the year. Pettine’s defensive background should come in handy, as the Browns have plenty of young talent to work with, players – like former first-round pick Justin Gilbert – who, if they pan out, could make quite a difference going forward. However, Pettine must also prove he and his staff can work wonders with quarterbacks.
Overall a pretty fair assessment albeit a short one that just hits the regular bullet points. And while no one can really quibble with the top of the list – Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, John Harbaugh, Mike McCarthy, etc. – it is the other coaches in the Top 20 just ahead of Pettine that need a closer examination.
There is simply no way that we would replace Pettine with Gus Bradley, who has done nothing in two years in Jacksonville; Jack Del Rio, who has a losing career record and never won a division title in his nine years in Jacksonville; Joe Philbin, who is turning into his generation’s Jeff Fisher; Mike Zimmer; Bill O’Brien; Mike McCoy; Ken Whisenhunt, still riding a fluke Super Bowl run from six years ago; or Gary Kubiak, one of the NFL’s grand maesters at finishing with a .500 record.
And if we were feeling particularly salty, we could make a case that we wouldn’t want Jim Caldwell (No. 16), Jeff Fisher (No. 15 for some reason, despite finishing .500 or worse for the past five seasons and 13 times in his 20 seasons as a head coach); and John Fox, (even if he did bring Peyton Manning with him).
That is not to say that Pettine – at this time – is necessarily a better coach than some of the ones ranked ahead of him, but rather that he is the best coach for the Browns and this city.
Since arriving in town as the first former high school head coach to make it to an NFL head coaching position since Dick Vermeil, Pettine has shown himself to be a confident, but not arrogant, head coach. He has a way of getting his point across without being condescending, and his lack of double-speak when explaining the team’s goals and process makes him the first Browns coach to really connect with the fanbase since the team returned in 1999.
Pettine also kept a steady hand on the wheel as he worked his way through his first season as a head coach. He and the coaching staff came across as always having a solid reason behind their decisions, did a good job explaining those reasons (something seriously lacking in previous Browns coaches), and seemed to have a good handle on working with the players.
One of his biggest strengths was his willingness to stick to a philosophy of using the players that give the Browns the best chance to win – see undrafted rookie K’Waun Williams playing over first-round draft pick Justin Gilbert as the top example from last season. That, above almost everything else, continues to give us hope that Pettine is the right man for the job.
Looking back a little more than a year to the day he was hired, Pettine laid out a clear explanation of what he wanted from the team defensively.
“We’re going to play smart, we’re going to be tough, we’re going to be relentless. We’re going to put pressure on you. We’re going to force quarterbacks, we’re going to force offenses to make very quick decisions. We’re going to take our best shot at you,” he said. “We’re not going to be a read-and-react defense. That is not in our vocabulary. I think in this league to be successful, you have to be aggressive. I don’t think you can be reckless, your aggression has to be calculated, but if you want to sum up what we’ll be, it’s going to be an attack style.”
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As the season went along in 2014, fans could see the defense turning into what Pettine wanted it to be, most notably during a December home game against Indianapolis. Even though they ultimately lost that day, the Browns’ defense was relentless in putting pressure on Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck, sacking him three times and forcing two interceptions.
While offensive players may make the highlight reels, it is defense that resonates in the AFC North and especially in Cleveland.
In just one season Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil were able to start transforming the defense into one that has the potential to be a difference maker on Sunday afternoons. And if Pettine and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo can do something similar this season to the offense? Well, then there is no question that the rest of the league will start to see what we do in Pettine.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit, as Pettine himself knows all too well after 14 seasons on an NFL sideline
“To me, it’s on the field where we’ll be judged. We look at the moves that we made as we felt were very positive, but it’s all going to come down to ‘how does this group play together?’” Pettine said earlier this year. “It’s chemistry. It’s how do these guys fit in? How do they fit in the locker room? How do they interact with each other?
“Now, drop on top of it, too, you have a new offensive coordinator, some new faces on the offensive staff. You’re throwing a lot of new together, and I’m very interested to see how that will all hash out. We feel very positive about it, but it’s again ultimately judged on how things go in the fall.”
Are there better coaches in the NFL right now than Pettine? No question.
But you would be hard pressed to find one who is a better fit for the Browns and this city.
How comfortable are you with Mike Pettine as head coach of the Browns?