Eyes fall on Mike Pettine as season comes into focus


Oct 25, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine reacts after a penalty flag during the second half against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome. The Rams won 24-6. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

This season has not gone as the Cleveland Browns had planned.

After a calamitous loss to the St Louis Rams dropped the Browns to 2-5, fingers are starting to point and head coach Mike Pettine is becoming the main target. The Browns’ flaunted defense is a sieve, they cannot run the ball and they are third in total penalties. Pettine’s vision is a pipe dream as the season circles the drain.

Related: The Browns are done and that’s a good thing

Pettine has had a mixed bag of failures and successes in his efforts to turn the Browns into a credible football team and it’s certain that there is deserved blame falling at his feet. He and general manager Ray Farmer‘s joint vision was to create a team based on the Seattle Seahawks’ model of suffocating defense and a ground-and-pound offense. To try to describe the 2015 Browns in such terms would provoke nothing but laughter. The team is 28th in total defense, giving up 393 yards per game, and 28th in rush offense, managing only 90 yards per game at a paltry 3.6 yards per carry.

Pettine was hired as a defensive guru following several productive years at the New York Jets and one year turning the Buffalo Bills into a fearsome unit that was second in the NFL in sacks. The defensive system is supposed to create pressure from the front seven as the secondary sits off and contains big plays, slowly grinding down a team.

That hasn’t translated to Cleveland, however, as the Browns have 12 sacks this season, seven of which came in a single game against the Tennessee Titans. The Browns have averaged just under two sacks a game during Pettine’s tenure and, at that rate, it will take the defense until Week 16 for Pettine’s Browns to have as many sacks as his defense did in his single year in Buffalo.

Additionally, the team is plagued by bad decisions. So far it has not played disciplined, smart football, committing crushing penalties at crucial times. Situationally, they are not an intelligent football team and this is reflected in the decision-making from the sidelines as poor clock management and puzzling calls are becoming a regular sight.

It also seems rare that the Browns come out ready to play. They are currently 25th in first quarter points and 23rd in opponent first quarter points and even worse than those marks recently. This misfiring covers up the fact that they are 12th in opponent second quarter points and they are a top 10 team in fourth quarter scoring and even better in both recently.

Much of the defensive failures rest with Pettine’s hand-picked successor in defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil.

The former CB West linebacker has proven to be incapable so far in running an NFL defense. His playcalling is poor, he is slow to adapt to the flow of games and he fails to put players in a position to succeed. There seems to be little clarity in his personnel groupings and he is rigid in placing the scheme above the players.

Related: Is the Browns defense too complicated?

Recently, former Browns staff writer Kevin Jones wrote a piece citing anonymous Browns players as saying that their run defense is a “guessing game” that requires players to read the technique of the player in front of them and adapt accordingly. The players have to stop and think, and it’s making them late, or just plain wrong. The tenet of the Rex Ryan – Pettine defense was that it was a simple defense that was made to look complex through the switching of roles and formations. It seems these days it’s just complex.

Oct 25, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Rams outside linebacker Akeem Ayers (56) recovers a ball from Cleveland Browns quarterback Josh McCown (not pictured) during the first half at the Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Pettine’s working relationship with Farmer has also been bumpy, to say the least. As much as they sing from the same song sheet on how to build a team, the day-to-day has not been smooth. Their relationship was not the most conventionally constructed as Pettine was hired first, and he and Farmer have never quite clicked. The push and pull between the two culminated with Farmer texting the sidelines during games last season, which was not met with a positive response from Pettine.

Additionally, Farmer’s pet project, Terrelle Pryor, was bounced the second Farmer was out the building, and his big name acquisition, Dwayne Bowe, is counting his money on the sidelines as he spends his Browns tenure as a healthy scratch. It was also noted during Farmer’s suspension how well Pettine and acting General Manager Bill Kuharich worked together.

However, it hasn’t been all bad. As much as his defensive coordinator has failed him, Pettine’s offensive hires have looked good. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who would have been hired last year had Pettine gotten his choice, has proven to be a bright offensive mind and has Josh McCown playing as well as could have been expected, if not better.

Despite no big names, the offense is moving the ball and both Gary Barnidge and Travis Benjamin have become unlikely breakout stars. Additionally, quarterback coach Kevin O’Connell has gained rave reviews from players and coaches with his work in the quarterback room, and not only with Johnny Manziel. There is harmony under Pettine’s offensive hires, a sharp contrast to last season.

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There also hasn’t been too much to work with. The team lacks difference makers at the skill positions, and Pro Bowl players have failed to perform. The four first-round picks from the last two years have not become contributors so far. Manziel is still learning as a back-up, Justin Gilbert is only getting on the field as a return man, Danny Shelton‘s reps are decreasing each week and Cam Erving is featuring only in heavy sets.

Among the veterans, Alex Mack is still finding his feet following his return from serious injury, Joe Haden and Tashaun Gipson have been hurt and out of form, and Donte Whitner looks like he’s feeling his 10 years in the NFL. There is no doubt it is underperforming, but this is not an extraordinary roster.

The book is not quite written yet on Pettine as Cleveland’s head coach. It has been an up and down read so far, and has trended down this year, but it isn’t yet time to make a definitive decision. As a young coach in charge of an even younger staff, he is fighting to guide this team from irrelevance. The team is also still fighting.

There are nine games left in the 2015 NFL season and these things have a habit of making themselves clear come Week 17. It could get better or it could get worse – it can always get worse – but there is no doubt Pettine’s future is at a pivotal point.

Next: Browns can't suspend Johnny Manziel