With the news that the Cleveland Browns have tapped former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to be the team's sixth head coach in 13 years, fans have shifted from speculation over who the new play caller would be to "why in the hell did they hire him?" As fans, it is practically our moral obligation to call into question the management decisions made in the running of our favorite teams (see similar conversation among Ohio State fans circa 2000 under heading "Jim who?"), and the Browns hire is no different.
The key question, posed by the always-astute TennBuckeye here, is what exactly is the appropriate expectation for the Browns moving forward?
As a kid who grew up rooting for the other Ohio NFL team and who married into a family of rabid Steelers fans, I'm well aware that expectations vary widely among fanbases, and that expectations are the key to success in the National Football League.
Perhaps then it would be useful to examine recent history and pose scenarios that might be qualified as a "success" for a hire that appears to have summarily underwhelmed (or in some cases outright infuriated) fans looking for a bigger "name" to take the tiller.
With only a single playoff berth to their credit since 1999, is simply making the playoffs sufficient, and how likely is that given their divisional competition in Ohio and Pennsylvania? Is another wildcard-game appearance enough for fans to stop pondering who the next head coach should be?
Or perhaps a simple improvement in the W-L column is enough to keep the pitchforks and torches safely stowed for another season. But there again, as TennBuckeye pointed out, does that mean just six or seven wins, or is .500 the minimum standard of performance?
To give us some frame of reference, it would be useful to consider other coaches in the division for a moment, to see what the standard of excellence looks like. The other team with Paul Brown's fingerprints on its DNA, the Bengals, have traditionally underperformed fans expectations on a relatively regular basis (I grew up rooting for Boomer and hating the 49ers, for what it's worth), so we'll start with Marvin Lewis.
A combined 79-80-1 at Cincinnati (.496), Lewis has gotten the orange and black to the postseason just four times in 10 seasons: four wildcard games, and four losses. In fact, Lewis' Bengals only managed records better than .500 in those same four seasons, though he managed to break even in three additional campaigns, meaning he's only notched losing seasons 30% of the time.
Despite losing to the Houston Texans in last season's playoff attempt, the Bengals' front office was so thrilled with a 9-win season that they gave Lewis a 2-year contract extension, meaning he'll be at the helm through 2014. So perhaps, for a team that endured 14 consecutive losing seasons, Lewis' relative success is perfectly wonderful, and all is well in the Queen City.
Thanks to a victory at home against the Browns in the final game of the season, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin managed to avoid recording his first losing season, going 8-8 in the team's 80th year, and Tomlin's 6th at the helm. While the presence of a SuperBowl ring on his finger certainly sets Tomlin apart from many other NFL coaches, his record more or less speaks for itself.
He's taken Pittsburgh to the playoffs in four of six years, winning the AFC North three times and making it to the SuperBowl twice. For Tomlin, the playoffs are either make it all the way or bust out in the wildcard affairs, as his team has lost in its wildcard matchup twice, while making it to the championship the other two tries. His overall record is much better than Lewis', going 63-33 (.656).
Tomlin, by the numbers, would be the class of the Division, then, were it not for John Harbaugh.
Harbaugh, during his five seasons steering the hated Baltimore Ravens, has failed to miss the playoffs once. The Ravens will face the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning this Saturday. The Ann Arbor native and Miami of Ohio alum has gone 54-26 thus far (.675), and failing to win at least 10 games only one year.
He's 6-4 (.600) in playoff history, and 2012 marked the first time in franchise history the Ravens have won consecutive division titles. God it hurts me to write that.
Despite having not made it to a SuperBowl yet, Harbaugh has been an unmitigated success for the Ravens, and his current contract runs through 2014; expect an extension at some point.
A perennial favorite among Browns fans speculating on future head coaching hires is former Steelers coach and former Browns player and assistant Bill Cowher. As one of only two men in NFL history to lead his team to the playoffs in each of his first six seasons as head coach, Cowher's credentials as an outstanding leader are well-known. (Bonus points: Know who was the first to hit the playoffs in each of his first six seasons? That's right, Paul Brown.)
In 15 seasons at Pittsburgh, Cowher went 149-90-1 (.623), winning the AFC Central six times and the AFC North twice. He went 12-9 (.571) in the playoffs, and won SuperBowl XL in his second-to-last season before heading to the bright lights of television analysis.
While he continues to tease fans with hints that he would be open to returning to the coaching ranks, I'm not sure anyone seriously thought he would come out of retirement to take the helm at the Browns, which remain something of a riddle as an organization at large.
So now that we've looked around the AFC North and at one fantasy coach, let's go back to the man who broke the mold, the team's namesake. In the team's first 13 seasons playing in the NFL, Paul Brown earned a record of 111-44-5 (.694), certainly qualifying him among the elite coaches in the annals of football history. Brown won four AAFC championships with the team before it joined the NFL in 1950, and then coached the Browns to three NFL championships – in 1950, 1954 and 1955.
His teams played in four additional NFL Championship matches, losing to the Detroit Lions thrice and the L.A. Rams once. His teams failed to make the postseason once in his first nine years, but failed to do so in each of his final four seasons at the helm; despite winning records, he was dismissed following a contentious power struggle with the team owner whose name shall not be spoken.
Brown didn't do quite as well in six seasons with the Bengals, going 48-36 (.571) and winning the AFC Central twice. He was 0-3 in the playoffs during his tenure as the head coach in Cincinnati.
Since 1990 the Cleveland Browns have only made the playoffs twice, in 1994 and 2002. During that period, they have only notched winning records three seasons out of 20. It has not been a good run.
While the lowpoint of the modern era is almost certainly the three seasons Cleveland was without an NFL franchise in the late '90s, five straight seasons of winning only four or five games comes in as a pretty close second.
In one of the high points, 2007, the Browns finished 10-6, good enough for 2nd place in the AFC North. That year the Browns were the season's only 9+ win team to not make the playoffs. Braylon Edwards ended the season as the Browns' all-time single-season leader in receiving yards with 1,289 yards, breaking Webster Slaughter's 1989 record of 1,236 yards. It was the first time in more than a decade the team had won 10 games.
The offensive coordinator of that team? Rod Chudzinski.
Hired to lead a team that has such a storied history, the more recent benchmark for Rob Chudzinski's success now as a head coach shouldn't be too high at all.