Point-Counterpoint: Mike Pettine

Writing a companion piece to the essay I did on Ray Farmer— this time about Mike Pettine– is substantially harder than a piece about the GM. I firmly believe that it shouldn’t be up to anyone but the GM. Even if I felt the Browns had to keep Pettine, if the guy I wanted to be GM didn’t want to, I’d stand by his decision.

There’s a story– different accounts place it in different years– about the season where John Hart wanted to fire Mike Hargrove in mid-year. Dick Jacobs supposedly convinced Hart that it would be a mistake, and then the Indians went on to win…

Absolutely nothing. Hart eventually fired Hargrove, replacing him with Charlie Manuel.

We can’t know, but Jacobs very likely probably would have been better off letting Hart have his way. Manuel won 90 games twice with a substantially team, then took Philadelphis into the playoffs five straight seasons, reaching the World Series twice, and winning once. Hargrove, meanwhile, never came close to the level of success he achieved in Cleveland.

With that point stated, here is what I might argue to the GM if he asked me.

Reasons To Keep Pettine

1. The roster is a mess, which is mostly not his fault. He certainly didn’t sign Dwayne Bowe– that was entirely “Snapchat” Ray Farmer’s brainstorm– and many of the moves and many of the other moves were Farmer’s call as well.

Pettine has stood behind them all because he knows that Jimmy Haslam values loyalty and teamwork. Several different people have told me that the reason Haslam fired “Moe” Banner and “Curly” Lombardi– putting the front office in Snapchat’s hands– is because the Two Stooges couldn’t stop knifing each other.

In this version, both guys felt the 2013 season had proven how incompetent the other one was, and thought he might be able to use it to get more control. Haslam told them to knock it off once– that they needed to work together and focus on the draft. But when they wouldn’t (or couldn’t), he got rid of them both and put the front office in Farmer’s hands.

Pettine was in his first weeks when this all played out, and he learned the lesson. So he has been doing his best to make things work, even though he has been given players that he would not have drafted or signed… and who are not competent to play.

It’s absolutely not Pettine’s fault that Farmer gave Alex Mack the transition tag after the 2013 season. By doing that, Farmer saved $1 million in salary– but it let Mack sign offer sheets from other teams.

Jacksonville’s offer contained an opt-out clause after this season (which Mack will exercise). Knowing that he would lose Mack, Farmer drafted Cam Erving with the 19th pick. Had the Browns handled Mack differently, that pick could have been used on a defensive end (Shane Ray or Preston Smith), a wide receiver (Nelson Agholor or Dorial Green-Beckham) or possibly a running back (T.J. Yeldon) or outside linebacker (Bud Dupree) better than the ones the Browns chose later.

I don’t think Pettine should be taking shots at the front office, but his failure to do so doesn’t mean he approves of what he has.

2. The team would benefit from stability. Contrary to what people like Tony Grossi say, playcalling– both offensive and defensive– is overrated. There is no magic system that can turn bad players into good ones. The Browns have proven this by cycling through pretty much everything in common use.

Assuming the system isn’t wildly out-of-date (as the schemes Mike Holmgren forced Pat Shurmur to use were), anything will work. You simply have to give the players a chance to learn it– and the coaches a chance to see what their players can do in it.

When he was hired, Pettine put in an offense that won championships in Denver and a defense that won championships in Baltimore.

After the 2014 season, Pettine was forced to change offenses through no fault of his own (Snapchat gave Kyle Shanahan the excuse he needed to cut and run). Working with John DeFilippo, he devised a scheme that has been productive at times– and sometimes appeared quite clever.

If you fire Pettine, the defense will probably have to learn a new system (not that many teams use the one). The offense absolutely will have to start from scratch (nobody else uses it). If so, the roster most likely has to be retooled, and you have to hold a fire sale to liquidate people.

3. The schedule is responsible for much of Pettine’s record. The people who talk about Pettine improving the team from 4-12 to 7-9, then collapsing to 3-13 are demonstrating a phenomenal amount of ignorance. It was obvious that the Browns wouldn’t go 7-9 again.

The NFL uses a rotation system for building the schedule. Every season, a team plays:

  • Every team in one of the other divisions in their conference.
  • Every team in one of the divisions in the other conference.
  • Home and away games against the three other teams in their division.
  • The other teams in their conference who finished in the same place in their divisions.

It’s done to ensure that fans get to watch their teams play every opponent and see all the great stars. It is a wonderful thing because it prevents things like (say) Walter Payton playing 13 seasons and having only two games against the Browns– only one of which was in Cleveland.

But because some divisions are substantially better than others, it means the strength of schedule varies wildly from year to year.

In 2013, the Browns got to play the AFC East and the NFC North. Five of the eight opponents finished .500 or better; the other three were within a game or two. (Minnesota was 5-10-1, Buffalo 6-10 and Detroit 7-9.)

The Browns went 1-3 against the NFC North and 1-3 against the AFC East. In the games against the other AFC North teams and the other last-place teams, they went 2-6.

In 2014, the rotation pitted the AFC North against the AFC and NFC South. All four NFC teams finished with losing records; Tennessee and Jacksonville combined to win five games.

It was obvious that the Browns would have a better record. Only five NFL teams (using the strength of schedule system at Pro Football Reference) would play a weaker schedule than the 2014 Browns– and two were Pittsburgh and Baltimore (who got to play the same conferences, plus two games against Cleveland).

The Browns got 3-1 against the NFC South and 4-4 altogether. Against the other opponents, they were 3-5– only one game better than their 2013 record.

The same thing happened to the other AFC North teams. They went 27-21 in 2013, and 31-16-1 in 2014. They’re 25-20 in 2015, and not all of that is Baltimore being bad.

This year the AFC North had to play the NFC and AFC West. Six of the eight teams finished 8-8 or better in 2014; St. Louis finished 6-10. The only team that had struggled was Oakland (who went 3-13 a year ago).

It was obvious that Cleveland wouldn’t be able to reach 7-9 again, In July, I was writing:

“The teams in the South are the weakest divisions in their respective conferences. The AFC and NFC West are much stronger and the best I can see for [Cleveland] is 3-5.”

With one game left, PFR says the Browns have played the third-toughest schedule in the NFL (behind only St. Louis and San Francisco). I thought they might go 3-5; they ended up 1-7 (losing in overtime against Denver and on the final play of the San Diego game).

Against the AFC North and the other last place teams in the AFC, they went 2-6– only a game worse than their 2014 record.

Let me put that into a table so it is unmistakably clear:

Year Division Scheduled AFC North & Last Place
2013 2-6 (AFC East, NFC North) 2-6
2014 4-4 (AFC & NFC South) 3-5
2015 1-7 (AFC & NFC West) 2-6

I can tell you right now that the 2016 Browns will have a better record than the 2015 Browns. Their opponents in 2016 will be:

  • The AFC East, where they’ll lose to New England, struggle against New York and have a chance against Buffalo (going backwards under Rex Ryan) and Miami
  • The NFC East, where Washington is 8-7 and the other teams are under .500
  • Tennessee (currently 3-12) and San Diego (4-11)

The coach of that team, whomever it might be, will get credit for an improvement that he most likely won’t deserve. He’ll be playing weaker opponents, he’ll win more games and look more competitive.

If you believe Pettine has done a bad job, that’s one thing. But holding him responsible for not getting to play New Orleans or Tampa Bay again isn’t fair.

4. Bad luck is responsible for some of the losses. There are lots of really stupid cliches out there, but one of the dumbest is “Good teams win the close games.” In point of fact, good teams do not win close games, because good teams don’t play close games. Good teams blow opponents out.

The team with the best record in the league– the 14-1 Carolina Panthers– have outscored their opponents by 164 points, more than every team but one. The Panthers are 6-1 when the game has been close (7 points or less) and 8-0 when it has not.

The team with the second-best record– the 13-2 Arizona Cardinals– have outscored opponents by a league-leading 206 points. The Cardinals are 4-1 in close games… and 9-1 in the others.

The 12-3 Patriots (160 points; third in both record and point differential) are 5-3 in close games. They’re 7-0 in decisive wins (8-14 points) or blowouts (15+ points).

As Marty Schottenheimer said in his very first press conference as head coach of the Browns (a 16-14 loss to the Saints), when a team wins by seven points or less, it means the game literally was decided by one play. That play can often be the result of luck– a tipped pass, an odd bounce on a kick or a fumble, a circus catch, a wretched call by Ed Hoculi, Terry McAulay or Jeff Triplette– and the best team does not always win.

If you look at a good team’s record in close games, it will almost always be their worst split– and often close to .500.

When you see a team winning most of its games by seven points points or less, the team is almost always a fluke. Occasionally a developing team– a club with many young players– will play and win lots of close games the year before it matures into a powerhouse. But when a veteran team does it– when an 11-5 team goes 9-3 in close games, as the 1980 Browns did under Sam the Sham— you can bet the ranch that they were just lucky, and that things will correct themselves the following year.

The reverse is true too. Contrary to what people claim, losing a close game isn’t a sign of lack of talent, poor coaching or deficient character. It’s usually just bad luck. And it usually doesn’t happen two seasons in a row.

In 2014, the Browns were an entirely-normal 4-4 in games decided by seven points or less. They could have won more; they could have lost them. This season, the Browns are 1-5 in close games. Things literally could not have gone worse:

  • They’ve played two overtime games (the loss to Denver and the win against Baltimore)
  • Two games were decided on the very last play (San Diego and the second Baltimore game)
  • In the other two games (Kansas City and Oakland) the Browns were driving toward a score late in the game when miscues ended their chances.

When Bill Parcells said “You are your record” in 1983, he was reacting to people claiming that the Giants weren’t really that bad. If you worked harder and made fewer mistakes the other team, he pointed out, you didn’t have to worry about luck.

He wasn’t wrong. Or, as Pettine puts it, it’s a pass-fail league. There are reasons the Browns lost all five of those games– a coach who chose not to employ Josh McCown and Chris Tabor might find that luck was with him more often than not.

But that notwithstanding, a normal expectation for a team that plays six close games would be a 3-3 record. And if the Browns were 3-3 in close games– if they were 5-10 going into tomorrow’s game– most people would look at the 11 games that Joe Haden missed, the eight games missed by Josh McCown (and the others where he left early) and be willing to cut the coach some slack.

Reasons To Fire Pettine

 

1. They haven’t improved. Wins and losses matter– but you can’t even spot improvement when you drill down. Pettine took over a 4-12 team– a team that was 27th in offense (19.2 points a game) and 23rd in defense (25.4 points per game). After two seasons, it’s 3-12, and worse on both sides of the ball:

Season Offense Defense
2013 19.2 points (27th) 25.4 points (23rd)
2014 18.7 points (27th) 21.1 points (9th)
2015 17.7 points (29th) 26.9 points (29th)

People go on and on about the defense. Yeah, it’s gotten worse. But it was better last season– and you can at least point to reasons that it went backwards, including:

  • The substantially tougher schedule this season,
  • Injuries to Haden, Tashaun Gipson and Craig Robertson,
  • The front office decisions to let Buster Skrine, Jabaal Sheard and Ahtyba Rubin go,
  • The retirement of Jim Leonhard, who called the signals

What’s the explanation for the offense scoring less and less? Two seasons ago, the Browns had Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell at quarterback. The leading rushers for the season were Willis McGahee and Chris Ogbonnaya. Yes, they had Puff Gordon and Poke Cameron catching passes– but they also relied on Greg Little and Davone Bess. The line had games started by Shawn Lauvao, Oneil Cousins, Garrett Gilkey and Jason Pinkston.

The Browns managed to score fewer points in 2014. And they’ve scored even less this season.

2. He hasn’t developed any players. Part of a coach’s job is teaching. He and his staff should be able to turn draft picks into players and turn veterans into stars.

Who here has made substantial, continual progress? Who has played consistently well?

Other than Mitchell Schwartz– a good player when Pettine got here, now a very good player– there isn’t anyone. The good players on this team are either (a) people who were good when he got here (Desmond Bryant, John Greco) or (b) veterans he added.

Travis Benjamin and Gary Barnidge played well this year, but we have no idea what they’ll do next year. Last season, Tashaun Gipson and Andrew Hawkins looked looked like breakout players– they both regressed. Paul Kruger and Taylor Gabriel saw their production plummet. Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West went backwards. K’Waun Williams and Joel Bitonio look less impressive than they were a year ago.

A big reason is that Pettine didn’t assemble an impressive staff. John DeFilippo had never been a coordinator; Jim O’Neil spent a year running the defense at Towson. Other than Wilbert Montgomery, the position coaches haven’t had significant careers as NFL coaches and haven’t developed any NFL players of note. His defensive staff were the people Doug Marrone didn’t want to keep when Pettine left Buffalo; the offensive coaches are people who have had trouble staying hired.

It’s not surprising, given the Browns treat assistants. Their standard procedure is to fire the head coach, then refuse to release his assistants until they hire a new coach. The idea is to let the new man decide whether he wants to retain them. But it means the assistants can’t look for work until all the jobs have been filled.

3. The team makes the same mistakes over and over. Many of the Browns’ problems have been beyond Pettine’s control. But the inability to stop the clock late in the half absolutely is. The Browns don’t call time outs. They don’t spike the ball. They don’t run plays that make it easy for players to get out of bounds. Game in and game out, they’ve wasted time and cost themselves points.

Kicking teams performance is entirely under the control of the coach– and it isn’t difficult to find players who can perform. But the Browns have had kicks blocked repeatedly– almost all of them costly. It’s been obvious for months that the Browns don’t think Travis Coons can kick long field goals. They never corrected the problem.

There have been problems getting plays off on time. The Browns have 10 Delay of Game penalties and have had to call timeout half a dozen times. I appreciate the free plugs, but this shouldn’t be happening.

Mistakes caused by lack of ability (Tramon Williams being too slow to keep up with receivers) can’t be fixed by coaching. All you can do is bench or cut the player. If you don’t have anyone better, you might as well live with it.

But a team continues to have the same correctable problems, it’s the clearest possible sign that the coach is inept. Either he doesn’t know how to fix the problem, or he isn’t working hard enough to correct it.

4. Lack of discipline. It’s most obvious with Manziel’s off-the-field conduct. Or Justin Gilbert’s road rage incident. Or the debacle involving Armonty Bryant and De’Ante Saunders. But it also shows up on the field every week.

The Browns can’t stop the run because they make two mistakes. The players on the outside– who are supposed to ensure the ball doesn’t go down the sidelines– veer to the center and let the ballcarrier get outside them. On the inside runs, players players responsible for clogging the lanes pursue the runner and leave themselves open for cutbacks.

It’s been going on for two years.

When a player fails to follow an assignment, you have to stop playing him– either by benching him for someone who’ll do his job or by cutting him. If you don’t have a player on the roster who can follow instructions, you need to find them. Until players believe they will not play unless they do what they are told, they won’t stop.

Pettine has the same problem as his mentor Rex Ryan. Neither man can bring himself to discipline a player who has enormous natural ability. They yell at the player, but he knows he’ll still play. And the behavior continues, and always will.

Bottom Line

It’s very simple. When the players begged Haslam to keep Pettine, it was a neon sign saying “Fire him now.”

Successful coaches are, without exception, not lovable people. They dominate players with sheer force of will, driving them to their limits by threatening them with professional extinction. Nobody liked playing for Paul Brown, Tom Landry, Don Shula or Chuck Noll– without exception, players detested them. Weeb Ewbank and John Madden made their teams miserable. For every player who loved Vince Lombardi, a dozen did not. Players don’t go to New England because Bill Belicheat is a heartwarming, avuncular fellow.

You have players who don’t improve. You have players who don’t execute. You have players who don’t do as they are told. You have players blasting the fans for being angry that the team is losing. You have players saying that they don’t care what anyone else says– they know they are good.

You can’t have a coach who allows that. Not if you want to win.

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