Oh, how the
mighty historically poor, laughably dysfunctional, and wholly embarrassing have fallen.
The Cleveland Browns finally made the headlines for the reason many analysts–myself included–expected since the end of the 2016 NFL season: they fired Hue Jackson.
Detail on #Browns: Owner Jimmy Haslam was conflicted over blowing up another coach mid-season. Late last night he was leaning toward staying course. But Haslam spoke to GM John Dorsey, who said the Hue/Haley dynamic couldn’t continue. Some decision had to be made for the team.
— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) October 29, 2018
It seems the hiring of Dorsey was the snowball that began the avalanche, as there was finally someone else in the building with enough power to sway Haslam’s mind. Hue ends his tenure as the head coach of the Browns having coached 40 games. His final record: 3-36-1. A radiant .075 winning record. (Before this season, it was 1-35 (.028). Lest we forget.)
So who coaches the Browns in 2019?
The frequent take in the immediate wake of the firing is: “Well, now the Browns have a jump on the head-coaching carousel.” And I suppose they do, in that it’s very clear to the team and to potential candidates Cleveland is open for business.
But it’s not like they can request interviews with any current assistant coaches — you need to wait for the end of the regular season, by rule. They could ask to interview some current college head coaches, and there are no restrictions on those interviews, but you could imagine: the school would be very, very upset with their head coach for interviewing in-season for another job.
As such, I’m sure they’ve already pieced together a prospective list of targets and made some interrogative, but plausibly deniable calls. The guiding light of their search will be rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, the future of the franchise: in the NFL, you can’t win without that strong HC/QB duo (OC if your head coach is a defensive guy). With OC Todd Haley out of the building as well, you’d imagine QB coach Ken Zampese at least steps up into that coordinating role, to keep the offense the same in-season.
But next year, Cleveland will dictate their coaching search by the offense they want to run for Baker Mayfield. And that alone can help us hash out some of their likely targets.
Lincoln Riley is the freebie — again, this isn’t so much a prediction as to who takes the job, but an investigation into Cleveland’s likely targets. Riley, the current head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners, took a Baker Mayfield-led offense to the Big 12 championship and College Football Playoffs last season. If you’re looking for familiarity within schemes and an easy transition, Riley is the first target.
Riley’s been tagged as a future NFL guy for a while now, and teams have been cherry-picking bits and pieces of his offense for their own schemes. But don’t get it twisted: Riley’s offense isn’t pure “college,” and the buzzwords that come with that. If anybody tells you it’s an RPO-based offense, kindly tell them to kick rocks. If they insist you need a running quarterback at helm, invite them to put a sock in it.
Riley runs a play-action shotgun spread offense. His Air Raid, Mike Leach roots are familiar in the passing attack, but he incorporates a lot of the two-back ideas that Kyle Shanahan has popularized in San Fran; the West Coast route combinations (and variants) that make John DeFilippo such a successful designer for Minnesota; and even the dedication to play-action that belongs to numerous NFL minds across the years.
The most important thing about Riley is how he caters his offense to his personnel. Last year, there was a heavy emphasis on the flex TE and H-back, as he had Dmitri Flowers and Mark Andrews on the roster. Previously, it was about one-on-one match-ups with explosive receivers DeDe Westbrook and Sterling Shepard. With QB Kyler Murray at the helm, Riley’s current offense further maximizes his uses of the GT Counter Read, and other option reads, to maximize the Murray running threat.
Another great look at Oklahoma running GT Counter. Pulling O Line do a great job of kick/seal, but the WR has the best block here.
— Brady Grayvold (@CoachGrayvold) March 12, 2018
When Baker was at the helm, Riley’s offense hummed. In the 2018 Contextualized Quarterbacking, I charted 400 of Baker’s dropbacks for Riley in the 2017 season. The results busted a few myths about the Baker/Riley offense — for example, Baker attempted a class-leading 22% of his passes beyond his first read, and his 21% of throws into tight windows was 3rd-best among his peers.
It was not a spaced-out, first-read reliant offense. Baker was able to extend plays with good pocket movement and escapability, which brought him deeper into his progressions; and he was expected to make tight-window anticipation throws in the short to intermediate areas, which he did with resounding success (most accurate QB in the class throwing into tight windows).
A vast percentage of Baker’s throws in the Riley offense came across the middle. He attempted 41.1% of his passes in the middle of the field, and 46.7% of his yardage output came on those concepts as well. With Baker as a more traditional pocket passer than a Trevor Knight or Kyler Murray, Riley’s offense heavily relied upon the play-action game to open up seams and crossers for Baker to drop in behind the linebackers.
It isn’t hard to imagine what the offense looks like with the Riley/Baker duo returned. Two-back sets with Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson would likely be featured, with an emphasis on getting Duke Johnson the ball out of the backfield — across the last three full seasons, backs in the Riley offense have combined for at least 50 catches for 500 yards in each year. Also get excited for David Njoku used in the Mark Andrews flex/H-back role to attack the seams on play-action looks.
The DeFilippo/Mayfield marriage was an offseason darling of mine, before it became a clear pipe dream with DeFilippo heading to Minnesota. Baker obviously projected best as a spread quarterback coming out, but his fit in a West Coast style offense also really excites: he has the velocity to hit boundary routes 20 yards down the field and the zip to carve up underneath zones; his post-snap processing seems sharp enough to handle complex route concepts.
What DeFilippo does as an offensive coordinator requires a sharp mind at the helm. His offensive designs are predicated on spacing: often the ‘triangle’ concept of passing design that is inherent to most West Coast systems. With either two receivers underneath and one deep, or two deep and one underneath, DeFilippo can flood one half of the field and force zone defenders into conflict — with receivers like Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs at his disposal, it’s very difficult for man coverage defenders to stay connected. The Vikings have attempted a pass on 68% of their plays this season, tied for second-most frequent in the league, with good reason:
— Josh Cohen (@jco3215) October 23, 2018
Now, the DeFilippo offense needs weapons, because of how heavily it relies on four/five man route concepts. It would be a step down in Cleveland, from Thielen/Diggs to Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway, though he would enjoy a TE talent in David Njoku unlike anything he has in Minnesota. It also needs smart receivers who can run complex routes, to win in isolation on the backside — again, Landry clears the bar, but improvement there in the offseason would be welcome.
It’s worth noting that DeFilippo has history that tethers him to Cleveland — he was the offensive coordinator there under Mike Pettine in 2015 — and has received head coaching buzz since the San Francisco opening in 2016. He was also the quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia for the past two seasons under Doug Pederson, who was the offensive coordinator for John Dorsey’s Kansas City teams from 2013 – 2015.
But the most important note when it comes to DeFilippo is his history of developing young quarterbacks. The crowning jewel was the growth of Carson Wentz, who went from shaky FCS rookie in year one with Flip, to MVP-candidate in year two. Flip also got good production out of rookies JaMarcus Russell and Mark Sanchez during time at Oakland and New York early in his career. This point was of interest to Cleveland media last time he was there, as they had the rambunctious Johnny Manziel as their QB of the future.
DeFilippo calls a quarterback’s character the most important thing when it comes to a young, developing player. He wants to see in them a high-octane work ethic and thirst for knowledge; he installed something in Philadelphia called a “body language fine,” acknowledging the team is always watching the quarterback after a disappointing play. He’s a meticulous, unrelenting figure.
As such, the marriage between DeFilippo and Baker Mayfield is a massive note — one we can entirely overlook when it comes to the Lincoln Riley discussion. DeFilippo must feel comfortable with how Baker Mayfield learns, how he approaches practice, and how he handles himself in the film room to buy-in to be the last in a long line of coaching changes for the Browns. He will have his pick of jobs in the years to come, so if he doesn’t gel with Baker, there’s a good chance he’d remove himself from the running.
For what it’s worth: I think Baker would love Flip.
This is the dark horse one that has folks up in a tizzy.
And yes, @LincolnRiley is viable in Cleveland. Another college name I'd keep a close eye on: Iowa State coach Matt Campbell. Highly regarded in the circles that GM John Dorsey runs in, and a native of Northeast Ohio.
— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) October 29, 2018
To understand Campbell’s coaching background: Campbell was a defensive lineman at Mount Union, a very successful D3 school in Alliance, Ohio — that’s about an hour drive south of Cleveland. From college, Campbell immediately went on to become a graduate assistant at Bowling Green immediately following the departure of HC Urban Meyer.
Campbell climbed his way up Ohio jobs — Mount Union again, back to Bowling Green, then to Toledo — working as offensive line/running game coordinator until securing the HC gig at Toledo in 2012. When Campbell was hired to Iowa State in 2016, he was viewed as a culture-shift head coaching hire: a man who could change the perception of a smaller, beleaguered Big 12 program, thereby attracting more recruits and increasing program relevancy. For those of you familiar with Minnesota HC P.J. Fleck, the intent behind that hire is pretty similar.
Campbell has indeed introduced that culture shift at Iowa State. After recruiting classes that ranked 7th in 2017 and 7th in 2018 within the Big 12, Campbell’s 2019 class currently sits at 3rd. During Campbell’s tenure, the Cyclones have knocked off undefeated No. 4 TCU, undefeated No. 6 West Virginia, No. 25 Oklahoma State in Stillwater, and an undefeated No. 3 Oklahoma team in Norman captained by QB Baker Mayfield.
Matt Campbell on Committing to the Process 🏈
"Toughness, discipline and details still matter."
"It's TEAM above self."
"If you fall in love with the process, it will eventually love you back." pic.twitter.com/YyBOEEnQPa
— Football Advantage (@AdvFootball) October 27, 2018
Campbell’s hire would signal from Jimmy Haslam and John Dorsey that the Cleveland coaching staff — now captained by interim Gregg Williams — needs a clean sweep and full reset. With Hue and Haley in the building, there was evident tension and public contradictions between the two; that has never been the case for a Campbell-led team.
For as respected as Campbell is, the hire would still be unimaginably bold. In only his third season as a Power 5 head coach, Campbell still has a losing record (15-17) and has only ever been ranked in 3 of 40 releases of the AP poll.
Campbell’s offense is also predicated on the running game, as that is his background. He would look to Nick Chubb first as the engine of his offense: Campbell loves single-back power plays, and Chubb is a devastating power back. Most of Campbell’s passing offense is predicted on packaged plays — bubble screens or quick slants/curls that are tagged with running plays. These plays simplify the reads for his quarterback and limit high-risk man beating throws that require high degrees of accuracy.
This hire would be the college offense infiltrating the NFL; not the Riley hire.
I’m not sure how well the horizontal spread + shot vertical to the boundary offense would mesh with the current Cleveland personnel. If you really view Antonio Callaway as a franchise piece — I don’t — then he makes sense as your vertical guy; but the strong receiving play Campbell has enjoyed in Ames is more predicated on big-body receivers like Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler. How would he maximize Jarvis Landry and David Njoku when his offense has never really utilized multi-break routes or crossing patters?
Baker is an excellent intermediate, middle of the field passer — as we outlined in the CQ data above. That’s simply not where Iowa State likes to attack the field — everything is into space on the boundary. Baker excels at making window throws; the Iowa State offense is averse to tight windows unless it’s one-on-one coverage down the field. Could this be a result of poor talent for Campbell? Maybe — they’ve got a young slinger named Brock Purdy who has opened up the passing attack in recent weeks. But I don’t see Campbell’s offense marrying with Baker’s strengths.
If Cleveland wants to gamble on the Ohio bloodlines and make a culture hire, more power to them. But Campbell would need to be paired with a coordinator who has an established history of developing a passing game with his quarterback — current QB coach Ken Zampese might be that guy, if he’s given more freedom outside of the Hue/Haley power struggle. There just isn’t enough evidence yet of Campbell establishing a long-term competitive power for me to get psyched about the long leap from Iowa State to NFL franchise.