Here is my five-point breakdown of the Browns’ coaching staff halfway through the season:
>>Rob Chudzinski’s even-keeled approach has brought tremendous stability during considerable turmoil. After only two games, there was a wide-spread perception that the Browns’ season was teetering on the edge of a cliff, ready to fall into the abyss. That was when they were 0-2, had promoted Brian Hoyer from third-string quarterback to starter to replace injured Brandon Weeden, and suddenly shipped running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis for a first-round draft pick. Fans and media accused the organization of giving up on the rest of the year for the sake of the 2014 draft. It was the sort of scenario that former Browns president Mike Holmgren said during a radio interview would have prompted him to quit had he been the head coach. Instead, Chudzinski never flinched. He calmly regrouped the players and used the firestorm as a rallying cry that helped spark a three-game winning streak. Chudzinski’s steady hand has guided the Browns through the immense challenges of having three starting quarterbacks in the first half of the season and dealing with multiple injuries. Had Andy Reid not led the Chiefs, who were 2-14 last year, to a 9-0 start, Chudzinski would be a viable coach-of-the-year choice. His players view him as a strong leader largely because, win or lose, he is consistent.
>>The extremely aggressive mentality in calling plays. Since being named the Browns’ coach in January, Chudzinski has preached that he is all about having an attack-oriented offense that will constantly seek big plays and won’t settle for the safe way out. Through the first half of the season, he has put that preaching into practice on numerous occasions, including a pair of fourth-down calls that resulted in a touchdown and a crucial late first down in last Sunday’s victory against Baltimore. We’ve seen Chudzinski also succeed with fake-field goal and fake punt attempts, and a flea-flicker. His players know that he will do everything possible to try to win, and, consequently, they consistently put forth the extra effort.
>>Ray Horton has delivered as advertised on defense. The Browns have made dramatic improvement on defense. And that is primarily because Horton, in his first season as their defensive coordinator, has made his highly aggressive, zone-blitz scheme work like a charm. Horton’s defense promised to place greater pressure on the quarterback, and the Browns rank second in the NFL with 31 sacks. It also is one of only two defenses in the league, along with Carolina’s, to rank in the top 10 against the run and pass. One of Horton’s most impressive achievements is getting significantly better production from incumbent players who were part of the 4-3 look the Browns used the past two seasons. Strong safety T.J. Ward, for one, credits the system for allowing him to have his best season since joining the Browns in 2010. Jabaal Sheard has performed better as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 than he did as an end in the 4-3. And Phil Taylor, a 4-3 tackle the past two years, has excelled as a nose tackle.
>>Norv Turner has delivered as advertised on offense. The Browns were expected to make strides offensively with Turner in his first season as their offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, and play-caller. And, for the most part, they have. Although he wasn’t able to make Weeden more effective, Turner did figure out how to maximize the production of Hoyer and Campbell, who have a combined 4-1 record after going from backups to starters (although Weeden played most of the Week 5 victory against Buffalo after Hoyer suffered a season-ending knee injury). Turner has done plenty to help wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron become game-breakers. He also has done wonders, with a scheme that emphasizes a faster pace and quicker release of throws, to enhance the pass protection of an offensive line that struggled in that area earlier in the season.
>>Chris Tabor has done an amazing job with special teams. During the offseason, the Browns said goodbye to one of the NFL’s top kickers, Phil Dawson, and a standout kick-returner in Josh Cribbs. Thanks largely to the guidance of Tabor, in his third season as the team’s special-teams coordinator, they haven’t felt either loss. Billy Cundiff has been a solid kicker, doing some of his best work with consistently deep kickoffs. Travis Benjamin had quickly established himself as one of the most dangerous punt-returners in the NFL before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 8. Tabor also has found success with a new punter, Spencer Lanning, and from the multiple newcomers to his coverage units.
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