Todd Haley’s six seasons as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator saw the Steelers become one of the NFL’s premier offenses, armed with dynamic players — Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell -- that struck fear into even the most hardened of defenses.
So it was admittedly surprising when Pittsburgh declined to renew Haley’s contract last month after yet another prolific year and another AFC North championship. He admitted as much during a Wednesday news conference that marked his first meeting with the news media since the Browns.
“I hate this phrase, but it is what it is,” said Haley, who met with the news media for the first time since the Browns tabbed him for the same role in Cleveland. “I’m looking forward. This is a really exciting challenge, and I think it will be really great to be part of helping turn this great organization around with a rich, rich history.”
That was among several dynamics that drew Haley to Cleveland despite the team’s struggles over the past two seasons. “I had some options, but this really appealed to me, the challenge aspect of it,” Haley said. “I think there are pieces in place to be successful.” He also made clear how the Browns’ 1-31 mark over the past two seasons didn’t discourage him from taking a new opportunity with a divisional rival.
To illustrate that point, Haley pointed to the time he left an assistant coach job at Dallas to become Arizona’s offensive coordinator in 2007. The Cardinals, who were coming off back-to-back in 5-11 seasons, played for a Super Bowl the following year.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy for leaving Dallas when I did, but man, when you're a part of turning it around and having success, playing in big games and having success in big games, there's nothing like it. So that's what appealed to me — the challenge and the people I was going to be working alongside of.”
That group, Haley said, includes Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam. It includes head coach Hue Jackson, who wasted little time in dialing up Haley when it was clear he wouldn't be returning to the Steelers. Another is new Browns general manager John Dorsey, whom Haley has formed a friendship with over the years.
After commanding one of the league’s most-explosive units in Pittsburgh, Haley inherits a young offense that finished last in points per game (14.6) and led the league in turnovers. There are building blocks, to be sure, in players such as running back Duke Johnson Jr., wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end David Njoku and an offensive line that was fortified last offseason. Cleveland, owners of the first and fourth overall picks in the upcoming NFL Draft, also hopes to answer a longstanding question at the quarterback position.
Born and bred in Western Pennsylvania, it might seem a bit ironic that Haley grew up a Steelers fan. His father, Dick, played for Pittsburgh and was its director of player personnel from 1971-1990, a span that saw the Steelers win four Super Bowls. “Having grown up in Pittsburgh, I hated the Browns, but I liked a bunch of players a lot,” he said, smiling. “(Former Browns Head Coach) Sam Rutigliano befriended me years ago, and I get excited every time I get a little note from him because on the front it is him and (former Browns QB) Brian Sipe. Obviously, Jim Brown; I’ve heard stories from my dad about him trying to tackle him.”
“It's a rich, rich history. I think the fans are tremendous,” he continued. “The times that I have been in here, whether it was Kansas City or with the Steelers, it’s a great crowd. All I can visualize is what it would be like when we are winning games.”