It’s undeniably weird to call a guy a new face in town when he worked here as recently as 2008.
However, when Rob Chudzinski was announced as the 14th full-time head coach in the history of the Cleveland Browns on January 10, that is just what he was: a new face. A fresh face. A face that the other new faces in the organization – Joe Banner, Alec Scheiner, Mike Lombardi, and most of all Jimmy Haslam – hope can lead the Browns into a new era of success.
So who exactly is Chudzinski our hopeful savior? I for one will admit to knowing nothing about him except for the fact that he was hired away from his post as Panthers offensive coordinator and that he led the Browns most vaunted offense of the expansion era in 2007. (I’ll never forget you, Derek Anderson.) For those uninformed like myself, Chudzinski is actually a native of northern Ohio, having graduated from Toledo’s St. John’s Jesuit in 1986. He went on to a wildly successful career at the University of Miami (FL), where he was a three-year starter at tight end. During his time in Coral Gables, the Hurricanes claimed the national championship in both 1987 and 1989.
From 1994-2003, Chudzinski returned to his alma mater. He began as tight ends coach, where he oversaw the development of three All-Americans: Bubba Franks, Jeremy Shockey, and former Browns headache Kellen Winslow II. From 2001-2003, he also served as the offensive coordinator. The 2001 ‘Canes team won Chudzinski another national championship, while the 2002 squad set various school offensive records before falling in the BCS National Championship Game to Ohio State. (If you watch on second down in that video, you can see the skills that earned Ken Dorsey three starts for the Browns in 2008.)
After his stint at the U, Chudzinski moved up to the pro ranks, where he served as Browns tight ends coach for the 2004 season before moving on to serve in the same position for the San Diego Chargers for two seasons. Chudzinski left San Diego to return to the Browns as their offensive coordinator for the 2007 season.
Chudzinski’s time as the head offensive assistant in Cleveland is well known. The 2007 Browns squad featured a deadly (by Cleveland standards) offense that ranked eighth overall in the league and sent four starters to the Pro Bowl. In spite of their expansion era best 10-6 record, the Browns missed the playoffs, but it looked like the offense, led by names like Derek Anderson, Jamal Lewis, Braylon Edwards, and a rookie left tackle named Joe Thomas, would be a team strength for years to come.
Of course, the team failed to sustain the 2007 success, and Chudzinski was fired along with head coach Romeo Crennel following a 4-12 campaign in 2008. He returned to the Chargers for two seasons as tight ends coach. During this stint, he also held the title assistant head coach under Norv Turner, who ironically now serves as Browns offensive coordinator under Chudzinski. In 2011 Chud took over the Carolina Panthers offense. In Cam Newton’s rookie season the Panthers attack rocketed from the bottom of the league to the top 10, but again Chud’s offense saw a regression the following year. Still, the Browns saw potential, and hired Chudzinski as their new head coach shortly after their season ended.
When Chudzinski was hired on January 10, many Browns fans were disappointed that the team was trotting out a guy that they saw as a retread after missing out on Oregon head coach Chip Kelly, who went to the Philadelphia Eagles. But Chudzinski impressed in his introductory press conference. He anecdotally established his bona fides as a Browns fan. “My cousins and I were very close,” he said, “and we wanted to be in that stadium in the Dawg Pound so bad that we would watch games in December out in the snow. We’d flip the TV around in the window so we could be there.” He also mentioned that one of his cousins owns one of the Browns-themed school buses that are staples in the Muni Lot. In a town as provincial as Cleveland is about sports, those details matter.
Since his introduction, Chudzinski has worked to surround himself with other coaching talent. Everyone knows that Chudzinski loves an aggressive offense that throws the ball downfield and attacks with a power runner. To run this type of offense, he tapped his old boss Norv Turner to be his offensive coordinator. While he has coached great offenses in the past (the 2007 Browns offense as well as his Carolina offenses based around dual threat quarterback Cam Newton), this might be the roster that offers Chudzinski the most offensive potential. Brandon Weeden is certainly an upgrade over Anderson, and, while no one would call him a more talented overall player than the dual threat Newton, I believe he could approach or equal Newton’s proficiency as a passer if he continues to develop like some expect. In the running game, if Trent Richardson stays healthy and reaches his potential, he will surely be just as, if not more dangerous than either the aging Jamal Lewis of 2007 or Newton through his first two seasons.
While he has a vision of an “attacking style defense” that will get to the quarterback and create turnovers, he admitted that the specifics of that defense (4-3 vs. 3-4, etc.) would be determined by his choice of coordinator. To that end, Chudzinski and the Browns lured Ray Horton away from Arizona. In the months since, it has become clear through the team’s defensive focus in both free agency and the NFL Draft that Horton shares this attacking philosophy.
Chudzinski’s approval rating, at least in my mind, is still high. Of course, he hasn’t coached a snap of real live NFL football yet. However, his passion for both football and the Browns has shown through – something this city was sorely lacking from its coaching staff and front office in previous seasons. “I remember the last game [of his last Cleveland stint in 2008] walking out of the stadium and looking across the field,” he recalled, “and somehow knowing that I would be back somehow, someway.”
Well you’re back now Chud. This city and its fans just hope you’ll be the guy that figures out how to stick around long enough to go from new face to old standby.