Hardesty's Sports Corner: Cleveland Browns on brink of losing trusting fanbase

By Tom Hardesty | Assistant Sports Editor Published:

As the Browns continue their search for yet another new head coach - and a franchise quarterback - there is another issue even more pressing facing this troubled franchise:

Losing an entire generation of fans.

Using the age of 8 as a rough gauge for when people start following their favorite team, and using the Browns' announced move to Baltimore during the 1995 season as a starting point, anyone around age 27 or younger has no experience whatsoever with the Browns as an elite team -- or even a consistently semi-decent team.

This can't continue much longer.

If it does, the Browns franchise is going to be in serious trouble. Fans are tiring of the coaching carousel in Cleveland, they are tiring of watching inept quarterback play season after season, they are tiring of the Browns still playing like an expansion team 14 years after they were actually an expansion team.

And, most of all, they are tiring of having no hope and nothing to look forward to each season except more of the same old, same old.

To that end, that would at least partially explain why Browns owner Jimmy Haslam made the decision to fire Rob Chudzinski after going 4-12 in his only season as head coach. While the team certainly had its share of injury problems, primarily at quarterback, and had nothing resembling a reliable running game after trading Trent Richardson to the Colts early in the season (and Richardson himself hasn't proven to be all that reliable thus far in his brief NFL career), the Browns did have five players voted to the Pro Bowl.

Certainly, Haslam must have a thought that a team with five Pro Bowlers should be a little more competitive than 4-12 -- and he's right.

Worse than the final record, though, was the fact that on too many Sundays this season, the Browns were equal parts incompetent and apathetic, often playing as if they were disinterested in -- and detached from -- the game. That's a sure sign that the coach has lost his team, and Haslam simply could not afford to take the chance of enduring more of the same from a Chudzinski-coached Browns team in 2014.

Fair or not, Chudzinski had to go. Now the Browns must get the right coach -- and the right quarterback in the 2014 NFL Draft -- or the franchise is in grave danger of watching an entire generation of fans go as well.

•••

So, then, who should be the next Browns coach?

Since their rebirth in 1999, the franchise has adhered to the policy of hiring retread NFL coordinators as its head coach, and this model clearly is not working.

So that leaves two additional models to try: Bringing in a successful college coach -- like the Philadelphia Eagles did this season with former Oregon coach Chip Kelly -- or luring a proven NFL head coach out of the broadcast booth like Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher.

Gruden is an Ohio native who grew up a Browns fan (like Chudzinski), while Cowher played for the Browns and served as an assistant coach in Cleveland, so both have ties either to the state or the franchise itself. As for the college route, Alabama's Nick Saban instantly comes to mind. Saban is a Kent State product who has served as a Browns assistant and has a history of leaving cushy environs to take on new challenges.

Of course, this is just a wish list.

At this point, it appears the Browns are going to go with the tried-and-untrue method of bringing in an NFL coordinator -- and crossing their fingers.

•••

Ohio State's 40-35 loss to Clemson last Friday night in the Orange Bowl was one of the best football games I've seen in a long time.

The Buckeyes and Tigers played their proverbial hearts out to win that game, with players on both teams making one jaw-dropping play after another.

And while both defenses were overmatched by the other's offense, Ohio State's defense in particular looked slow, soft and tentative. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer is addressing that problem with this year's incoming recruiting class -- as well as last year's haul -- but it's obvious that Meyer also needs to make a change at defensive coordinator.

As ESPN color analyst Matt Millen pointed out several times during the television broadcast, the crux of Ohio State's problem defensively was the insistence on sitting in a soft zone the entire game. That passive scheme had no hope of slowing down an explosive Clemson offense featuring quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins -- and it's the same scheme the Buckeyes employed all season without success.

In the postgame press conference, Meyer made it clear that his team's defensive performance was completely unacceptable, which could be a precursor to imminent changes coming to the Buckeyes' defensive staff.

•••

I recently said in this space that Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller's passing ability still leaves something to be desired, but one thing that cannot be questioned is Miller's toughness and desire to win.

The Buckeyes' QB took a physical beating in the Orange Bowl, but hung in there the whole way despite TV cameras clearly catching Miller grimacing in pain several times.

Miller is a phenomenal athlete who is at his best when operating on instinct, and part of that instinct is to stay on the field at all costs to help his team win.

However, a banged-up Miller obviously had trouble throwing the ball deep and with the necessary height, with several of his passes batted down by Clemson defenders at facemask level, including the game-sealing interception in Clemson territory late in the game.

Miller also had few designed runs in the game -- a staple of the Buckeyes' spread offense under Meyer -- therefore negating a key element of the Ohio State attack.

OSU might have been better served to insert super-sub Kenny Guiton into the game at various points just to give Miller a little break and to give the Clemson defense a different QB skill-set to defend.

Guiton got in for just one play, a failed 2-point conversion pass in the second half, and you have to wonder if a healthy Guiton -- with the ability and arm strength to stretch the Clemson defense vertically -- would have opened up the running game more for bruising RB Carlos Hyde.

Either way, though, Miller's grit and determination to bring an Orange Bowl championship back to Ohio was admirable and inspiring.

Email: thardesty@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9446

Twitter: @TomHardestyRC

Facebook: Tom Hardesty, Record-Courier

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