Gregg Williams used to be a punchline. He was at the center of “Bounty Gate,” had a laughable run as the head coach in Buffalo and had barely been on anyone’s radar as a top guy since. Despite his boasts about head coaching opportunities, no one gave him a prayer of ever landing a top job again.
Seven weeks has changed everything.
Since taking over as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach in Week 9, Williams has led the team to a 5-2 record. Their only losses came against the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, two teams that will be in the playoffs. Under Hue Jackson, the Browns won three games in three seasons and started the year 2-5-1. Now they’re 7-7-1 and have looked more and more respectable each week.
So has Williams earned the job long-term? That’s certainly worth debating at this point. There’s no doubt Cleveland is a different team with the 60-year-old coach at the helm. But how much of that success is simply due to getting Jackson out of the team’s building? It’s impossible to know.
Williams has had six stints in the NFL as a defensive coordinator and he’s pretty darn good at that job. He helped the New Orleans Saints win Super Bowl XLIV as the man in charge of the defense and had success on and off at his other stops. But the “Bounty Gate” scandal crushed any hope he had of earning a head coaching job. The only path he had was to somehow work his way into an interim spot and prove himself.
Well, he has. So what’s the debate?
Part of the problem is that Williams is already 60, which is old by current NFL coaching standards. Offenses are changing and going more up-tempo, while defenses have to adjust their schemes almost yearly to match new trends. Williams is a tough, hard-nosed, old-school guy who doesn’t exactly seem hip to the game’s new tricks.
It’s worth noting that Williams went 17-31 as the head coach of the Bills from 2001-03. Yes, that was a long time ago, but it doesn’t instill confidence that he can be the man to finally take the Browns to the promised land.
With Williams in charge the Browns haven’t exactly been hammering the cream of the NFL’s crop. Their five wins have come over the Falcons (6-9), Bengals (6-9), Panthers (6-9), Broncos (6-8) and the Bengals again. That’s not exactly murderer’s row.
It’s also worth considering just how well interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens has done. Since Todd Haley and Hue Jackson were given the boot, Kitchens has ramped up Cleveland’s offense and has rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield firing on all cylinders.
Since Kitchens took over, Mayfield has been a completely different quarterback.
In six appearances under Jackson and Haley, Mayfield completed 130 of 223 passes (58.3 percent), for 1,471 yards, with eight touchdowns and six interceptions. He averaged 6.60 yards per attempt and had a quarterback rating of 78.9.
In seven games under Kitchens, Mayfield has completed 157 of 221 passes (71.0 percent), for 1,878 yards, with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. He’s averaging 8.50 yards per attempt and has a passer rating of 111.4.
So under Jackson and Haley, Mayfield was a below average quarterback. With Kitchens running the offense, he’s a Pro Bowler.
Given how the offense has performed, I don’t think you can give Williams all the credit for Cleveland’s turnaround. And that’s what makes this so difficult.
At this point, there is little doubt the Browns are planning a full coaching search. They will do a ton of interviews. And, frankly, it should be a pretty attractive job. There’s a lot of young talent on Cleveland’s roster, the team has a football-mad fan base, tons of salary cap room and a full complement of draft picks in 2019 (except a seventh-rounder that was part of the Jarvis Landry trade).
It’s an attractive job and there should be plenty of qualified candidates.
It’s clear the Browns’ top priority is finding someone who can work closely with Mayfield. Every coach-hungry franchise is looking for the next Sean McVay, Doug Pederson or Matt Nagy. A coach who can connect with a young quarterback and take him to the next level. Williams definitely isn’t that guy and it may cost him the job.
While Williams has had a great run as Cleveland’s interim head coach, he may be just another candidate when it comes time to interview,