A noisy beginning for Pettine with Browns

Browns coach Mike Pettine tried to spin Cleveland's pursuit of Jim Harbaugh as a positive.
Browns coach Mike Pettine tried to spin Cleveland's pursuit of Jim Harbaugh as a positive. (USA Today Sports)
Posted: February 24, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS - Someone called Mike Pettine on Friday just before the big story broke. The caller was kind enough to provide the story's details, if the notion of kindness could apply to what Pettine was about to hear: Before the Cleveland Browns had settled on him as their head coach last month, they had tried to trade a truckload of draft picks to the San Francisco 49ers for the rights to Jim Harbaugh.

As one would expect, this revelation did not gladden Pettine's heart.

"I shot the messenger a little bit," he said Saturday here at the NFL combine. "I asked, 'How does that affect my tenure as the head coach?' I think my next sentence may have used the word 'flying' followed by something that referenced a part of a rat's body."

His anger is understandable. Consider the apparent ruin that has piled up around him recently. Coming off a 4-12 season, the Browns hired him on Jan. 23. Less than three weeks later, owner Jimmy Haslam fired the two men most responsible for making Pettine head coach: general manager Mike Lombardi and chief executive officer Joe Banner.

Then came Friday's report by Pro Football Talk that, after all their dawdling during their coaching search, the Browns had wanted Harbaugh all along and had been willing to compromise their rebuilding process to get him. In a statement, they didn't even deny that they'd pursued him. How's that for a vote of confidence for their new coach?

Congrats, Mike! We thought you were the 11th-best guy for the job, and we're so excited you're here that we sacked the two dopes who hired you. Go get 'em!

Yet Pettine managed to spin the Browns' pursuit of Harbaugh as a positive development. "When you look at it," he said Saturday, "it shows that the organization is committed to getting it turned around - that it would investigate that option."

The Banner and Lombardi departures had surprised him, of course, as had the Harbaugh report. But it was not surprising to hear him talk like this. Throughout his coaching career, Pettine has straddled the line between being a prodigy and an understudy. Shadows track him. They always have. He's used to their presence.

He became a head coach at William Tennent High School before he turned 30, and two years later he went to North Penn and turned its program into a Pennsylvania powerhouse. But he was not his father: Mike Pettine Sr., winner of 326 games and four state championships at Central Bucks West. He was not a legend. Next to his father, he was second-best, and he always would be.

So he began a rise through the NFL ranks so fraught with uncertainty that no one would dare emulate it: jumping from North Penn to a video technician position with the Baltimore Ravens, banking that he'd show everyone he had the chops to coach at the sport's highest level.

He eventually became the New York Jets' defensive coordinator in 2009. His first season, the Jets had the top defense in the league. They reached the AFC championship game that year, then again the next. Over Pettine's four seasons with the Jets, their defense never ranked worse than eighth. But Pettine was working under Rex Ryan, one of football's most innovative defensive minds, so just how much of the success could Pettine claim credit for?

Now, the one casting the shadow over him is Harbaugh, who has shepherded the 49ers to three consecutive NFC championship games and a Super Bowl appearance, who had distinguished careers as a pro quarterback and a college head coach, who has practically been groomed for greatness. The comparisons between what Pettine does and what Harbaugh might have done will be inevitable in Cleveland - a truth of which Pettine is acutely aware.

"I know that I'm very blessed to be here, that my path was different," he said. "I'm the proverbial guy from the mail room. I don't have the pedigree like some other coaches have - former players, college coaches. . . .

"I've always been a guy who's just a high school coach. I was just getting Rex's coffee. That's what's motivated me, and I think it's a big part of why I'm here today."

He was asked Saturday if he ever wonders what he's gotten himself into by accepting the job, but that view seems the wrong way to frame Pettine's situation. As he told his assistants at his first staff meeting, since 1991 the Browns have reached the postseason twice, won one playoff game, and gone through 141 coaches. They've been so bad for so long that Pettine has nothing to lose here. If he can make the Browns relevant and respectable, if he can win enough games, the controversy and chaos of his arrival will eventually fade, like so much noise.

"I'd like to think it's going to get quieter," Mike Pettine said. "That's my goal - to quiet the noise."


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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