Pettine revisits his coaching roots

Browns defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil conducts his camp at Central Bucks West High. Another alum, Cleveland coach Mike Pettine, also took part on Sunday.
Browns defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil conducts his camp at Central Bucks West High. Another alum, Cleveland coach Mike Pettine, also took part on Sunday. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff)
Posted: June 10, 2014

Mike Pettine had gone digging through an old disk drive on an old laptop computer the other day, looking for photos of his children to decorate his spacious and antiseptic new office as the Cleveland Browns' head coach, and the excavation turned up something surprising from deep within his coaching career.

Saved on the brick-size drive was a folder full of his old offensive game plans from his five years as the head coach at North Penn High School. It was fitting that Pettine would find those files so easily, since his past is never too far from him.

He came back to Doylestown over the weekend, trekking across Ohio and Pennsylvania in a limousine bus with 12 members of his coaching staff, to appear Sunday at a football camp that his defensive coordinator, Jim O'Neil, holds each year at Central Bucks West's War Memorial Field.

Pettine, O'Neil, and Browns linebackers coach Chuck Dreisbach are all C.B. West alumni, and with Pettine's father, Mike Sr., in attendance Sunday, the camp had the feel of a reunion, of old friends remembering good times. But beyond the nostalgia for the coaches and the 12-year-old boys chop-stepping through footwork drills under a bright midday sun, the scene was a reminder of how diverse Pettine's background as a coach really is, and how intriguing his first season with the Browns promises to be.

All of Pettine's previous 10 years as an NFL coach had been as a defensive assistant or coordinator, so he tends to be thought of just in those terms. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he went 45-15 at North Penn, building a powerhouse program there and terrorizing the Suburban One League in part because his offenses were so creative and his play-calling so daring.

"That side of my brain's been sort of asleep for a while," he said Sunday, but it's wide awake now. It has to be. The Browns struck that draft-day trade with the Eagles to move up in the first round and select Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel with the 22d pick, and Pettine and his offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, are charged with developing him, with molding a system to fit the skills of arguably the most dynamic quarterback in college football history.

There may be an impulse to pooh-pooh Pettine's experience as a high school head coach when wondering how he and Shanahan will devise a scheme for Manziel. But if Chip Kelly's background and his subsequent success with the Eagles have done nothing else, they've shown that boldness and innovation can be found at any level of football, and at North Penn, Pettine always was willing to break from convention.

His playbook was thick with formations, hundreds of them. Once, in a tight game against C.B. West - coached by Mike Sr., in the midst of a state-record 59-game winning streak - Pettine had his team run a complex trick play called "Sneak Attack." As the quarterback pretended to plunge into the line for a first down, the center instead snapped the ball through the quarterback's legs to a crouching tailback, who caught the ball, stood up, and threw a touchdown pass to the tight end.

That Pettine called this play on fourth down during a torrential rainstorm made his decision all the more audacious, and though C.B. West won the game, his father still can recall even the most minute details of the sequence, including the instant he realized his son had bested him in this particular battle of wits.

"I had told my guys, 'Watch the trick stuff,' " said the elder Pettine, who won 326 games and four state championships at C.B. West. "And they were all shaking their fists, thinking we stopped them."

That appreciation for misdirection and deception has stayed with him. In 2012, while with the New York Jets, Pettine watched Tim Tebow line up in Wildcat and zone-read formations every day in practice and shred one of the league's better defenses, and the fact that Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano was too stubborn and scared to use Tebow much during games didn't mean, in Pettine's mind, that those principles couldn't be effective. So he hired Shanahan without having met him, knowing that Shanahan had implemented a zone-read offense in Washington for Robert Griffin III - a system that could be perfect for Manziel.

"You have a running threat, but at the same time it's a guy where you can't just load the box and say, 'We dare you to throw,' " Pettine said. "Manziel is a guy we feel can make all the throws. So it's the Wildcat, but to a different level."

For the record, Pettine still is calling Brian Hoyer the Browns' starting quarterback, but it's hard to imagine he will be doing so for long once training camp starts. For a franchise and a city that haven't celebrated an NFL championship since 1964, there's too much riding on Manziel to waste time waiting for him.

Besides, Mike Pettine has been waiting a long time, too, to reengage the part of his mind that drew up those North Penn game plans all those years ago - and that might already have contemplated how Manziel might run them. "I have them," he said, "but I didn't even open them up." Of course, that's only what he said.


msielski@phillynews.com

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MikeSielski

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