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Why Lincoln Riley (or another college coach) could be right for these Browns

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There’s never been a better time for a team like the Browns to go looking for a college football coach.

Kansas State v Oklahoma Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns are once again looking for a new coach. This latest search is a point where the Browns could do something forward-thinking. While I know that’s a lot to ask of the Browns, there are some things working in their favor.

The place to look for a new head coach sure looks like it’s in the college ranks right now, especially for Cleveland.

Sadly, this former Browns assistant, now at Alabama, isn’t coming home ...

... so the Browns will have to look in a different direction.

One of the first tires to kick is on Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley. The link is clear: He coached Baker Mayfield to a Heisman Trophy, and they got within one overtime of playing in 2017’s national title game. Riley’s repeatedly led elite offenses, including in 2018 without Mayfield.

Before getting to Riley specifically, there are good reasons for the Browns to look to the college ranks in general.

“College offenses” are all over the NFL. Doug Pederson’s Eagles won a Super Bowl with one. Andy Reid’s Chiefs have led a college offense renaissance in the pros. Sean McVay’s Rams have built one of game’s most innovative offenses with a similar style. Spread formations, option looks, and motions that have long been common on campus are increasingly common in the pros.

The NFL is a copycat league. Supply might be about to start meeting demand, according to NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero:

The expansion of college elements into the pro game and a dearth of obvious candidates from the NFL coordinator ranks has some league executives predicting a college coach gets a job this year.

And no name comes up more than Riley’s. He’s still just 35 years old and in his second year running the Sooners after two years as Bob Stoops’ OC there. But Riley has impressed NFL scouts who come through the school, particularly with the way he developed current Browns QB Baker Mayfield. He’s an offensive guru, and the modern NFL is a points race.

The things that make you a successful college coach don’t always translate to The League, of course. NFL coaches don’t have to deal with recruits and boosters. College coaches who are really good at that lose the advantage in the NFL. When NFL people play up a coach’s experience in college, they often don’t mean it as a compliment. The most common criticism is that relating to 17-year-olds is a lot different than relating to 27-year-olds.

But Riley, in particular, might be a fit for the Browns.

They currently have nine players older than 27. Two are backup QBs — and you’re bringing a college guy in specifically to nurture the younger starter — and two more are the punter and the long snapper. The Browns are just barely the second-youngest team in the league. That is bound to happen when you’re bad and stock up on draft picks over the years.

A look at the roster shows something like a third of the starters would have been picked by just about any college football fan over the last few years:

  • QB: Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma)
  • WR: Antonio Callaway (Florida)
  • RB: Nick Chubb (Georgia)
  • TE: David Njoku (Miami)
  • DE: Myles Garrett (Texas A&M)
  • DE: Emmanuel Ogbah (Oklahoma State)
  • CB: Denzel Ward (Ohio State)
  • SS: Jabrill Peppers (Michigan)

The Browns already have their Franchise Quarterback, but he’s struggled in a scheme a lot different than Riley’s, which Mayfield developed a complete mastery of.

NFL teams have been enamored with Riley for a while. Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer reported last summer that staffs from around the league had tapped Riley’s brain:

When I asked one NFL head coach about OU’s system, he answered, “I like it a lot. His players know what they’re doing, and his plays complement each other. He gets the quarterback lots of easy yards and completions.” Another head coach added, “The way he mixes tempo and attacks people, love it.” And so guys like these have come to campus, either as part of normal scouting or on special recon trips, with questions.

Oklahoma’s offense has been the best in the country since Riley’s arrival as offensive coordinator in 2015. In addition to being good, the Sooners are schematically mean:

Would Riley or another college coach make the jump? Maybe.

Riley “would listen if an NFL team calls and be intrigued by the idea of testing his approach at the next level,” Pelissero reports.

For his part, Riley’s in downplay mode:

“The truth is for me, I love Oklahoma,” he said Monday. “I love coaching here. I love coaching college football. I certainly don’t have that itch right now.”

He’ll keep getting questions until the Browns job is filled.

One issue for the Browns, if Riley isn’t the guy, is that there’s not exactly a no-brainer, rising college prospect out there right now, even to jump to another college program.

But it might help them that none of the biggest college jobs look set to open up, either. If a coach has aspirations, the Browns may be the place to begin fulfilling them immediately.

If Urban Meyer isn’t at Ohio State next season (not as out of the realm of possibility as you might think, and he’s now on Browns betting lists, well behind Riley), he could “retire” and eventually get another college job. But it’d be intriguing for the Browns to do their due diligence there as well.

College football has other great minds, though few other candidates like Riley, who combine truly top-level experience and offensive wizardry. Just for one example, there’s Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, who has a defensive background but has had an increasingly spread-out offense and has been connected to NFL jobs in the recent past.

Most college coaches approached for an NFL job would at least give it some thought. The Browns aren’t automatically an attractive job, though.

Cleveland has a lot more wrong with it than just the head coach or the offensive coordinator. The palace intrigue there is hard to surpass, and that goes all the way to the top and owner Jimmy Haslam.

There is a wellspring for all the recent badness, though, and really one can never emphasize enough what a piece of shit Haslam is. If he’s done anything to his credit, it’s draw attention away from his terribly run franchise by being so reprehensible and damaging all by himself. He made his fortune inheriting, then running, a con company that ultimately had to pay $92 million in restitution to its cheated customers, and installed explicitly racist people — particularly toward the people of Cleveland — high up on the org chart.

Whoever takes the job, Riley or not, has to deal with that. And to join the Browns, Riley would have to leave a really good gig in Norman.