CLEVELAND — Win or lose, once Chip Kelly finishes coaching Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl and walks off the field and likely toward a job in the NFL, the Browns will be waiting for him
They won’t be alone.
The Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills also are interested in signing Kelly, the offensive mastermind whose break-neck, stop-us-if-you-can system is already being copied in the pro game. There could be others courting the 49-year-old Kelly, but the Browns, Eagles and Bills seem to be the leaders to land him.
It’s not yet clear who will get the first crack at Kelly, who has spent the past few days in advance of Thursday night’s game against Kansas State deflecting questions about his future.
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner have spent the past few days in Arizona, where they have already several interviews in preparation of their meeting with Kelly. On Tuesday, the Browns interviewed Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who described his meeting with the team as “fantastic.”
On Wednesday, the Browns’ brass met with former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, fired earlier this week after six seasons with the club. Whisenhunt was a special teams coach in Cleveland under Chris Palmer in 1999, the Browns’ first season back in the league as an expansion franchise.
And according to multiple reports, the Browns have also interviewed Syracuse’s Doug Marrone and Penn State’s Bill O’Brien for their coaching vacancy.
The Browns are not confirming or commenting on any interviews.
When he announced Pat Shurmur’s firing earlier this week, Haslam was aware that a bidding war might lie ahead if Cleveland is to get its top choice as coach.
Although this may be his first foray into a coaching search, Haslam has hired many business executives over the years and he wasn’t concerned about any competition. In fact, he seemed to relish a race.
“We’re not going to worry about who else is out there looking for a coach,” Haslam said. “We have our people in mind and we’re going to work hard to bring the right person here to Cleveland.”
Kelly’s lack of any pro coaching experience doesn’t seem to be scaring off the Browns. They are intrigued by his uptempo, no-huddle offense, which New England coach Bill Belichick implemented this season after meeting with Kelly during the summer.
Before the search ends, Banner may find himself trying to beat out the Eagles, his former team. Banner spent 19 seasons with Philadelphia, including the last 12 as president.
Like Haslam, Banner believes the Browns will be able to get the coach they’re after.
“We go into this extremely confident that we can go after the top people available, at least the top people in our opinion, and that we have a very good chance of being successful in convincing them that this is the right situation,” he said. “Most of these top coaches are focused on finding a place where they think they can win and we think we can make a very good case why this is the best opportunity in the league right now.”
Haslam said “strong leadership” was the top attribute he was looking for in a coach, and there may not have been a college coach in the country who exhibited more strength than O’Brien.
Taking over for late coach Joe Paterno in the aftermath of the horrendous Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal, O’Brien led the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record and was named the Big Ten’s coach of the year. Before working at Penn State, O’Brien served as Belichick’s offensive coordinator in New England.
O’Brien is also expected to speak with the Bills.
Marrone emerged as a surprise candidate to many, but his NFL experience makes him attractive. Before returning to his alma mater to coach the Orange, the 48-year-old spent three seasons as an offensive coordinator with New Orleans, where he helped quarterback Drew Brees throw for more than 4,000 yards three years straight.
There was speculation about Marrone’s future when Syracuse started 2-4, but the Orange won six of its last seven and rolled West Virginia 38-14 in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl last week.
The Browns aren’t putting any timeline on finding their next coach, Cleveland’s sixth since ‘99.
“The sooner the better,” Haslam said. “The key thing is to get the right person. If we happen to find the right person this week, we’ll have him back here in a week. If it takes a month, we’re going to take a month because we’re very sensitive to getting this right.”
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