Mike Pettine's Cleveland Browns turnaround built on experience

Paul Spinelli/Associated Press
Mike Pettine says "coaching is still coaching," whether at the high school, college or pro level.

NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» Robert Griffin III's potential trade value.
» Two intriguing prospects to watch on Saturday.
» The fallout yet to come from the 2012 NFL Draft.
And much more, beginning with the secret to Mike Pettine's success in Cleveland. ...

The first-year NFL head coach stood in front of his first team meeting in May and told his players that their history was just that: history.

Mike Pettine knew what everyone was thinking in the wake of yet another meltdown involving yet another toxic mix of Cleveland Browns decision-makers. And he was asking his guys, as they started over behind yet another new regime, to refuse to yield to that history.

"I addressed it head on at that first meeting," Pettine said on Thanksgiving morning. "We put it up on the board: 'Break off the rear-view mirror.' We were aware of the past. At the same time, we knew it had zero effect on what we were doing going forward."

With 11 games in the books this season, that much appears to have been abundantly true.

In early October, after wins over Tennessee and Pittsburgh, Pettine decided to drop the "same old Browns" phrase he'd throw around occasionally. By then, he had reason to. And now, he has even more.

These Browns have won when they haven't had their "A" game (over Tampa in Week 9 and Atlanta in Week 12), they've taken control in the clutch (against New Orleans in Week 2 and Tennessee in Week 5), and they've asserted themselves within the AFC North (against Pittsburgh in Week 6 and Cincinnati in Week 10). They're 7-4 and set to play meaningful December football for the first time since George W. Bush was in office. They're doing, simply, what the Browns don't do.

And the best part of this story might be the twist: They're here with a coach who is not only the son of a high school legend, but who was still at the prep level himself just 13 falls ago. Pettine believes that experience played a big part in enabling him to reset a culture that so many before him failed to change.

"In a lot of ways, coaching is still coaching," Pettine said. "At the high school level, the college level, the pro level, that experience of being a head coach, in charge of a program, is invaluable. And in high school, you run everything from A to Z -- managing things with parents, faculty, players, setting schedules. You have to compartmentalize all of that and manage not to be narrow-minded on the administrative end of it. Some things don't carry over. But there are a lot of parallels."

Pettine has become the primary NFL example of a trend that's exploded in the college ranks, where prominent high school coaches have been translating their success. Baylor's Art Briles was at Stephenville (Texas) High in 1999, Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze didn't bolt Briarcrest (Tennessee) Christian until 2004, and Auburn's Gus Malzahn was still at Springdale (Arkansas) High in 2005. Likewise, Pettine left North Penn High, in the Philly suburbs, after the 2001 season for the first of several stints as an NFL assistant.

For the sake of comparison, consider where the rest of this year's NFL coaching hires were in the fall of 2001:

» Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions: Buccaneers quarterbacks coach
» Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins: Orlando Predators (AFL) head coach
» Bill O'Brien, Houston Texans: Georgia Tech offensive coordinator
» Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Rams defensive coordinator
» Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee Titans: Steelers tight ends coach
» Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings: Cowboys defensive coordinator

Suffice it to say that Pettine's path has been less than conventional. And he keeps tapping that dynamic as an advantage. He talks to his dad constantly -- Mike Sr. has even learned how to text -- and to his successor at North Penn, Dick Beck, weekly. In many ways, he's still one of them, and the Browns have reaped the benefits, just as Baylor or Ole Miss or Auburn have scored big on their guys' backgrounds.

"At a public high school, you get what you get, there isn't recruiting; that's where my dad was a master -- he fit the system to the players, not forcing players into a system," Pettine said. "In the draft, you get players that fit you, but as the year goes on, you have to be able to adapt. It's so important. You have to make changes in midseason, in the middle of a game.

"There's this scene I love in 'Apollo 13', where all this stuff gets thrown on a table, and they have to make a filter, where they say they have to find a way to fit a round peg into a square hole. That's coaching; it changes week to week."

So where has all this shown up with the 2014 Browns?

You can see it in how they've dealt with attrition, managing receiver Josh Gordon's 10-game suspension as well as injuries to center Alex Mack, tight end Jordan Cameron, linebacker Karlos Dansby and defensive ends John Hughes, Phillip Taylor and Armonty Bryant.

Even more so, you can see it in the way Pettine built his staff, which is full of teachers who, first and foremost, have a passion for the game. "You can't fake that," Pettine explains. "Players see how hard a staff works, and that can't help but rub off. And if you can build that atmosphere in the building, where you don't want to let the guy you work with down, you have a chance."

But it might be most apparent in the overall health of the organization, which was in shambles last year at this time (radioactive former general manager Mike Lombardi ordered then-coach Rob Chudzinski to cut a player at one point, and Chudzinski refused) and had been a problem for a while.

Pettine was patient in finding assistants -- even though he was the last head coach hired in '14 and the well of candidates was running dry -- with the intention being "to get the Xs-and-Os right, but make sure you hire the right kind of guys for the culture." In his vision, that culture was about loving football and building the kind of place where people would be excited to come to work.

The result: It's hard to miss the atmospheric difference. That's led the Browns to a spot -- contending late in the season -- they haven't been to in some time, somewhere few thought they'd reach back when chaos was reigning (again) over Berea last winter.

"As a staff, we're very competitive," Pettine said. "So I'm not gonna say I'm surprised. A lot of people outside the building are surprised, but I'm not."

See, Pettine says he always saw the Browns for what they could be, not what they'd been. And at least so far, it seems like the franchise was right to see its new coach that way, as well.

Four downs

1) What would RGIII be worth on the trade market? Hard to believe we're here, but it's certainly within reason now to at least kick the tires on the trade value of Robert Griffin III. And as usual, you can start by following the money trail. Griffin has just $3.27 million and one year left on his rookie deal with the Washington Redskins, as well as an option for 2016, which a team could elect to (but probably wouldn't) exercise at around $16 million. That makes the financials doable though not ideal, in that there's little control (without paying a relatively high cost) beyond next year for a player who, at this point, remains a project. And remember, the one offense he thrived in was a facsimile of Baylor's offense imported to Washington by then-coordinator Kyle Shanahan, a factor that (as was the case with Tim Tebow) makes RGIII a less-than-ideal backup option. But then, there's still considerable talent and upside. "He's a car that's been driven off the lot; also, the dynamics of his contract drive his price down," said one NFC general manager. "The biggest keys -- QBs go for more than other positions, and his contract is ticking down to the last year, unless a team wants to pick up that option." As this GM sees it, "if there were multiple bidders, they might get a 3 and change (a 5 or 6 or 7), and I'm sure they'd try to get a 2." An AFC exec added: "On the high end, the team asks for a 2 and settles for a third or maybe a fourth." A couple other evaluators affirmed the idea that a mid-round pick seemed like the right range for Griffin, which is pretty stunning, considering what his rights went for just 32 months ago. Of course, a lot could change in the next four weeks. But if nothing does -- and the Redskins plan to give Colt McCoy the chance to hold on to the job -- the team will have an asset with seriously depressed worth.

2) The Blount truth. Last Sunday, a most bizarre circumstance arose in the Patriots' running game. LeGarrette Blount, cut by the Steelers earlier in the week for, in essence, quitting on the team in a win, was in uniform for New England, taking the snaps of Jonas Gray, who was benched for oversleeping on Friday. A week after a 201-yard outburst, Gray played zero snaps against the Lions. Blount played 16, and he was handed the ball on 12, going for 78 yards and two touchdowns. So what was the issue in Pittsburgh? Well, as the Steelers got into the swing of their season, the idea of Blount sharing carries with Le'Veon Bell faded in large part, as one team source put it, "because we have one of the better backs in the league, who also happens to thrive on being a workhorse." Bell has played over 50 snaps in nine of the Steelers' 11 games, and that left less for Blount, who had performance-based incentives to chase in his contract. From Week 8 to Week 11 -- his last four weeks in Pittsburgh -- Blount's offensive snaps went from 18 to 15 to a then-season-low six to one. And in his last five games as a Steeler, Blount had just 53 yards on 28 carries. Over that stretch, coaches (even those who liked him personally) grew frustrated. The Monday night win over Tennessee -- when they expected him to overjoyed for Bell, who ran for 204 yards, but he didn't show either that or an interest in playing to the end of the game after bolting in the fourth quarter -- was the final straw. That essentially bought Blount a ticket back to New England, with Bill Belichick collecting yet another talent at a low point. Kind of like where Blount was last year before he rushed for 772 yards for Belichick and became a major factor in the 2013 playoffs.

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3) The changing face of the Packers. The Packers wouldn't give back their rollicking blowout wins of the past month or so, but there's no question that last week's semi-scare against the Vikings gave Green Bay a chance to test itself in a different way. "There's gonna be a lot more games like that," veteran cornerback Tramon Williams told me. "It's like I told the guys earlier, that's one of the more impressive games we've had. That's how we're gonna have to win them down the stretch and into the playoffs (to) get to where we want to go. That's the type of wins we're gonna have to have. It definitely was refreshing to see that." With the Vikings holding the Packers to five first downs -- and zero points -- through the game's first 13 minutes, the revamped Green Bay defense had to hold Minnesota in check early, which it did. Second, when rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater heated up late, the Packers had to find a way to put the game on ice. And that meant running the ball with 3:23 left and the Vikings possessing two timeouts. Minnesota knew what was coming, but it didn't matter. Eddie Lacy grinded out 27 yards and two first downs on five carries to follow, setting up a pair of Aaron Rodgers kneeldowns. "I think that's what we've been trying to get to," said Williams. "Obviously, in previous years, we didn't have that dimension to us. But now we do have it. And this is what we got it for, this is the time we're gonna have to use it. We showed up. It was fun to see." The hope is that the Packers will become a little less reliant on Rodgers. They'll be tested better Sunday against New England, another team that has tried (and succeeded) to become more well-rounded around a superstar quarterback.

4) Minnesota's trust in Teddy. Going into last Sunday's daunting matchup with the red-hot Packers, Vikings coaches gave their players a very simple formula for toppling the Goliath of the NFC North: Get the game to the fourth quarter and put the ball in Teddy Bridgewater's hands. It almost worked out that way, too. The Vikings went into the fourth quarter down just 17-13 with Green Bay backed up at its own 13. Aaron Rodgers messed with the blueprint, driving the field to make it 24-13, but that's where Bridgewater -- after being awfully shaky for much of the afternoon, consistently missing his targets high -- went to work on his portion of the plan. He was 8 of 10 for 77 yards and a touchdown in leading a 13-play, 79-yard scoring drive. And even though the Packers were able to keep the ball away from the Vikings to finish the game off, the point the coaches made was proven: That the new kid under center has the right demeanor for the big moments, which the Vikings are trying to create for him. "He's been resilient," tight end Kyle Rudolph told me. "He's hit some adversity. ... And the way he responded in Tampa and (against) Washington, when we had the ball late and had to score, you can see he's a kid that's never fazed. No moment's too big for him; he's never down. You want a guy like that under center. With him, everyone feels like they have a chance." Now the Vikings just need to get him some help. While Charles Johnson looks like a find at receiver, losing running back Adrian Peterson has been a challenge for a staff that thought Peterson would be back by now. Rudolph, meanwhile, is still working his way back from an injury that cost him six games. The Vikings could well look at a big outside threat in the offseason.

Three checkdowns

1) Monday's grand-jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri did wind up reverberating through the NFL, and with no one more than the team down the street. The St. Louis Rams had contingency plans set to move Sunday's home game against the Raiders, let employees leave the building early (at 3 p.m. CT) on Monday, and of course have helped some on the ground in the community.

2) The Jets will be able to evaluate Geno Smith further by throwing him back into the mix, but people need to stop treating him as if he were a former first-rounder. Smith was selected with the 39th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, or nine spots higher than Carolina drafted Jimmy Clausen in 2010. Somehow, Clausen's presence didn't stop the Panthers from drafting Cam Newton in 2011 -- just as Smith won't stop the Jets from going after a QB in 2015.

3) With four starts down, Tennessee's Zach Mettenberger leads all rookie QBs in passer rating. Few in Baton Rouge are shocked. When I talked to LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron about him, he emphasized toughness and leadership. "Zach Mettenberger knows how to win, and understands it's more than just throwing the football," Cameron said. "Most head coaches are looking for that guy."

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Mississippi State DE Preston Smith (at Ole Miss, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): The 6-foot-6, 270-pounder has a long track record -- having been a mainstay since his sophomore year -- and is coming through with a big senior season, leading the Bulldogs with eight sacks. He had one two weeks ago against Alabama, and it's possible that, with a big game on another big stage this week, Smith could wind up pushing his way into the bottom of the first round. "He hasn't been quite as productive as he was early in the year, but he's a strong player," said one AFC area scout. "He's a really good athlete, and a sneaky pass rusher." You might remember Auburn's Dee Ford turning the end of last year into his path to the first round. Different player, same pursuit.

2) Auburn DT Gabe Wright (at Alabama, 7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN): Speaking of Auburn defensive linemen, Wright probably won't go as high Ford or Nick Fairley did, but he certainly has merited second-day consideration. "He's a talented player with good size and speed and potential in either (a 3-4 or 4-3) scheme," said an AFC personnel director. "He's been playing a little inconsistent, and he has a chance here to show up against a big offensive line and improve his stock." Because of the slashing, dashing ability of the 6-3, 284-pounder, scouts have been left wanting more; this week would be a good one for Wright to give it to them. "Good player, but I'm still waiting for his breakout game. What better time than the Iron Bowl?"

Extra point

The top of the 1998 NFL Draft -- with Peyton Manning going first overall and Ryan Leaf going second -- had a lasting impact on the way clubs evaluate quarterback prospects. And it'd hardly be surprising if the 2012 NFL Draft were to have a similar fallout, with Andrew Luck considered by just about everyone to be an heir to the Brady/Manning/Brees/Rodgers throne and Robert Griffin III back on the bench in Washington.

After talking to a number of veteran evaluators this week, it's clear there are two areas to focus on.

The first is intangibles. An NFC GM recalled the issues being there back in Griffin's draft year -- "What kind of leader is he?" A fellow veteran exec used almost the same words in recalling the same issue: "What kind of leader is he gonna be?" Another question with the Heisman winner was one of entitlement, and that issue seems to have reared its head in Jay Gruden's description -- he said RGIII was "coddled" -- of how the quarterback has been handled over the years.

Luck checking out so clean through the process, meanwhile, serves as a reminder of the overwhelming importance of intangibles.

Second, there's the whole spread vs. pro-style quarterback debate. And it starts with the difficulty of the evaluation, which was there with Griffin. As our exec put it, "With a quarterback or a guard or a tackle, in a pro-style offense, I can see a lot of what a guy has in half a game. In a spread, it might take three games to even get a clue."

This isn't a new problem, of course. Go back to 2005. When the Niners drafted Alex Smith, they had to bring in a coach to teach him how to project his voice in the huddle, because he didn't do it in college. He was literally working from the ground up. And after the NFL caught up to the Baylor elements that Kyle Shanahan had installed in Washington in 2012, Griffin was, too.

There are success stories. But the 2012 group vividly shows how the struggle is different for players from the spread. Luck, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson all played in pro-style offenses in college, and each has been able to sustain a level of play. Griffin and Brandon Weeden came from spreads, and one has struggled for consistency, while the other flat-out fell on his face.

"Your transition is far more seamless; the mechanics, the footwork, the playbook, the reads, it's much easier coming from a pro-style," said an AFC exec. "A spread quarterback, from timing to footwork to release to vision to his ability break down a defense and have his keys and reads right, it's a whole different thing."

The problem for the NFL, of course, is that the 20-hour rule in college makes running the spread a sensible choice for college coaches, who would feel a time crunch trying to install a pro offense.

One final note on this that's important to remember: While Luck and Griffin will be linked forever after going 1-2 in 2012, the two were viewed as different prospects even back then. "It wasn't even close between those guys," the NFC GM said, while the first exec added, "If you asked me then if RGIII would be a great quarterback, I'd have said 50-50. With Luck, I'd have gone 90-10."

So where to look for this going forward? Well, in next year's draft, a spread-offense quarterback (Marcus Mariota) is likely to be pitted against two pro-style guys (Jameis Winston, Connor Cook). And to flip it around, that scenario would also pit a quarterback with a positive reputation (Mariota) against a guy who comes with plenty of off-field questions (Winston). All of which should give us a nice, complicated test case.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.