Browns are an easy sell New franchise in Cleveland plum of coaching openings

December 12, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The Seattle Seahawks can offer Paul Allen's open checkbook and a defense manned by high-priced former free agents.

The San Diego Chargers can serve up the No. 1 defense in the league and the unlimited potential of young franchise quarterback Ryan Leaf, however immature he might be.

The Ravens can sell a young, hungry defense and the sparkle of a new stadium.

But if you are searching for the best coaching opportunity in the NFL in 1999, the place to start is Cleveland, where a management team of former San Francisco 49ers is preparing to resurrect the Browns in a big way.

Among the perks the expansion Browns can offer a new head coach are the first choice in the draft, 14 extra picks over the next two years, a full salary cap to work under and a new stadium to operate in.

If the anticipated purge strikes the sidelines again this off-season, top-of-the-line coaches will have their pick of some very attractive positions. Including Cleveland, there figure to be no fewer than five head coaching vacancies, and perhaps as many as 10.

The turnover rate might rival 1997, when nine coaches were fired at the end of the season.

The Browns' unique situation makes them the team to watch. Perhaps their biggest selling point is the front-office tandem of Carmen Policy, the team president, and Dwight Clark, director of football operations. Both came from San Francisco, where they masterfully launched the new salary cap era.

"To me, the best opportunity is Cleveland because it's new," said Sam Wyche, former Super Bowl coach in Cincinnati and now an announcer for CBS. "It has all the opportunity of the expansion draft, the extra picks, and the chance to be a great white shark in the free-agent market because there is no previous number to worry about.

"They've got an owner [Alfred Lerner] who has working capital. Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark have been around a successful program and are as good as anybody working with the cap. All those things are in place in Cleveland. And you've got a market where the fans are really fired up.

"That's the No. 1 spot."

Many NFL insiders feel the same way. Said one general manager of Cleveland's expansion effort, "There are no skeletons, double draft choices, a full cap for free agency. You can build the team as you want to build it. There's nothing in place. It's kind of like Jacksonville."

The Jacksonville Jaguars were an expansion team in 1996, along with Carolina. But while the Panthers have bottomed out, the Jaguars have built a solid team for the future. That vision is what Policy brings to the Browns.

But it didn't take him long to get in trouble with the NFL's tampering police. Policy was fined $10,000 by the league earlier this month for implying at a luncheon that Green Bay Packers coach Mike Holmgren was the kind of coach he would look to hire. Holmgren spent six years as an offensive assistant in San Francisco while Policy was there.

Holmgren could be at the head of the list of available coaches, with back-to-back appearances in the Super Bowl. He has an out in his Packers contract that would allow him to leave for the dual role of coach-general manager. Otherwise, his contract is up after the 1999 season.

A month ago, Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf placed the odds that Holmgren would leave at 80 percent.

Still, other executives around the league question whether that will happen. One estimated there are only "one or two teams" in position to make the kind of power offer that Holmgren covets.

Another high-profile coach who is certain to draw attention is George Seifert, who won 108 games and two Super Bowls in eight years as coach of the 49ers. NFL coordinators who should surface in the process are Gary Kubiak of the Denver Broncos, Jim Haslett of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Brian Billick of the Minnesota Vikings and Chris Palmer of Jacksonville.

San Diego's coaching job formally opened this week when June Jones announced he would leave at season's end to coach at the University of Hawaii. Coaches almost certain to be fired include Ray Rhodes in Philadelphia, Dennis Erickson in Seattle and Ted Marchibroda in Baltimore.

Also vulnerable are Norv Turner in Washington, Dick Vermeil in St. Louis, Dave Wannstedt in Chicago and Bruce Coslet in Cincinnati. Some of those could survive to next season.

Turner, for instance, might get the benefit of doubt from a new Redskins owner with a strong finish. His contract, like that of Redskins general manager Charley Casserley, runs through 2001. In Cincinnati, owner Mike Brown has said Coslet will return, and Vermeil reportedly has received similar assurances in St. Louis.

On the list of projected openings, Baltimore ranks in a group with Seattle and San Diego as teams that could achieve a quick turnaround.

"The Ravens have a great receiver [Jermaine Lewis], even though he's hurt right now, and a solid defense," said Wyche, who had a record of 87-109 in 12 years as an NFL head coach in Cincinnati and Tampa Bay.

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