When Jim Tressel was exiled to Ohio's Siberian Gulag (did you know that when you translate 'Akron' from old Gaelic it comes out to 'Siberian Gulag? Look it up, that's a fact.*) for his role in the tattoo-for-memorabilia scandal, many people thought his coaching career was probably done. He was radioactive for college teams due to his five year 'show cause' penalty, and a lot of people thought he was a square peg into the round hole of the NFL. Yes, he got a gig as some kind of mysterious, nebulous 'assistant' with the Colts, but was never considered a serious head coaching candidate.
*Probably not a 'fact' in the true definition of the word, but have you been to Akron?
I've always wondered why Tressel never received any more NFL consideration. True, there was the scandal that made him toxic to people outside of Ohio State fans, but even before all of that, Tressel's name never seriously came up as guys that NFL teams were looking at, and I never understood why. Don't get me wrong – I never thought Tressel would take an NFL gig, because if ever there was a guy in his dream job it was Tressel at OSU, but he seemed to be the kind of guy the NFL would love. Yes, the rate of college coaches that fail at the NFL seems disproportionately high, but there are guys that do have success. But there are guys that make the transition and have success.
I believe Jim Tressel could be one of the success stories.
And what team is dying for success more than the Cleveland Browns? I know that Chip Kelly is the 'hot' college coaching name right now, and Browns fans might be depressed or mad that Kelly spurned them, or maybe even used them as a pawn against other teams vying for his services. But this is, ultimately, a good thing for the Browns. I am of the belief that Kelly will fail in the NFL – his high tempo spread offense relies on speed mismatches against generally inferior opponents. When Oregon's offenses take on defenses that are just as athletic and fast, most notably against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and Auburn in the BCS Championship Game, they fail. Even when Kelly's offense ran into extremely disciplined, athletically equal teams like he did in Stanford in 2012 and USC in 2011, the engine never quite ran as well as when it was matched up with Washington State, the have not UCLA sides, or Kansas State.
Every defense in the NFL has as much speed as the offense they are going up against.
While the pistol is (deservedly giving its success when it operates as intended) all the rage and spread elements are becoming more and more prevalent in the NFL, they're still heavily contingent on the unique skill sets of but a handful of guys. Cam Newton's, Robert Griffin III's, and even Colin Kaepernick's (for which the jury is very much still out) don't exactly grow on trees.
Let's look at what Jim Tressel's coaching philosophy is, and how that might translate to the Browns and the NFL...if anything can translate to the Browns, that is. I kid, I kid. I'm a Vikes fan, so I know all about sports misery.
Jim Tressel is the father, advocate, and architect of 'Tresselball', a strategy that roughly equates to an anaconda smothering their prey – it looks kind of harmless, seems rather boring, but when it's over, you have a full belly and you've literally crushed your opponent. The key components of 'Tresselball' are:
1. Conservative (in one sense) offense: Ohio State's offense under Jim Tressel generally wasn't too flashy, never was in the top 20 or 30 offenses in the country, but they were effective – a punishing running game (Mo C, NOT Lydell Ross, Antonio Pittman, Beanie, Boom Herron), a passing offense that was geared towards moving the chains but had a deceptively explosive component, and a quarterback that was asked to generally not lose the game rather than go out and win it (except Troy Smith in 2005 and '06, and maybe Terrelle Pryor for part of 2010). But they had a roster of playmakers that had a serious big play capability, usually from more than one position.
2. A stifling defense: The trademark of Jim Tressel's teams were a stifling defense. The 'Silver Bullets', as they became known as under JT, were a fast, well disciplined, solid tackling unit that was as fundamentally sound as any in college football. The linebackers were generally the strong suit of the unit and the most well known players, but there was talent from defensive tackle to safety, and it went two deep at almost every position. Their characteristics were aggression, toughness, not giving up long drives, and forcing the offense to make turnovers.
3. Say it with me kids: The punt is the most important play in football: This is a two parter here – special teams and field position. Jim Tressel believes in a strong special teams unit, and Ohio State always had stellar special teams play while he was coach. Whether it was kicking, punting, field goals, or coverage, they rarely gave up a big play, field goal kickers were accurate, and punters did a good job of flipping field position...which is the second part of this. Tressel was never afraid to punt the ball, put the offense on a long field, and make them try to drive the field against his stout defense. He was right a lot more often than he was wrong, and invariably, the Buckeyes would win the field position battle thanks to good special teams, the defense would stop the offense, and then the offense would take advantage of the field position flip, take a lead, and make the opponent play from behind.
Yeah, sometimes boring. Rarely exciting. But it's been a winning formula in the game of football for 100 years, and it's hard to argue the results Tressel had on the field.
So how would that philosophy help the Browns?
1. The foundation has been laid for a powerful running game. In 2007 they drafted All-Pro LT Joe Thomas, in 2012 they drafted Mitchell Schwartz, who started all 16 games at RT. They also drafted a big, versatile back in Trent Richardson, who had a very good rookie season. Richardson seems like a prototypical Tresselball back – good enough to get tough yards between the tackles, but versatile enough to catch passes out of the backfield.
The Browns also went all in with QB Brandon Weeden, who had an up and down rookie year, but there's talent there, and an ability to be a good, serviceable NFL quarterback. And really, that's all Jim Tressel wants, and anything else is gravy.
Admittedly, I haven't watched a ton of Browns football this year, but when I saw him play, he reminds me of a guy that did very well in Jim Tressel's offense – Craig Krenzel, only with more natural talent. He's not as mobile, but he's got a much better arm. And given a few more weapons and better protection, Weeden could succeed in a Tressel offense.
"But Ted", you say, "the NFL has changed. It's a passing league now." Okay, I'll buy that, but consider this – 7 of the top 11 rushing offenses in the NFL in 2012, including the top 4 – Washington, Minnesota, Seattle, and San Francisco, are playoff teams. Only 5 of the top 11 passing offenses are playoff teams, and the top rated passing team in the playoffs, New England, is 4th. So while passing has really evolved in the last 10-15 years, you still need to be able to run the football, especially in a division like the AFC North, late in the year.
2. Defense wins championships. The Browns have a few good parts on a unit that's not great, but it isn't terrible, either. Fellow LGHL contributor Chip Minnich gives a solid breakdown of the defensive line, the core that Tressel could build around:
The defensive line is the strength of the unit, with DEs Jabaal Sheard and Frostee Rucker, plus interior DLs Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin. It would be best to stick with a 4-3, versus a possible 3-4 move, as has been rumored.
And Tressel could keep Dick Jauron as the defensive coordinator for continuity, and as a long time NFL guy and former head coach, Jauron could be a guy Tressel could keep on to help in the NFL transition.
What's that? Offensive coordinator Brad Childress is a former NFL head coach? Yes, I know. But he's the former Vikings head coach, and a person I am very familiar with. Also, I am unable to remain partial about him, as I feel he is a buffoon who can't count to 11 with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Can we agree on that? We can? GOOD!
3. Special Teams. With Josh Cribbs, the Browns have a solid return guy, and if you're a football sabermetrics stats type person, Football Outsiders will tell you that the Browns have the #2 overall special teams unit in the NFL. And as a regular stats type guy, the Browns only give up, on average, 19 yards per kick return. Whether you go to the old school or the new school, those are impressive numbers. Phil Dawson is getting kind of old and has spoken openly that his time in Cleveland is likely come and gone, but Tressel has a solid foundation to work with here (and if he needs a new kicker, who would you trust better to find one who can make it work?), and it's something that I would think will be appealing.
When you add all of the elements of Tresselball together, you get the offensive philosophy of...wait for it...WAIT FOR IT...just about every NFL coach in history: conservative play caller who believes in a strong defense and solid special teams. Once you take into consideration all of that, Tressel's popularity within the state of Ohio and the fact that a lot of Buckeyes fans are also Browns fans, Tressel to the Browns make more and more sense.