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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"There's not a giant gaping void anywhere. They've got pretty darn good intangibles in Baltimore as well. From talking to the players when we did their games, it seems like they were happy to be there.

"I don't think the Ravens will have a problem -- and I think the world of Ted -- if they make a change. They'll get a good coach."

Perhaps the team in the least favorable position is the Philadelphia Eagles. They have not spent much in free agency, they have no viable quarterback, and they have poor facilities. It is not an inviting situation to prospective free agents, and that has an obvious impact on coaching candidates.

As one league executive pointed out, "After what [1998 free agent] Dana Stubblefield said about their facilities, it'd be a tough place to go."

Coaching hot spots

The NFL could have 10 or more coaching openings this off-season. Here are the most likely vacancies, rated in order of attraction, with selling points and discordant notes.

1. Cleveland

Current coach: None.

What's good: The Browns have the 49ers' management team, a salary cap bonanza, the first pick of the draft, extra picks, and no skeletons.

What's bad: Winter.

Bottom line: Browns president Carmen Policy is the best in the league at his job.

2. Green Bay

Current coach: Mike Holmgren.

What's good: Quarterback Brett Favre, general manager Ron Wolf.

What's bad: Free-agent-to-be Antonio Freeman must be signed at any cost.

Bottom line: Injuries and free agency have thinned out the Packers' juggernaut.

3. Seattle

Current coach: Dennis Erickson.

What's good: Owner Paul Allen's deep wallet, an aggressive mode on free agency, an established defense and playmaker Joey Galloway.

What's bad: The quarterback is Jon Kitna.

Bottom line: Vinny Testaverde's phantom TD killed Erickson's chances to return.

4. Baltimore

Current coach: Ted Marchibroda.

What's good: The defensive components are in place for the most part, and the Lewises -- Jermaine and Ray -- are signed.

What's bad: Several offensive players were overrated coming into the season.

Bottom line: The Ravens need an identity on offense.

5. San Diego

Current coach: June Jones.

What's good: The No. 1-ranked defense and the potential of franchise quarterback Ryan Leaf.

What's bad: Leaf is terribly erratic on and off the field.

Bottom line: The future of the club is in Leaf's hands.

6. St. Louis

Current coach: Dick Vermeil.

What's good: Believe it or not, there is talent here.

What's bad: Quarterback Tony Banks has been a major disappointment, and the Rams are still paying for bad drafts (see Lawrence Phillips).

Bottom line: The players should have mutinied.

7. Washington

Current coach: Norv Turner.

What's good: The Redskins get extra first-round picks in 1999 and 2000.

What's bad: They have no quarterback, running back or receivers, and they paid far too much for too little production in the free-agent market.

Bottom line: Turner's quarterback decisions have left the team dumbstruck.

8. Chicago

Current coach: Dave Wannstedt.

What's good: It's a good year to draft a quarterback.

What's bad: No quarterback, poor personnel decisions, poor drafts until Mark Hatley took over player personnel.

Bottom line: The decision to trade for Rick Mirer will haunt Wannstedt.

9. Philadelphia

Current coach: Ray Rhodes.

What's good: Director of football operations Tom Modrak is calling the shots.

What's bad: The Eagles have a brutal draft history, quarterback chaos and terrible facilities.

Bottom line: Personnel decisions ruined Rhodes.

10. Cincinnati

Current coach: Bruce Coslet.

What's good: Cincinnati still has a franchise.

What's bad: Owner Mike Brown says he won't fire Coslet.

Bottom line: The fans want Mike Brown's head next.

Pub Date: 12/12/98

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