Mike Pettine wasn’t the Cleveland Browns’ first choice for head coach.
But that’s not important now.
What matters is he might be the right one.
Pettine, who spent last season as the Buffalo Bills’ defensive coordinator, has the formerly woebegone Browns in the thick of the AFC playoff race with a 7-4 record.
“Toughness,” Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer set of what Pettine has brought to the team. “That’s the first thing that comes to mind. Not just physical – mental toughness. That’s what he’s preached from Day One in really trying to turn this organization, the culture, around.”
Pettine leads the Browns into Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday for a crucial game in the AFC postseason standings. The 6-5 Bills may need to win out to have a chance, while the Browns need to keep pace in the AFC North race – every team in the division has at least seven wins.
“I’m sure it will be insane, insanely loud,” Pettine said of the atmosphere in The Ralph on Sunday. “It’s going to be difficult on us, and justifiably so. I’ve always thought that Bills fans were among the best in the league and love their team and support the heck out of them.”
Pettine may have only spent one season with the Bills, but he has a soft spot for Western New York. During last week’s lake-effect snowstorm he watched from afar as Buffalonians battled the elements with their typical resiliency.
“That’s something I was keeping a very close eye on, still having friends in the area. The neighborhood I lived in was under six-plus feet of snow,” Pettine said. “The loss of life, property ... it was devastating. To see the way the community rallied and how the team handled it, with the quality of character in coaches, it was no surprise.
“I know what we’re up against. I don’t know if our players do, but they’ll get a taste of it early on. We know the crowd’s going to be into it early.”
Pettine called his decision to leave the Bills “bittersweet.”
“I just felt we were headed in the right direction with the culture we were building, especially in the defensive room,” he said. “I thought that was a special group, and they’ve continued to prove it this year.”
Pettine laughed when asked whether he worried about having to face the monster he helped unleash.
“I don’t. I can say that I wouldn’t be sitting here in this chair if it wasn’t for that group,” he said. “It’ll be healthy competition. I’m going to see a lot of those guys before the game and look them in the eye and wish them well, and I’m sure they’ll do the same to me. ... I thoroughly enjoyed the year I was there. It was tough to leave that group.”
The Bills finished with a franchise-record 57 sacks last season as Pettine’s hybrid defensive scheme started to tap into the talent of the players.
“You could tell that he had a really good command of the game,” Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “He had the respect of the other players.”
Pettine, however, was not on any short lists of head-coaching candidates after the 2013 season. Seven teams had job openings at the time, and six were filled relatively quickly while the Browns’ search dragged on almost four weeks. The team criss-crossed the country interviewing candidates, and was embarrassed as perceived top choices like Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels withdrew from consideration.
Pettine himself thought of doing the same at one point.
“There were a couple of times where I considered pulling my name out,” he said. “I didn’t think it was fair to put the Bills in a lurch, knowing that if I left they were going to have to scramble to fill some jobs on the defensive side.”
The Bills, though, were supportive of Pettine’s pursuit of the job every step of the way. Even during the 2013 season, he said Bills coach Doug Marrone would include him in certain roster decisions regarding the salary cap – matters typically handled by the front office.
“He was very helpful that way. I can’t express enough gratitude toward him for including me in those things,” Pettine said. “Even in the interview process – he had interviewed with Cleveland the year before ending up in Buffalo – but he was very familiar with the interviews and kind of helped me, almost like answers to the test. ... I was able to bounce a lot of things off him through the process.”
Marrone said there was never any consideration of discouraging Pettine from going after the job.
“I’ve worked for people that have discouraged that, didn’t try to help, did things like that,” Marrone said. “Then I worked with some people that wanted to do everything they can. ... My parents taught me that the more that you can do to get people to where they want to be, in turn it will help you be where you want to be.”
Pettine said the best advice he received was to take his time in putting a staff together. He was at a disadvantage because he was hired so late in the process, but he poached several coaches from the Bills – including defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, linebackers coach Chuck Driesbach and defensive line coach Anthony Weaver.
Pettine also hired Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator in part because of his run-game prowess, and that has paid off. The Browns have run the ball well (116 yards per game, 14 rushing touchdowns).
Another piece of advice Pettine received was to hire good coaches and let them coach.
“I’ve been very fortunate in that regard,” he said. “They make my job a lot easier.”
Pettine joked that he doesn’t expect a warm reception Sunday, but he shouldn’t anticipate any boos. He produced while he was here – and to be frank, it’s not like the Bills miss him much. The Bills’ defense has only gotten better in 2014. Buffalo leads the NFL in sacks with 46 (on pace for 66) and third-down percentage (34.0) and is fourth in yards per game (312.2) and points per game (18.8).
“It’s an aggressive, competitive, passionate group,” Pettine said. “That’s the way they play. That’s why it’s no surprise that they’ve actually gotten better this year over last year.”