CLEVELAND — Another qualified coaching candidate has eluded the Browns.
Ken Whisenhunt’s decision to accept Tennessee’s opening leaves Cleveland as one of just three NFL franchises still searching for a head coach.
Whisenhunt, who guided Arizona to a Super Bowl, came close to being hired by the Browns last year and interviewed with the team on Saturday.
San Diego’s loss on Sunday in the AFC playoffs freed up teams to make offers to Whisenhunt and he chose the Titans after it appeared he was headed to Detroit. It’s not known if the Browns tried to outbid the Titans for the well-regarded 51-year-old.
With Whisenhunt no longer in the mix, the Browns moved into the third week of their quest to replace Rob Chudzinski without any clear front-runner, but with a new former NFL head coach on their list.
The team has interviewed at least five known candidates and the Browns reportedly met Monday with former Titans coach Mike Munchak, also in consideration with the Lions.
The 53-year-old Munchak, a Hall of Fame lineman, went 22-26 in three seasons with the Titans, who fired him on Jan. 4, ending his 30-plus-years association with the franchise.
Cleveland’s degree of interest in Munchak isn’t known since the team is not commenting on any interviews and Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner have maintained a low profile since dumping Chudzinski after one season.
And while there may not be a current favorite to take over as Cleveland’s seventh full-time coach since 1999, there are signs that Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase could be the Browns’ top choice.
The 35-year-old Gase was the first candidate contacted by the Browns, but he informed them — along with the Minnesota Vikings — that he wanted to wait until after the playoffs to be considered.
“I told both teams that were interested in me that I appreciated it and I was going to wait until after our season had concluded,” Gase said on Jan. 3.
“They were great about it. They said they appreciated me being up front and honest about it, and I thought that was the best decision for what we are trying to accomplish with our team.”
It’s not known if Gase has agreed to an interview with either team.
NFL rules prohibit teams from offering jobs to assistant coaches who are still in the playoffs.
Gase’s decision to delay any interviews raised some flags about whether he’s actually ready to be a head coach. But as long as he’s paired with quarterback Peyton Manning, Gase’s profile will continue to grow and he’ll undoubtedly be coveted if he waits another year.
Following Denver’s win on Sunday over San Diego, Manning praised Gase during his postgame news conference for his play calling in helping the Broncos advance to Sunday’s AFC Championship against New England. In his first season as Denver’s offensive coordinator, the Broncos scored an NFL record 606 points and led the league with 457.3 yards per game and 340.3 yards passing.
His resume is impressive, but even if the Browns meet with Gase, it’s not a given he will be hired. He’s never been a head coach, and Haslam and Banner said they were determined to find a “strong winner who knows how to win football games” as they began looking for their second coach in just over a year.
If the Browns chose to wait on Gase, they run the risk of the coaching talent pool drying up and being in a desperate situation should he turn them down.
Cleveland has waited until after the Super Bowl before. Following the 2004 season, the Browns hired Romeo Crennel in the hours after the Super Bowl.
The Browns are already losing a public relations war as the search has dragged on. After New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels withdrew his name from consideration for Cleveland’s opening last week, it heightened the perception that Cleveland is not an attractive job. It hasn’t helped that some national reports have described the Browns’ situation as “toxic” and “radioactive.”
Haslam and Banner have also interviewed Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Green Bay quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo.