Why the Browns should hire Lincoln Riley, and who to call next if he declines

As soon as the firing of Hue Jackson was announced, the NFL world screamed out in unison “HIRE LINCOLN RILEY!”

The Oklahoma coach’s connection to Baker Mayfield is obvious, and we often clamor for the reunion of quarterbacks with their former college coaches – remember the never-ending Jim Harbaugh-Andrew Luck and Chip Kelly-Marcus Mariota talk? – but when it has happened, it really hasn’t worked out. Steve Spurrier’s Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel experiments failed in Washington, for instance.

But a Riley-Mayfield pairing would be different for several reasons. The first being that Mayfield is a bona fide NFL talent, whereas Matthews and Wuerffel were so clearly out of their depth as NFL starters.

The second – and most important – reason being that Riley is not your typical college “genius.”

We’ve seen plenty of these offensive-minded coaches who jump up to the pros and fall flat on their faces – the success rate actually seems to be higher for defensive-minded coaches making the jump – but typically those guys have been known for running more simplistic offenses that do a small number of things at a very high level. For instance, Kelly’s ran over Pac-12 teams with basically two variations of the zone read and bubble screens. Spurrier killed SEC defenses by basically running the “Mills” concept over and over again and mixing in some running back draws. That approach works on Saturdays, where the players aren’t nearly as prepared as their pro counterparts (and where Kelly and Spurrier generally had significantly more talented players than their opponents), but not on Sundays.

Riley’s approach to offense should serve him well if he ever decides to take the NFL challenge. He’s basically the Sean McVay of college football, in that he is so good at picking up small details in the defense and exploiting them with perfect play calls. In college, a coach can get away with simply building a philosophy and riding that for years. In the pros, individual game-planning takes precedent, and Riley clearly has that part of coaching down pat.

“I know he’s worked incredibly hard at what he’s done, but it almost seems like it’s natural for him to read the defense,” former Oklahoma TE Mark Andrews, currently with the Ravens, told the Atlanta Journal Consitution earlier this year. “To understand it and to know what they’re going to be in, and to kind of play off that. He does a really good job of using what the defense does, and using that against them…

“Not only that, but he does his preparation, and he works extremely hard. And I think that shows off by the type of plays he calls and how well they work. I think that his ability to read the game and to read defenses, all that type of stuff, is really big for him.”

It also helps that the NFL is finally starting to embrace the concepts college offenses have been leaning on for years. The jump from Saturdays to Sundays isn’t nearly as daunting as it was once. In fact, we’ve already seen teams borrow some of the neat things Riley is doing in Norman, including the two teams that competed in last year’s Super Bowl.

“There were a couple in that game that looked a little familiar, which was good,” Riley told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer back in June. “But hey, we’ve taken things from people too. I’m not saying anyone took it directly from us. There aren’t too many brand-new schemes out there. It’s how you package it, put it together. There’s only so many things you can do with 11 guys.

“But yeah, it was fun to see. The Super Bowl looked like one of our games on a Saturday. It’s kind of fun to see the gap really narrow between the two levels.”

In fact, Mayfield’s play caller up to this point, Todd Haley (who was also fired Monday), was borrowing from his college play-caller before the two partnered up in Cleveland.

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