CLEVELAND — New coach Rob Chudzinski knows how important kicker Phil Dawson and receiver/returner Joshua Cribbs have been to the Browns — Chudzinski was an assistant here twice — but he and the new regime of CEO Joe Banner and vice president of player personnel Michael Lombardi aren’t ready to say if they’ll try to re-sign either.
Dawson and Cribbs aren’t under contract for 2013 after long tenures in Cleveland, but joined left tackle Joe Thomas this week in Hawaii to represent the Browns in the Pro Bowl.
“We haven’t even gotten to that point,” Chudzinski said Thursday night backstage at the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards. “The coaching staff is what I’m focusing on.
“We’re going to go through and evaluate our players. That’ll be the first thing we do in the next couple of weeks and kind of put together what we want our players to be so we can get into free agency and get into the draft.”
Dawson joined the Browns in 1999 and is second on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Cribbs is at the Pro Bowl for the third time since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2005.
“They’ve obviously had success,” Chudzinski said. “We’ll just have to wait and see and see how everything fits together on that.”
Dawson made the Pro Bowl for the first time in his 14th season, which was arguably his best. Despite his long and splendid service, he has yet to receive the long-term deal he’s wanted since 2008.
“Phil’s a great player and a great person. The coaches and Michael will make that call,” owner Jimmy Haslam said when asked about making a run at Dawson. “They’ve just now started looking at our team.”
Dawson is enjoying his time in Hawaii.
“Aloha Cleveland, great week so far here in Hawaii,” he tweeted. “Very thankful to you that made this possible for me & my family. Proud to represent y’all”
Cribbs saw his offensive role reduced in 2012 under former coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress but continued to excel on special teams. He was voted the first alternate to the AFC Pro Bowl roster as both a returner and special teamer, then got the trip to Hawaii when Ravens returner Jacoby Jones made the Super Bowl.
“I don’t know if there’s a tougher player in the NFL than Cribbsy,” Haslam said. “Just like everybody else, we’ll have to take a look at where Josh is and where he fits into our plans. But we certainly appreciate the unbelievable effort and job that he’s done. And we’re really happy that he got to go to the Pro Bowl. He really deserves that.
“He’s a quality guy. He works his tail off. I don’t know anybody that’s ever played the game that’s been as good at returning and covering kicks as Cribbsy is. He’s a great player, a great athlete and as tough as they come.”
The Browns received plenty of criticism for hiring Lombardi as vice president of player personnel, but Haslam defended the decision.
“I think Michael is as knowledgeable and smart and passionate and as hard a working guy as there is in pro football and we feel very fortunate to have Michael as part of our team,” he said. “His job is to bring great players to Cleveland and I will tell you this, he was there at 5 this morning, and I said, ‘Do you want to come to dinner tonight,’ and he said, ‘No, I’ve got work to do,’ so nobody’s going to outwork Michael Lombardi and we feel like we’ve got a great guy.”
Haslam said he had dinner last night with members of the coaching staff, and mentioned running back Trent Richardson and middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson were among the players to visit team headquarters recently.
“The excitement level is there,” Haslam said. “So we feel really good about where we are.”
Haslam interviewed Ray Horton for the head coaching job before selecting Chudzinski and is thrilled the Browns were able to land him as defensive coordinator.
“He’ll relate extremely well to players,” Haslam said. “Probably we’ll switch to the 3-4 defense. I think it’ll be an attacking defense. So I think it’ll be exciting and fun to watch.
“He’s really excited about the players we have here. We need to add one or two to really round out the team. But I think you’ll like him as a person and like him as a coach.”
Chudzinski continued to decline to say if Horton will run a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme as his base. He hired outside linebackers coach Brian Baker on Thursday, which indicates the Browns will use plenty of 3-4.
“We’re gonna do both,” Chudzinski said. “We’re gonna have packages where we do both of those. Brian gives us, whether we’re a 3-4 or a 4-3, a lot of experience and a developer of pass rushers, particularly on the outside. Brian’s been a real versatile coach.”
Baker has been a coach for 29 years, including 17 in the NFL. He spent the last two years as defensive line coach with the Cowboys, working under coordinator Rob Ryan, who held the same position with the Browns in 2009-10.
Baker coached outside linebackers with the Vikings in 2002-03 and played the position at the University of Maryland.
More staff news
Chudzinski, a former tight end and tight ends coach, hired Jon Embree to coach tight ends.
Embree was head coach at the University of Colorado the last two seasons, posting a 4-21 record before being fired. He was a standout tight end for the Buffaloes and an assistant with them for 11 years.
Embree has 21 total years of coaching experience, including coaching tight ends for the Chiefs in 2006-08 and for the Redskins in 2010. Tony Gonzalez was chosen to the Pro Bowl in all three seasons with Embree.
“The tight end position is so critical for us,” Chudzinski said. “You want a guy in that position that can manage those guys and really take them to another level. That’s what I feel like Jon will be able to do for us.”
Embree, who replaced Steve Hagen, was a sixth-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams in 1987 and played two seasons before suffering a career-ending elbow injury.
The Charlotte Observer reported the Browns hired Bobby Babich as assistant secondary coach. The Browns wouldn’t confirm the report, but he’s expected to be announced soon as a defensive assistant. Louie Cioffi was named secondary coach Tuesday.
Babich was defensive quality control coach for the Panthers, working with Chudzinski, who was offensive coordinator. His dad, Bob, was recently hired as Jaguars defensive coordinator.
Chudzinski has yet to announce coaches for running backs and inside linebackers.
Chudzinski and Lombardi didn’t travel to Mobile, Ala., this week for Senior Bowl practices and the all-star game Saturday. The Browns are represented by the scouts and members of the personnel department.
Chudzinski said in a normal year he’d go.
“I just had too much work to do and our staff just getting all in town and getting together,” he said. “We have plenty of work to do here. And we can catch up on the Senior Bowl tape. Everything’s filmed down there. That won’t be an issue, as far as evaluations go.”
Chudzinski presented the Courage Award to Molly Miller, the daughter of his close friend Phil, who died after a battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Miller, a soccer player at Notre Dame Academy, was diagnosed with low-grade fibromyxoid sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. She was forced to take nearly a year off from sports but returned to make the varsity team as a freshman.