Mike Pettine is entering a whole new world. He’s never been an NFL head coach. He’s never been part of the Browns organization.
He’s never worked with CEO Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi.
So Pettine’s choice of Jim O’Neil as defensive coordinator makes perfect sense. O’Neil brings a friendly face, a high trust level and a shared background.
Pettine also appreciates his honesty.
“It’s one of those things, we see the game the same. But Jim’s not afraid to tell the emperor he’s not wearing any clothes,” Pettine said last week after introducing his coordinators. “He and I have had some heated arguments, but at the end of the day I know a lot of times he’s right. I’m not egotistical enough to say, ‘We’re going to do it my way.’
“If there’s something he feels is being done wrong, he’s going to look to get it changed. He’s not a guy who’s just a yes man, I don’t want to be surrounded by guys like that. There’s going to be some heated exchanges. I think that’s healthy.”
O’Neil takes over a Cleveland defense that ran a hybrid 3-4 system under Ray Horton and ranked ninth in yardage and 23rd in scoring. Most of O’Neil’s pro experience is in a 3-4 but he values flexibility.
“Our scheme over the years has always been built around taking advantage of what our players do best,” said O’Neil, who followed Pettine to Cleveland after a year in Buffalo. “And then we can kind of put in the schematics from there.
“New York Jets in 2009 was very different than New York Jets in 2011 because we had different players, we had different strengths, different weaknesses. So I think when we got to Buffalo and we went through the offseason and went through training camp and we evaluated the roster, we knew where our strengths were and we knew where our weaknesses were, and then we built the scheme around that. And obviously those guys flourished, especially up front.”
O’Neil, 35, is a coordinator for the first time, and his resume isn’t nearly as long or impressive as offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who’s been a coordinator since 2008. O’Neil spent last year as linebackers coach for the Bills after four years with the Jets, first as a quality control assistant, then as an assistant defensive backs coach.
Pettine isn’t worried. He’s been grooming O’Neil for this role since before Pettine became Rex Ryan’s defensive coordinator with the Jets in 2009.
When Ryan began interviewing for head coaching jobs, Pettine decided to find someone to do for him what he had done for Ryan. Someone to break down film, direct traffic and serve as a right-hand man as Pettine made the step up to coordinator.
“I think it’s one of the best things I’ve done as a coach,” Pettine said. “I knew I needed to train somebody to do that. When Rex got the job in New York and I made that phone call, it was seamless.
“(O’Neil) hit the ground running, he already knew, we were so far ahead from that standpoint. From then on he’s just been by my side.”
O’Neil had never worked in the NFL, but he had a mutual acquaintance with Pettine that served as the best recommendation imaginable. O’Neil had played for Pettine’s father, Mike Sr., at Central Bucks West High School outside of Philadelphia, just like Pettine had more than a decade earlier.
“That gave him instant credibility with me because that meant to me he had thick skin,” Pettine said. “If he could handle playing for him, it meant he could handle just about anything that I could throw at him.
“Don’t let his baby face fool you. Jim is a tenacious coach. He’s smart, he’s tough, he’s creative and he and I have done it together. He’s been at my side for the last five years.”
O’Neil has been a coach for 13 years, including eight at a variety of colleges. After a recommendation from his dad, Pettine invited O’Neil to Ravens camp to observe and they stayed in touch. O’Neil already knew Pettine’s approach to game-planning and practice when he got the call to leave Eastern Michigan and join him on Ryan’s staff with the Jets.
Pettine isn’t shy about following the blueprint established by Ryan. Just like he learned and climbed the ladder under Ryan, O’Neil is doing the same with him. That includes the jump to coordinator without a ton of NFL experience.
To ease the transition, Pettine expects to call the defensive plays before taking off the “training wheels” and handing the responsibility to O’Neil.
“When I went up to New York and was the unknown coordinator they were hiring, I think this is very similar here,” Pettine said. “Jim is very capable. He’s looking to improve. He’s going to set high standards, he’s going to be firm, he’s going to be fair.”
O’Neil moved up to linebackers coach in 2013, working with the outside linebackers. The Bills ranked second in the NFL with a franchise-record 57 sacks.
Buffalo finished 10th (333.4 yards) in total defense after finishing 22nd (362.9) in 2012. It led the league in opponent completion percentage (55.3), finished second with 23 interceptions, third in opponent quarterback rating (74.9) and sixth with 30 takeaways.
“Our philosophy has always been to be multiple and create confusion for the offensive side of the ball and that really allows the guys up front to get a lot of one-on-one blocks. And that’s where you want guys like (Barkevious) Mingo, (Paul) Kruger, (Jabaal) Sheard, all of those pass rusher-type guys. That’s what they want.”
O’Neil’s still learning the roster he inherited, but said good things about Mingo and Kruger. A top priority is getting more sack production from Mingo and Kruger, who had five and 4.5 last year — their first in Cleveland.
“I’m excited about the young talent here,” O’Neil said. “We’re still as a defensive staff meticulously going through the tape. It’s hard to give a true, 100 percent evaluation until you get the guys here and you plug them in your system, you see them in the meeting room, you get around them, you get to know them, you see what kind of teammates they are. But I’m excited.”