Jadeveon Clowney looks to take off with Browns in Texans reunion: 'It'll be personal'
BEREA — In Jadeveon Clowney's world, sushi is a metaphor for Cleveland.
Clowney didn't want anything to do with sushi until his high school football coach Bobby Carroll got him hooked on it during the dinners they enjoyed years ago at Red Bowl Asian Bistro in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where the Browns defensive end grew up.
“Now he loves to eat sushi rolls,” Carroll said Thursday in a phone interview with the Beacon Journal. “The restaurant even named the roll after him. The shrimp tempura roll, they called the Clowney Roll, and the NCAA said you can't do that, so they just called it the Monster Roll.”
Carroll and his assistant coaches at South Pointe High School called Clowney “JD,” but plenty of people referred to him as “the monster” because of his dominance on the gridiron.
Even the Browns (0-1) entered the name game while preparing for Sunday's home opener against the Houston Texans (1-0), who drafted Clowney first overall in 2014 out of the University of South Carolina and traded him in 2019 to the Seattle Seahawks.
“We have a defense named after him this week,” defensive line coach Chris Kiffin said Friday. “... We have a Clowney play in for him. I think he's very excited about that.”
Clowney didn't want to join the Browns when they pursued him in free agency in 2020, opting instead to eventually sign with the Tennessee Titans for less (a one-year, $13 million deal).
Undeterred by rejection, Browns General Manager Andrew Berry courted Clowney again this past offseason, until he agreed in April to a one-year contract worth as much as $10 million with incentives.
At the time, Clowney said being wanted so badly by Berry, hitting it off with members of the coaching staff during a visit to Browns headquarters and the franchise's turnaround from 6-10 in 2019 to 12-6 (including 1-1 in the playoffs) in 2020 helped him change his mind.
Carroll agreed joining a winner was a top priority. He also said he believes Clowney chose the Titans last year because of his connection with coach Mike Vrabel, a Walsh Jesuit High School graduate who was Clowney's position coach and later coordinator with the Texans.
Carroll and Clowney talk by phone and text regularly. They saw each other in person this summer at the wedding of Clowney's father.
“He seems as happy and pleasant to me as any time I've ever talked to him,” Carroll said. “He's excited about the Browns. He's excited about playing in that defense.”
Cleveland Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney called his exit from Houston "trade business from hell"
With respect to Clowney facing the Texans, Kiffin said, “He was there a long time, so I'm sure it'll be personal to him.”
As a member of the Titans, Clowney reunited with the Texans for the first time last season. He had two tackles, including one for loss, and the Titans prevailed 42-36 on Oct. 18 in Nashville.
Clowney didn't say much Friday about his Houston experience, stating he only looks ahead, not back. However, he did use the phrase “trade business from hell” to describe his departure from the Texans, adding, “It’s very, very, very hard” to move on.
Former Texans coach Bill O'Brien acted as GM when the organization traded Clowney to the Seahawks for a 2020 third-round draft pick and edge rushers Jacob Martin and Barkevious Mingo, the sixth overall selection of the Browns in 2013. The deal had been struck on Aug. 31, 2019, eight days before the Texans opened the season on “Monday Night Football.”
Clowney had been franchise tagged by the Texans earlier in the 2019 offseason, but he didn't sign the $15.967 million tender or report to the team during contract negotiations.
"We could not come to agreement on a long-term deal," O'Brien told Houston reporters after trading Clowney. "There were contract proposals between player and us we couldn't come to an agreement on.”
During an appearance on NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport's podcast in October 2019, Clowney said O'Brien told him two weeks before the season began he would be traded.
“I don't know. I don't even care to know no more,” Clowney said about why it didn't work out with the Texans.
Carroll has heard one version of an explanation.
“The way it is told to me was Coach O'Brien just kind of told him, he said, 'Listen, man, you really haven't played up to par,'” Carroll said. “And [Clowney] said, 'Hey, Coach O'Brien, last year, they were trying to fire you, and we saved you from getting fired. It wasn't your fault. It was our fault.' I could hear Clowney saying that to him, not being disrespectful, but being just flat-out honest.”
Former No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick Jadeveon Clowney has blunt demeanor
Carroll is used to Clowney speaking his mind.
When they visited the University of Alabama together during Clowney's recruitment, a sports information director told them coach Nick Saban plays basketball to stay in shape in the offseason. Then during a meeting in Saban's office, Clowney challenged Saban.
“He was trying to be real serious with Clowney, and Clowney said, 'Look, Coach, let's just you and me go in there and play one-on-one basketball,'” Carroll said. “For a kid in high school to say that to a legendary football coach is amazing, but that's how he is.
“Clowney never spoke to the guy before. Then Coach Saban kind of starts laughing, and they dropped all the damn formality and it was like he had been Clowney's coach all along. Clowney just laughed and got off the airplane [on the way home] and hollered, 'Roll Tide.'”
But Clowney never squared off against Saban on the court or played football for him. Carroll thought all along Clowney would choose the University of South Carolina because he wanted to be close to home and play in front of his large family.
Clowney “was like Elvis” in his home state, Carroll said, and he definitely wasn't headed to neighboring Georgia to play for the Bulldogs. After Clowney and Carroll arrived late to a University of Georgia visit, the coach who had been recruiting Clowney pointed to all of the other top-ranked defensive ends who were there and told Clowney about them.
“Well, Clowney looked at him and said, 'Hey, Coach. You don't need me,'” Carroll said.
A no-filter approach is vintage Clowney. When Carroll learned about Clowney opining last month NFL guards are “not real athletes,” the coach said matter-of-factly, “Oh, I can hear him saying that.”
Clowney isn't shy about letting younger Browns players know what he's thinking. Last month, Clowney said he endorsed the team's culture by telling some of its rookies and second-year players, "Y'all should be happy that y'all got drafted here. It's been worse some other places that I've been."
Rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah hinted at Clowney providing an element of leadership.
“A lot of side conversations on mindset. A lot of side conversations on making sure you do the right things at the right time,” Owusu-Koramoah said Thursday.
Whatever advice Clowney offers is likely to be direct.
How Cleveland Browns starter Jadeveon Clowney performed in season opener vs. Kansas City Chiefs
The Browns aren't pulling any punches, either. For their revamped defense to reach its potential in a season of Super Bowl expectations, they need Berry's investment in Clowney to qualify as borderline brilliant.
Reflecting on Clowney's performance in last week's 33-29 season-opening loss to the two-time defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs, Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods said Thursday, “He did some good things, but I know he can play better.”
Clowney missed two practices with an illness in the buildup to the opener and said his “chest was kind of burning” while playing 50 snaps (77% of the defensive plays) at Arrowhead Stadium. He had three tackles, including one for a 6-yard loss when he blew up a jet sweep by All-Pro wide receiver Tyreek Hill. ProFootballFocus.com credited Clowney with four pressures. He and All-Pro end Myles Garrett converged on superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes late in the fourth quarter, with the sack going to Garrett.
“He was step for step with Myles on that sack,” Browns left guard Joel Bitonio said Thursday.
A three-time Pro Bowl selection, Clowney said he would like “some plays back,” and the Browns aren't satisfied, either.
“I thought JD was inconsistent,” Kiffin said. “First time playing ball in a while. No preseason reps to get out there. I thought it was inconsistent. I think he would say the same. Obviously, a guy like that affects the game in different ways. A jet sweep is how they get explosive plays, so to turn that into a loss, that's the stuff that you can't put a value on.
“But there were also times where not setting the edge in the run game or not being cohesive in the pass rush kind of hurt us. He knows that. We've addressed that, and he's ready to go get another shot at it, especially against his old team.”
Clowney's long injury history is well-documented, and it's the elephant in the room during any discussion about how good he can be for the Browns this season at age 28. He played only eight games last season with the Titans and had knee surgery Dec. 6 on torn meniscus cartilage.
He has started 75 of the 84 career regular-season games in which he’s appeared and has 258 tackles, including 32 sacks, 86 quarterback hits, nine forced fumbles, 18 passes defensed, an interception returned 27 yards for a touchdown and eight fumble recoveries, three of which resulted in touchdowns. He has 20 tackles, including 1½ sacks, five QB hits and an interception in five playoff games.
“The question always is with Jadeveon, how long are you going to have him? Is he going to stay on the field? Is he going to be able to stay available?” Louis Riddick, a “Monday Night Football” analyst, said Sept. 8 during a conference call hosted by ESPN. “If he can do that, I’m sure they’ll be very, very happy in Cleveland with the return on the investment that they’ve made in him.
“If he can do that with this football team in that environment, which is an environment where it’s now become about expectations, not hope anymore, but expectations of greatness, he will have one of the best seasons of his career.”
Part of Riddick's thinking is Garrett's greatness — “this guy is a stone-cold freak,” the former Browns safety said — will motivate Clowney to prove himself to his new teammates.
NFL Network analyst and former Browns 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas views Clowney not only as an ideal complement to Garrett, but also to No. 3 defensive end Takk McKinley.
“It's pretty scary,” Thomas said Tuesday during a conference call hosted by NFL Network. “I mean, Myles Garrett, in my opinion, is the best edge rusher in the NFL. He creates his own problems. He can play over the guard. He can play over the tackle. Then you add other good pass rushers. It just makes everybody better.
“When people criticize Clowney, they talk a lot about, 'Well, he doesn't have a lot of sacks. He's not a sack guy.' But that's not his role. He's not going to ever be a 15-sack guy. That's just not who he is. He's a disruptive force primarily in the run game. He plays all over the field. He's a good athlete.”
Cleveland Browns' Jadeveon Clowney had pro ranks written all over him
Before football minds marveled at Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, they heaped similar superlatives upon Clowney, 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds.
Carroll said he knew Clowney would become an NFL player the first time he saw him run through drills and lift weights as a high school freshman. Carroll immediately told an assistant coach, “The football gods are being good to us.”
Carroll recalls Clowney scoring 32 touchdowns as a running back on the ninth-grade team. The next three years at the varsity level, he scored a bunch more touchdowns — as a defensive end and running back.
New England Patriots All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore was the starting quarterback on the same high school team. He graduated from South Pointe in 2009, Clowney in 2011. The 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Gilmore also chose South Carolina for his collegiate career.
“Clowney worked hard at practice,” Carroll said. “We used to run 150-yard gassers, and we ran them by position. He would always run his 150s with the DBs and wide receivers. He didn't want to outrun big defensive linemen. He would run with the wide receivers, and he was a sub-4.5 [40-yard dash] guy in high school. He was stride with stride. Of course, Gilmore could beat him by a step or two, but it wasn't by much.
“When Gilmore was going to be a senior, he was our quarterback. Clowney was a rising 10th-grade defensive end. I don't think our offense got a first down in a spring practice, not running the ball. Because Clowney, there was nobody that could block him. There was literally nobody that could block him.”
Later the same year, South Pointe won its first state title with Clowney, Gilmore and former Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeVonte Holloman leading the way. Holloman is the program's head coach now.
High school football and the NFL are in different realms, and Clowney's eighth season in the league is underway. Still, the Browns would welcome a blast from the past as “the monster” reacquaints himself with the Texans.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Houston at Cleveland
Time: 1 p.m. Sunday