Somewhere around the third or fourth lap Cleveland Browns rookie Alex Mack had to take for missing a snap count or blocking assignment at training camp, it occurred to me how good head coach Eric Mangini has it. In an economy that seems to shed jobs by the dozens on a daily basis, Mangini was on the job market only a few days before being snatched up by owner Randy Lerner to be the latest resuscitator for a franchise that seems to perpetually have had the wind knocked out of it.
Getting another job so quickly was just the first stroke of good fortune for Mangini. Dumb luck or not, he was the beneficiary of a unique confluence of sudden opportunity and Cleveland paranoia, the latter of which suggests that when things go wrong the only answer is to do the exact opposite. It’s not that Romeo Crennel was a poor head coach; the team was done in by his lack of experience as a head coach. Uh huh.
The second and more significant stroke of good fortune is that he gets to take over a situation in which the road to improvement is paved with low expectations and so much low hanging fruit that the only person who probably couldn’t succeed at some level with such advantages was the aforementioned Crennel.
Consider just the circumstance that is getting the most ink from the strained-neck local media, the imposition of actual discipline at camp. Crennel embraced a far different perspective on pre-season preparation than does Mangini. Where Crennel felt it would keep his troops fresh later in the season to limit contact early on, Mangini essentially responds “hogwash.”
At about this point I could make a cheap joke about the inability of Crennel’s supposedly fresh team to score a touchdown in what seemed like 80% of its games last season, but it isn’t a joke that Crennel’s methodology was seriously flawed. Time will tell whether Mangini’s approach is better. We do know though that under Crennel, the Browns were in an endless loop of key player injured, surgery, staph infection. That doesn’t mean that Crennel’s method of easing off on the physical aspects of the game led to injuries or that the two things are even related.. It’s just that they appear to be.
But beyond just the shear number of injuries was the fact that the watermark of Crennel’s teams was their almost complete lack of preparation. Players constantly jumping offsides or getting motion penalties, players seemingly always in the wrong position or utilizing the wrong technique when in position, all were rampant under Crennel. Maybe more reps where players have to hit each other doesn’t get a player any more ready for being hit in games, but given the results of the previous regime a convincing argument can be made to the contrary.
It seems a little Dillon Pantherish to have grown men making hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars running laps for missing a snap count, but maybe it won’t seem so silly if the Browns stop being one of the least disciplined teams in the league and become one of the most. That in and of itself would have been good for a few more victories under Crennel and it likely will be under Mangini.
In other words, just getting the players to all run in the same direction is likely to make Mangini instantly look successful. That’s really low hanging fruit. The better question is, will he be able to build on that? Can Mangini find a way to get at the fruit actually ripening on the tree? That verdict won’t be known for some time but despite the low expectations for this season, there will be clues.
The Brady Quinn/Derek Anderson melodrama will result in a winner and loser but the decision Mangini makes and how he goes about making it will tell us something about his style and whether it will make him successful. Too often so-called training camp competitions turn into exercises in self-fulfillment. A coach already has a belief in which player is better and then rigs the so-called competition so that it’s more about confirming the coach’s initial instinct than it is about giving each player an equal opportunity.
Camp is still young by any measure but it does appear on the surface at least that Mangini is actually having Quinn and Anderson go head to head. The reps appear to be equal and, more importantly, each is getting a chance with different groupings. We’ll get a better view once the preseason games start on whether or not this is a fair fight but at this stage, at least, it’s a positive sign.
Similarly, free agent cornerback Rod Hood told the Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot on Tuesday that Mangini promised him that he could compete for a starting job and, to this point, Mangini has lived up to his word. That is critical for establishing a coach’s footing. In Denver, new head coach Josh McDaniels is off to a very rocky start not because he’s fighting the media over access but because he’s fighting some key players over credibility. Whatever the business, if the leader doesn’t have credibility, the business will fail.
The other aspect of Mangini’s early tenure that will be a marker for longer term success is the performance of the players he drafted. The Browns’ letterhead may say that George Kokinis is the general manager but at this juncture he’s only slightly more visible than Lerner. These are Mangini’s players.
Where former general manager Phil Savage really hurt this team was not necessarily in his first round drafts or even his free agent singings but in his mid to late round picks. There were simply far too many misses which left gaping holes that were filled by far too many undrafted free agents.
What’s particularly stunning about these missteps is that Savage had such a wide margin for error. The one thing the Browns haven’t had since their return is an overabundance of talent. It shouldn’t have been too hard for any decent draft pick to make this team. But with a hit rate so low, someone who didn’t know better might conclude that the team was simply too talented for a rookie to make. Unfortunately, the opposite was true and yet Savage could never find a way to bring any depth to this team.
A final attribute to be on the hunt for when it comes to Mangini and his prospects for long-term success will be his willingness to apply lessons learned. This is an acquired skill that most people naturally fight. For Mangini, this won’t be confined to adjustments within a game or from game to game. In a larger sense, his ultimate success will come down to his ability to understand why he failed in New York.
Mangini doesn’t reveal much about himself, at least to the media, so it’s hard to know if he’s an introspective sort. Maybe he’s already done a deep dive into his personal psyche over it and not simply rationalize it away as a mistake by Jets’ ownership. He has to own up to his role in it, whatever that might have been. Fans will know whether he does or not. The results will speak for themselves. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick to this day isn’t exactly a media darling either but after solidly establishing himself as one of the game’s greatest coaches, it’s pretty clear that he learned from his failure in Cleveland.
Mangini doesn’t have to become the next Belichick. Cleveland fans are hardly that demanding. It will suffice if Mangini just understands why he failed in New York and finds a way to ensure that he doesn’t repeat those mistakes. Belichick learned from his Cleveland experience. Will Mangini learn from his time in New York? An affirmative answer to that may very well bring for Lerner the kind of stability he claims to covet for the team he reluctantly inherited.