Somewhere between Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini is the right head coach for the Cleveland Browns. If you’re out there and available at the moment just raise your hand, and do so high enough so that it can be seen somewhere in England where owner Randy Lerner surely is hiding.
On any other team under these same circumstances, Mangini might be in line to hold the record for the quickest hook of a newly-hired coach. But as it is, he’ll be given due time to snuff out the last sign of life in this franchise by Lerner, as disaffected of an owner as exists in professional sports. If it’s three years, so be it. Lerner has more than demonstrated by deed if not word that he couldn't care less.
That the Browns would be bad this season isn’t a surprise to anyone. That they are this bad at this moment surely is. But more to the point, Mangini has his troops playing as if they are purposely trying to get him fired.
Just about everything associated with this team is in disarray. The locker room is a circus. You have veterans with maturity issues playing juvenile pranks on rookies. You have immature rookies lashing out because they were doused with water. In each case, preparing for the next opponent seems like an after thought. Then there is also the matter of a mini-players revolt as a number of them, already irritated with Mangini’s petty ways and even pettier fines, are filing grievances with the league in what might be record fashion.
Whether these grievances have any merit is largely irrelevant. The fact that they have been filed so quickly into Mangini’s tenure is strong evidence that there is a deep and abiding distrust of the man in charge and an even deeper and more abiding lack of respect for him.
Sure there are players that will stand by his side, but these are mostly the former Jets that he breathed new life into by giving them a job here in Cleveland. There were also a few non-former Jets defending their head coach, but that’s suspect in the present environment. Does a fine await them if they don’t? If the polling was anonymous you’d have trouble finding anyone else in the locker room willing to put their own reputation on the line to stand up for him.
It isn’t just the pettiness, it’s the dispirited way Mangini goes about putting together the team. As the new man in town he decided to open up a quarterback competition rather than evaluate the evidence at hand. Fair enough. But then he went about constructing it in a way that made so little sense not even the main participants, Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, had any idea where they stood until a few days before the Vikings game.
Stop and contemplate the implications of that and you can begin to understand why this team has had one touchdown in three games. If both Quinn and Anderson were being kept in the dark, how clueless must the other 25 or so players on offense have been? Mangini kept them wondering who would be their leader and as a result they built allegiance to no one. The results speak for themselves.
But it goes further than that. Trying to gain a competitive advantage at the expense of teaching a team that didn’t score a touchdown in its last 6 games last season how to score again, Mangini ran a vanilla preseason instead. Consequently, what little time Quinn and Anderson had to work in those games added little to their regular season preparation. The Browns threw about 152 screen passes in the preseason. In three games they’ve thrown, perhaps, three and no one on the Minnesota, Denver or Baltimore defense was fooled for a minute.
But it goes even further than that. The Browns’ receiving corps was thin going into the preseason. When you’re number one receiver is Braylon Edwards, known more for running his mouth and dropping the ball, that’s the first warning sign. But then Mangini traded Kellen Winslow without a viable back-up. There still isn’t one.
Mangini appeared to address the shortcoming by drafting two, count’em, two receivers in the second round. Keep in mind that in Brian Robiskie, he was the 7th receiver drafted and by all measures other than Mangini’s, was the most polished receiver in the draft. He can’t even get himself activated for game day because Mangini, always the thinker, just had to find a space for that third string defensive back on special teams. Robiskie isn’t probably the only one in the locker room scratching his head over that one. The other second rounder, Mohammed Massaquoi might as well be inactive. He sees time late in the game, if at all, so busy is Mangini trying to shoehorn Joshua Cribbs into a role he’s not quite suited for.
Layered on all of this is a first time offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, the first branch I suppose off the Mangini tree. It’s been three games and I defy anyone to present a cogent explanation for what exactly the team is trying to accomplish under his direction. The runs are perfunctory, the passing game unimaginative.
Argue all you want that the running game is lousy because the running backs are lousy, but as you’re doing that remember to lay the blame for that at Mangini’s feet. He’s the one that left the team so thin at the position. As for the passing game, it may be that Quinn doesn’t like to look downfield, but as I watch things unfold, it doesn’t look like there are many plays designed to go downfield. Edwards is double covered on virtually every play. Cribbs is a neophyte at the position and can’t get open. Michael Furrey is a specialist at going underneath, never past the first down markers. The Browns under Daboll are content to dump and dink because that’s all they can think to do.
It’s impossible to believe that the Browns are this bad. The offensive line features a Pro Bowler, a well thought of high-priced guard and a decorated rookie at center. They aren’t the second coming of the 1973 Buffalo Bills, but they also aren’t the second coming of the 1999 Cleveland Browns either. There is some talent. Why, then, can’t it open holes or protect a quarterback?
There is probably any number of theories but the one I keep landing on is coaching. Simply put, Mangini and the coaching team he assembled are in over their collective heads. They are not putting any of these players in a position to be successful. Nothing is done to slow down the rush, less is done to open up the running game. Quinn is confused because he’s in a confusing system with no purpose.
On defense, Bob Ryan is doing nothing to make anyone feel like the New York Jets pegged the wrong Ryan brother as their successor to Mangini. Ryan gets a bit of a pass, though, because outside of perhaps Shaun Rogers there isn’t a player on this defense that could start for any other team.
Watching Brandon McDonald, for example, flail away against Baltimore only confirms that this was another personnel assessment that former general manager Phil Savage got exactly wrong. Watching “highlights” of the Denver/Oakland game reminded me of how Savage touted JaMarcus Russell as the next great quarterback. It’s too bad, really, that Savage wasn’t able to snag Russell. He’d fit in perfect here.
Mangini isn’t to blame for players like McDonald but he is to blame for the current product on the field. It’s not an issue of this taking time to turn around. There is nothing to turn around. Mangini has taken a team that was run aground under the last regime and instead of trying to redefine it he’s busy poking enough gaping holes in it to make it impossible to float again.
If Lerner thought that Mangini would be a steadying force, then just chalk that up as another in a series of bad decisions Lerner’s made since he reluctantly inherited the team. When Mangini yanked Quinn in the third quarter of a game that didn’t have a chance of winning before it started, it only confirmed Mangini’s unsteady hand.
What’s fascinating to contemplate is why exactly Mangini would take a situation already desperate and deliberately make it worse by inserting Anderson ostensibly to add a spark. He had to know that it wouldn’t work and if he didn’t know it that only makes it that much worse. It confirms to the players, on both sides of the ball, that their head coach has hit the panic button. If you think they aren’t playing for him now, just wait. When it comes to things like this, players aren’t as dumb as Mangini would like to believe. If he wanted a spark with Anderson then why did he wait until the team was back on the field to start the second half? It was a panic move by a head coach not worthy of the title.
Whether Quinn starts next week or Anderson or even Brett Ratliff or the ghost of Bruce Gradkowski, just know that the ensuing turmoil was self-inflicted by what is quickly becoming the worst off-season move in the history of the NFL, Lerner’s hiring of Mangini.
All of which gets me back to my original point. On any other team under these circumstances, Mangini would be searching for a realtor. In Cleveland, where down is the new up, Lerner is probably trying to figure out how to give Mangini and even greater role in the organization.