Friday, November 20, 2009

Lingering Items--5 Years Later Edition

Whatever the genesis of Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner’s fear of public speaking, at least he can use a keyboard. “Speaking” as it were to the Lake County News-Herald a few days ago, Lerner let it be known that he sees himself sticking with Eric Mangini.

Read into that whatever you will, but if it signals that Lerner already is putting restrictions on the new football guru and general manager he intends to hire, then it’s not a good sign. Lerner has proven to be particularly inept when it comes to making football decisions of any sort. That being said, if he can convince Mike Holmgren to take over the guru spot, that would be the first good decision he’s made and he should stop there. Telling Holmgren who to fire and who to retain can be officially categorized as working out of classification.

To the casual fan, the issue surrounding Mangini can be easily simplified. Those counseling patience and consistency argue that you can’t possibly demonstrate either by pulling to plug on Mangini this soon. Those arguing for regime change rightfully point out that patience and consistency are laudable goals but only when the circumstances dictate.

To me, the question boils down to whether or not you can envision Mangini as the head coach of this time 5 years from now. He was hired for the long term and it still makes sense to evaluate him in that context. And on that score, those who suggest that somehow re-evaluating Mangini is unfair, I’d ask them to point to me any circumstance where a new hire isn’t evaluated early in his tenure and probably more often than Mangini. Indeed, not doing this kind of yearly evaluation, at a minimum, would be a breach of duty on the part of Lerner.

When I reduce the question down to its most basic element I can’t envision a scenario where Mangini is the head coach of anything 5 years from now, let alone this franchise. Whatever his other merits may be, and I’m not suggesting that he doesn’t have some, they clearly aren’t as a head coach. He failed in New York and he’s failing here in an even more spectacular way.

Assuming that you can’t envision Mangini has the head coach 5 years from now, then it makes more sense to pull the plug earlier than later. Ignore the cavity in a tooth all you want, but all that’s happening in the interim is it’s getting worse.

Here’s where those advocating for another year must confront the inconsistencies in their position. In arguing for Mangini the overriding theme is that he inherited a mess and straightening out isn’t done quickly or easily. All that is, of course, true. But the reason it was such a mess is that the previous regime of Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel were given far too much time practice their incompetence at the expense of the team.

Crennel was a nice defensive coordinator, good but not great. He was an awful head coach. He lacked the basic organizational skills so necessary for someone at the top. As a lifelong assistant himself he well understood their plight and thus was of a mind to let his own assistants go mostly unchecked. He took a fatherly approach to discipline but lacked the ability to escalate the discipline when his Ward Cleaver talks with misanthropes like Braylon Edwards were not effective. His “treat them like men” view was admirable but there was no one to step in when dad wasn’t in the room and the immature boys in the group were running amok.

As a result, so much of the basics to running a football team were either missed or not enforced. The team was sloppy, ill-disciplined and generally unconcerned with outcomes. That didn’t leave just because Crennel did. Left to fester over a number of years a culture grew that has seeped deeply into every bowel and crevice in Berea. It’s still there.

Savage was a nice scout, good but not great. He was an awful general manager. He was far more comfortable with timing players in the 40 than he was with pushing the kind of paper necessary to do the general manager’s job effectively. The biggest complaint with Savage was that he was rarely seen around the facility during football season. He was far more comfortable scouting a Boise State/Utah match up than he was scouring the waiver wire and practice squads for hidden talent. He collected players as if he were collecting football cards. A decent eye for talent, he had no concept of how to build a team.

As a result, so much of the basics to putting together a sustainable, credible, competitive football team were ignored. The franchise had some individual talent, certainly more than when he got here, but was no closer to being a team than when he got here. Left to his devices far too long, the mess he left for those coming after him was extensive.

Now consider what would have happened had Lerner pulled the plug on these two much sooner, particularly Crennel. If nothing else, the situation for the next regime would have still been daunting, but far less so.

That’s the point with Mangini. The more time he’s given, the more time to set the franchise further from relevance. Mangini is far more organized than Crennel. He has far more definitive ideas on how everything about a team should be run than Crennel. He may treat the players like men but he doesn’t turn his back on them and they know it. All of that is well and good.

The problem though is that he simply lacks the basic passion and interpersonal skills necessary for a guy in his position to be successful. He neither inspires nor motivates. He shows no capacity for trust and has a history of turning on those that have helped him when it serves his short-term and immediate interests. People just don’t much like him and that goes far beyond the players. He has no charm, little wit and lacks any element of charisma. He’s just not the kind of guy that others are willing to walk through fire in gasoline-soaked underwear for.

All of this will be true tomorrow and it will be true next year and the year after that. Let him stick around for another year or another 3. But these fundamental problems won’t go away and it’s why he won’t last another 5 years. There may be consistency and patience exercised if Mangini is given another year, but all it really does is push a difficult decision that will get made further down the road and push the ultimate timeline back, just as it did with the previous regime.


Watching Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco struggle against the lowly Browns last Monday illustrated quite well the underlying issues with Derek Anderson. Indeed, Flacco’s sophomore struggles are similar to those of Matt Ryan of Atlanta and almost every other quarterback (or major league pitcher, for that matter) whose had quick burn success followed by the inevitable return visit to planet Earth.

As I’ve written many times, the development of young talent is never a straight line. There are the inevitable small steps forward and giant leaps back. It’s as true in sports as in any other business.

But the one difference in professional sports in particular is that the competition can get all the footage it wants on you and then adjust to your weaknesses far more quickly than you’d ever see in the business world. Setbacks in progress are inevitable. Flacco and Ryan are struggling for the same reason that Anderson struggled in 2008. The league is populated with professionals well schooled in making adjustments.

The reason Anderson isn’t starting now and may never be a starting quarterback again, barring injury to the starter he backs up, has everything to do with the fact that he couldn’t make the counter adjustments needed to move to the next level. As teams zigged in response to his game, the downfield pass at the expense of the midrange, Anderson didn’t develop a second pitch. He still can’t make the bread and butter throws necessary to consistently sustain drives and force defenses to play him more honestly. Teams see him behind center and know what’s coming.

The difference between quick and sustained success has everything to do with a player’s ability to counter whatever the rest of the league has thrown at him. Anderson can’t, simple as that.

From what I saw of Flacco last week, he looked every bit the kind of player who you would think would come out of a place like Delaware State. If the rag tag group of misfits that the Browns put on the field last Monday can adjust to him, particularly given the numbers he threw at them earlier in the season when the Browns’ defense was more healthy, imagine how bad a good defense would make him look.

In fact, that’s what Flacco’s statistics bear out. His high water mark was the first game of the season, against Kansas City. From there it’s been more or less a steady ride down, except for the temporary bump back up when he played Cleveland the first time. None of this is really a surprise. The ball is now in his court to make the adjustment. He hasn’t done it yet.

We know pretty definitively that Anderson couldn’t respond. We’ll know more about guys like Flacco and Ryan later this season and into the next.

As for how this plays out with the Browns and Quinn, he hasn’t even developed enough of a game yet to make other teams adjust. Unless he gets a running back, a credible right side of the offensive line and receivers that can run down field and actually get open, he’ll never get that chance. Teams can run the most basic of defenses knowing that Quinn and the offense don’t have enough to consistently exploit it. For Quinn, it’s not a matter of making counter adjustments but developing enough to make other teams adjust to him in the first place.


Watching Ravens kicker Steve Hauschka miss another kick right and then get cut the next day made me reminisce about former Browns kicker David Jacobs. The story of Hauschka and Jacobs is similar.

Jacobs, like Hauschka, replaced a relative legend. In Jacobs’ case, it was Don Cockroft. With Hauschka, it was Matt Stover. The Ravens cut Stover after last season mainly because, though still deadly accurate, his range was waning. With field goals of 50+ yards becoming far more commonplace in the NFL, the Ravens found themselves at a relative disadvantage with Stover. In the case of the Browns and Cockroft, he retired, probably a season or two too late.

Jacobs never seemed to be quite the right fit for the Browns. Whether the pressure to replace Cockroft was too great or whether he just lacked enough talent (probably a little of both) Jacobs was awful, quickly. After 5 games, he had made only 4 field goals out of the 12 that he attempted. He was then cut. He got looks with a few other teams but never had a real NFL career.

The story however, had a good ending for the Browns.

After two years into a career with Pittsburgh, Matt Bahr got cut. He was signed for the 1981 season by San Francisco and then cut, just in time for the Browns to pick him up. Indeed it was his availability that led to Jacobs being cut. Bahr, like Stover, wasn’t necessarily the strongest kicker, but he too was deadly accurate and was a fixture in Cleveland for the next 8 seasons. It helped, too, that the Browns had Steve Cox as punter and long-range field goal kicker. It gave them the nice option of keeping a short-range but accurate kicker around for a lot of years.

When Bahr was eventually cut after the 1989 season, a Dave Jacobs clone in the form of Jerry Kauric, was signed. Kauric lasted but one season giving way to Stover who rode out of town with the rest of the team after the 1995 season.

Hauschka, like Jacobs, like Kauric, collapsed under the weight of replacing a fixture. Whether he ends up on the scrap heap like Jacobs remains to be seen, but with far more kickers available than jobs, that will be the likely end.

This week’s question to ponder is one of those that works equally well as a statement: The Browns have scored 5 offensive touchdowns in their last 15 games, seriously?


Anonymous said...

After saying that Mangini inherited a pile of crap, you say he should be dumped because he can't motivate a pile of crap?

My years of management in public and private sector have taught me one thing: there are no consistent characteristics of a good manager. A good manager can be devious or honest, a people person or a cold fish, a good speaker and a boring speaker.

Obviously, the manager should know something about the thing he is managing, but after that, whatever he or she does is based on results. If the results are good, he is a good manager.

Why are Belechick, Landry, Paul Brown considered great coaches even though they are certainly boring, cold and devious? At one point, they won a lot. Belechick was not a great coach in Cleveland, but hallelujah he is a guru to others now, because of one thing: success.

Now, would you have forecast the Patriots success based on Belechick's record in Cleveland? Hell, no. Then how can you do so with Mangini's record of 3.5 seasons?

Gary Benz said...

Well, a couple of things, actually. First of all, I'm not sure where it became accepted knowledge that Belichick, Landy and Brown were devious. They didn't have great public personalities, but how did that make them devious? I also disagree with you about whether or not there are common characteristics of good managers. There certainly are, the most important of which comes down to respect. Respect is earned not given. Mangini hasn't earned the respect of the team he inherited irrespective of its talent level. They seem him as playing unnecessary games, of being dishonest and lacking in basic decency. Simply put, they don't trust him and it shows. In the end, irrespective of personalities, the players in New England, Dallas and Cleveland trusted Belichick, Landry and Brown. Simple as that. As for Belichick, he's an interesting study. He was a lousy head coach in Cleveland for most of the same reasons as Mangini is right now. The difference though is that when Belichick got fired, he was away from being head coach for a few years and it gave him perspective. Mangini was fired and rehired quickly and has never realized that the characteristics that got him fired in New York are repeating themselves here. I don't think he'll ever be a successful head coach anyway, but he would have stood a better chance had he been away from the spotlight for a few years like Belichick and realized that he's the source of most of his problems.