Friday, November 06, 2009

Lingering Items--Lerner Finds His Keyboard Edition

For anyone still clamoring to understand the root of the dysfunction related to the Cleveland Browns, just reference back the George Kokinis soap opera of this past week as your handy reference guide.

What exactly happened inside the walls of Berea and the minds of the participants is being guarded as if it’s a state secret on the level of troop deployment plans in Afghanistan. Check that, far more is known about troop deployment plans in Afghanistan.

Owner Randy Lerner is now saying Kokinis wasn’t fired as the Browns stick-figure general manager and no one is saying Kokinis voluntarily resigned. And while the notion that these two facts can only co-exist if Kokinis is, in fact, still employed by the Browns as its general manager, we now know that isn’t the case either. Yet Eric Mangini has nothing substantive to say on this topic, Lerner has been his usual ambiguous self and Kokinis, apparently, as entered some sort of witness protection program.

This is the essence of what makes Lerner a bad owner, despite his apparent passion for the team. He will talk in generalities about plans and leaders and credibility and then will exhibit none of those qualities himself as he’ll have underlings escort Kokinis out of the building as if this miserable season rested entirely on his shoulders without bothering to explain it to anyone in a way that makes sense.

It’s all well and good that Lerner met with a couple of self-promoting fans in a quasi-public relations gesture to let them know how much he cares, but it’s not all well and good that the house is burning to the ground and Lerner won’t explain not only how it happened but how he let it happened.

My guess is that the various legal entanglements of the parties is at the root of why the Browns are, once again, coming across as incompetent rubes practically anyone with a lick of senses believes they are.

This is speculation, of course, but it’s not as if the puzzle pieces are that hard to fit together. Lerner hired Kokinis as general manager at the behest of Mangini, ostensibly giving him final authority over football issues. Mangini, knowing that he really controlled everything in Berea from the paintings on the walls to the texture of the toilet paper, has been very visible in exercising that control. Whatever initial friction that may have created, and it likely created a bunch, it certainly had to boil over when Mangini traded Braylon Edwards, ostensibly without any help our input from Kokinis.

Now take a look at this from the various perspectives. Lerner thinks that maybe Kokinis isn’t doing what he was being paid to do, being that credible, front office leader of the team he thought he gave a 5-year, $1 million per year contract. Kokinis, on the other hand, is thinking that somewhere along the line he was misled about his true role. Then there is Mangini, the Machiavellian manipulator, asserting authority he felt was implied if not overtly stated.

As things have come to a head, what’s really revealed is that this is just the usual food fight that breaks out when an owner like Lerner doesn’t put together a clearly defined plan with clearly defined roles and then spends something more than a token amount of time overseeing it. Frankly, it’s not really any different than the fight that pushed John Collins out as president and vested complete power in former general manager Phil Savage.

Now, of course, not having learned from history, the same mistakes are being repeated, although this wasn’t so much an unwarranted power grab like Collins was making so much as it is about Kokinis trying to get Lerner and Mangini to live up to what was promised.

Lerner would love to paint Kokinis’ departing as a discharge for cause because it would save him money. But his legal folks are surely telling him that the charge won’t stick. Thus the reluctance to suggest publicly that Kokinis was fired for any sort of misconduct. Kokinis, on the other hand, is trying to ensure that Lerner honors the contract and pays him what is due, probably the most reasonable request being made. Mangini, meanwhile, just wants to be left alone with his “process” that “will take time” unencumbered by such petty concepts as “fans” or “competence” or “accountability” or “credibility” or, you get the picture.

If this strikes anyone at all that this whole thing has been handled by a bunch of rank amateurs, that’s because it should. The truth in all this isn’t really hard to discern as it was evident from the outset. There was abject role confusion the minute Lerner allowed himself to be manipulated by Mangini into hiring Kokinis in the first place. Maybe Lerner really felt this would all work because that’s what Mangini told him and Lerner, at a very basic level, is a wide-eyed optimist. Maybe Kokinis felt the same way. But all of this depended on Mangini allowing it to work just as it was written. That was never going to happen and if Lerner had really ever bothered to ask someone at the time, like Mangini’s former boss in New York, he would have known it before he ever had the contract drawn up.


It was interesting to read that Mangini expects to, once again, be involved in hiring the next general manager. It’s unclear whether that’s Lerner’s expectation as well because he isn’t talking, just typing. But if it comes to pass in just that fashion, then Lerner would be well advised not to give this new figurehead anything more than a one-year contract because that next hire is likewise doomed to fail. Given that inevitability, the last thing Lerner needs at the moment is to be paying off still another multi-million, multi-year contract for someone who didn’t deserve it in the first place.

One of the most puzzling aspects of this whole institutional goofiness is that Lerner seems hell-bent on making the same mistakes time and again as if he’s conducting his own personal game of chicken with his psyche.

Mangini in his first year of what looks like it will be a multi-year effort to bury this franchise once and for all has done nothing to earn him the courtesy of offering up dinner recommendations, let alone recommendations on who his next boss should be. As I wrote previously, Mangini should be the last person consulted about this issue. Mangini picking his own boss is what put Lerner in this pickle in the fist place.

If Lerner can’t see that it was Mangini all along who was responsible for the implosion of this past week, then court action should ensue and the franchise placed in receivership. More importantly, he also should have his “guy’s guy” permit revoked as it would be obvious that he’s never watched “The Godfather Saga” let alone learned anything from it.

Mangini is Hyman Roth trying to orchestrate everything behind the scenes in order to feather his own nest. It was Roth who tried to kill Michael. It was Roth who tried to kill Frankie Pantangelo and make it look like it was Michael. It was Roth who was behind the congressional investigation into Michael. Michael almost realized it too late.

In the same way, the Browns’ problems right now stem from Mangini trying to orchestrate some sort of grand plan that puts himself front and center of everything brown and orange in this town. When Mangini quickly figured that Lerner wasn’t keen to a Butch Davis-like front office, it was Mangini who got Kokinis hired to be his boss. It was Mangini who kept Kokinis from taking a public role with the franchise in favor of the dis-and mis- approach to doling out information. It was Mangini who kept Kokinis out of the loop on the personnel decisions. And for his final masterstroke, it was Mangini who made it all look like it was Kokinis’ fault. Well played.

It’s hard to know exactly Mangini’s end game, mainly because he’s never going to capture the hearts and minds of these fans. But if he ends up getting some equity in the franchise then you’ll know “the process” is nearly complete.

Lerner can choose to find his inner Michael and wake up now or continue the blissful bizarro slumber that has caused him to see green when the light is screaming red.

Unfortunately, Lerner seems to have chosen to remain asleep. For now he’s telling people, albeit through curt written responses to emailed questions, that he expects Mangini to be around in 2010 as well. Maybe that’s just to present a picture of relative stability for the moment and maybe it’s because there really isn’t a better answer to give at the moment.

Here’s one piece of advice that Lerner ignores at his own peril: if Mangini shows up at your door telling you that he’s subbing for your regular driver you walk out to get your newspaper, wear a flak jacket.


One of the growing myths about this whole debacle is that those who clamor for immediate regime change are just too impatient to be taken seriously. Far from it.

Although the history of the league is full of one-season turnarounds, by now pretty much anyone whose ever seen a NFL game recognizes that the Browns are years away from being competitive. Immediate results aren’t expected, immediate improvement is.

Look at last season for a moment to grasp the concept. At the halfway point, the Browns were 3-5. But only two of those losses, to Baltimore and Dallas, were by more than two scores. This season, five of their seven losses have been by more than two scores. It was not until the season fell apart amid quarterback and other injuries that the Browns became the total patsies they were in that final season 31-0 loss against Pittsburgh.

No one expected this year to be a playoff year, but surely Mangini could come in and turn some of those near losses into wins and keep most of the rest of the games competitive. Instead, his team put together his way with his players is the football equivalent of baseball’s Washington Nationals or maybe football’s equivalent of basketball’s Washington Generals. And with injuries stacking up likes planes above LaGuardia, there is no reason to think that the rest of the season will suddenly be a burst of sunshine.

This is the high crime and misdemeanor that Mangini has committed. He can talk all he wants about processes and doing things right but I’ve yet to hear a cogent reason why the Browns had to first become the league laughingstock in order to make that happen. Lerner may be getting laughed at these last few days from the national media because of all the dysfunction is light touch has brought. But it won’t be nothing compared to what happens if he allows this same train to leave the station next year.


One of the bigger non-stories floating around Browns’ camp this week has to do with Jamal Lewis’ retirement plans. It seemed like a story when Lewis let the cat out of that bag following last week’s perfunctory beat down. Now, of course, we’ve been subjected to an interminable number of are you really serious questions.

For the record, Lewis says he is definitely retiring no matter what. He appears to be frustrated by the season, but who wouldn’t be? Still, his retirement plans don’t appear to be related to the circus atmosphere in Berea so much as they relate to his truly diminishing skills.

One of the biggest problems with the Browns has been their lack of a viable running attack. Lewis had a nice first season in Cleveland and showed he had plenty left in the tank then. But the last few seasons have definitely shown the rigors of a decade long career.

Lewis always struck me as a final piece kind of guy and not someone to build a running game around for the next several years. In large part, that’s why he was signed by Savage. Unfortunately, when 2007 didn’t yield the playoffs, the Browns essentially switched course with Lewis and made him more of a long-term pick up. Now, of course, the Browns are woefully short at running back, even with Lewis on the roster.

As hard as it is to believe, there are only 3 tailbacks on the active roster, Lewis, Jerome Harrison and Chris Jennings. Lewis was finished before the season started, Harrison can’t seem to convince the coaches that he’s anything more than a change of pace runner and Jennings hasn’t seen any action. Maybe James Davis is the answer in waiting, as long as he can keep clear of post-practice skills sessions, whatever the hell that means.

We can talk about the quarterback situation until the last word has been written but has anyone checked into exactly how the Browns are going to build a viable running attack with this mess of a roster, especially with all of the other holes that also need to be plugged? No doubt there is a “plan” and a “process” for addressing this but just like everything else, fans are left to shoot in the dark as to what it is.


It’s the bye week. Get outside this weekend and enjoy the time away. You deserve it. But as you do so, here’s this week’s question to ponder: Who will be favored when the Browns face Detroit?

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