If unscientific polls conducted by local television stations have any validity, then the Cleveland Browns’ hiring of Mike Holmgren as their next president is an overwhelmingly popular move in Cleveland. So much so, in fact, that it’s actually hard to find any detractors, even among those still supporting head coach Eric Mangini.
About the only criticism I’ve heard so far about Holmgren is that he’s not Bill Parcells. But even those critics are tacitly acknowledging that this team needed some real direction from the top.
Given this premise, which I accept mainly because it happens to be true, how is it then that anyone can really say the Browns under Mangini have made any meaningful progress this season?
Remember, Mangini wasn’t merely brought in to coach this team. Less than 12 months ago, he represented owner Randy Lerner’s latest franchise savior. Lerner, supposedly so blown away by his interview of Mangini, gave him the deed to the ranch and only the vaguest of directions to go do whatever he thought was best to remake the franchise.
Like a trophy wife shopping with her husband’s American Express platinum card on Rodeo Drive, Mangini was liberated. He performed extensive renovations on the complex itself. He hired his own boss. He put together his own coaching and front office staffs. He wheeled and dealed his way through the draft and had the freedom to bring in as many ex-Jets as he wanted. By the time training camp opened last July, there wasn’t anything about this franchise that didn’t have Mangini’s fingerprints on it in one way or the other.
Yet within that same 12 months, Lerner was no longer so smitten. He once again altered the course of this franchise significantly by publicly acknowledging his own failures and declaring himself in search of a brand new serious, credible leader.
When you consider Holmgren’s hiring in that context, you can only conclude that Lerner was likewise repudiating Mangini’s way, if not by word then certainly be deed. In some ways, it was far more damaging to Mangini’s reputation then if Lerner had simply dismissed him at that point.
That Lerner didn’t fire Mangini probably speaks to Lerner’s affection for Mangini, or maybe it speaks to Lerner’s own sense of guilt over a hiring he probably now regrets. Either way, a team doesn’t simply shift course in the middle of the season like that if it otherwise believes it is going in the right direction.
That’s why Holmgren, in his press conference a few days ago, was careful in letting the assembled media know that whether Mangini stays or go won’t be determined on the basis of a 3 or 4 game win streak at the end of a season that fell apart in week 1.
For Holmgrem and for Mangini, the issue really has little to do with offensive philosophies or whether the players are responding at the moment. What it will come down to is Mangini’s ability to accept a loss in a power struggle he didn’t even know he was having.
For Mangini, Holmgren’s hiring represents a significant demotion even before the season has officially eneded. Mangini was hired with no layers between him and owner Randy Lerner, which really meant that Mangini had the final say on anything and everything related to the football side of the business. Sure, George Kokinis ostensibly stood between Mangini and Lerner but that was only on paper. Once Mangini fired Kokinis, the path was cleared as surely as a plow clears a snow-covered city street.
With Holmgren on board, it’s a new layer. Given the fact that Holmgren plans on hiring a general manager, Mangini will find himself with two significant layers between him and Lerner. In restructuring terms, that’s dramatic, even more so because the layers won’t be minor speed bumps like Kokinis was for Mangini.
It’s really hard to say whether Mangini can operate in that structure. Having tasted what it’s like to have almost absolute power, it’s hard to go back. On top of that, operating in the structure requires swallowing a huge dose of pride. That’s never easy for anyone.
That’s why the real drama of these last few weeks isn’t the outcome of the perfunctory games still on the schedule but the outcome of Mangini’s deep dive into his own psyche. Come January 4th or so, everyone will know exactly how that turned out and how that turns out will ultimately dictate whether Mangini has any real future in the NFL.
If Mangini decides that it’s time to move on, he’ll probably have trouble finding work immediately in the NFL, certainly as a head coach. Don’t forget, Mangini has burned his fair share of bridges already in the league and the likelihood of some other owner taking a chance on Mangini that quickly after what will be perceived as two failures is miniscule. If Mangini does find work it will be as an assistant, which represents an even greater step back than the one Holmgren may be offering.
If Mangini can swallow his pride and accept that what’s done is done, then he has a chance to resurrect his career and perhaps go on to greater triumphs. To do that, though, Mangini is going to have to be satisfied on essentially having to re-earn his place at the big table. He’ll have to accept that for the time being he’ll have input only into personnel decisions and have to accept a change in most of what he believes about getting a team ready for play.
If he can do all that and do it not just with a smile on his face but with a real sense of commitment, then he’ll work his way back up into having a more prominent role if not in Cleveland than elsewhere.
If I’m Mangini’s agent or adviser, I know which way I’m telling him to go. But Mangini isn’t necessarily one of life’s great listeners. I doubt, for example, that anyone close to him was telling him that ousting Kokinis as he did was a good idea.
Having won one power struggle, it’s easy to become emboldened for the next one you face. This time, though, he really doesn’t have any other viable options. Lerner already has spoken on who really is in charge and Mangini now knows it’s not him. For the time being and what looks to be the foreseeable future, emboldened or not this is one struggle Mangini would be best advised not to take on.