Thursday, January 8, 2009

Will Mangini be Able to Turn the Browns Around?

The Cleveland Browns have hired Eric Mangini, the franchise's fifth head coach since rejoining the NFL in 1999. Like his predecessor Romeo Crennel, Mangini is a former Bill Belichick assistant coach who helped the New England Patriots win Super Bowl titles and has previous ties to the Browns franchise. Unlike Crennel, Mangini is a young coach who had previous NFL head coaching experience prior to becoming Cleveland's head coach. Mangini went 23-25 in three years with the New York Jets, leading the team to two winning records and one playoff berth. The Jets fired him last week in the wake of the team's collapse to 9-7 from an 8-3 start.

Cleveland owner Randy Lerner apparently felt love at first sight with Mangini, because as soon as he became available Lerner scarcely considered anyone else before offering Mangini the job. On the other hand, it does not seem like former Super Bowl winning coaches Bill Cowher or Mike Shanahan intend to take head coaching jobs right now so Mangini may in fact be the best available coach. Although Crennel and Mangini both worked for Belichick they have different personalities and coaching styles. Crennel is a laid back "player's coach" but that style backfired this year when his players took advantage of Crennel's easy going ways and played without much discipline; in contrast, Mangini is much more like Belichick and Bill Parcells, a hard driving, no nonsense coach. It certainly seems like that is exactly what the Browns need but just as important as changing the style will be to change the substance: the Browns must continue to add talent to the roster, so it will be critically important that Mangini and whoever becomes the team's new general manager are on the same page and that they don't make as many mistakes as the Browns' previous talent evaluators have.

The team that the Browns need to surpass and should be trying to emulate is their division rival Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have had three head coaches since 1969--Chuck Noll (four-time Super Bowl winner), Bill Cowher (one-time Super Bowl winner) and Mike Tomlin (two playoff appearances in two seasons on the job). Noll, Cowher and Tomlin were each young, defensive-minded coaches when the Steelers hired them. Noll and Cowher enjoyed long, successful careers and Tomlin appears to be on that same track. The best case scenario for Cleveland is that Mangini will turn out to be a similar success story; the worst case scenario is that, like Crennel, he will be revealed to be a very good assistant coach who thrived under the watchful eye of Belichick but is not equipped to run his own program.

It is ironic that each time Belichick's staff has been raided by teams seeking to steal some of his "magic" there have been critics who suggested that the Patriots would not be the same because that particular assistant coach played such a key role in their success--but the Patriots have kept right on rolling as Belichick continues to find and develop talented assistants. Also, while it is true that none of Belichick's proteges have yet had great success as NFL head coaches, a number of them have been successful as collegiate head coaches, including Nick Saban (who won a national championship with LSU in 2003), Kirk Ferentz (two Big 10 titles at Iowa) and Pat Hill (92-61 record at Fresno State). Belichick arrived in Cleveland in 1991 after a depleted Browns team went 3-13 and three years later he had transformed the Browns into an 11-5 playoff team. While in Cleveland, Belichick hired and mentored a number of talented people who have gone on to be successful in other locations, including not only Saban, Ferentz and Hill but also Ozzie Newsome (architect of the 2000 Super Bowl champion Ravens).

It is also worth noting that for many years some people said that Belichick had done nothing more than ride Bill Parcells' coattails but Belichick has now won three Super Bowls as a head coach while Parcells has yet to win a playoff game as a head coach or team executive without having Belichick on his coaching staff; Belichick won two Super Bowls as a Parcells assistant coach (1986, 1990 New York Giants) and his Browns beat Parcells' Patriots the only time the two coaches met head to head in the playoffs (1994).

If Mangini does not do well in Cleveland, the false rap that was once applied to Belichick about riding Parcells' coattails may in fact be more accurately said of guys like Crennel, Notre Dame's Charlie Weis and other Belichick aides who built big names for themselves with Belichick's Patriots but have yet to make a mark on their own.

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