Saturday, January 9, 2010

Keeping Eric Mangini is a Smart Move by Mike Holmgren--Even if it Doesn't Work

When Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner briefly emerged from seclusion to hire Mike Holmgren to reverse the franchise's decade-long sagging fortunes, no one could have imagined that the initial step in that process would be to retain first year coach Eric Mangini; the Browns started the season 1-11 and could easily have been 0-12 if the Buffalo Bills had not gift-wrapped a win for the Browns by fumbling in field goal range late in Cleveland's 6-3 week five victory (Cleveland's game-winning "drive" traversed 15 yards in seven plays, culminating in a chip shot 18 yard field goal). Lerner clearly brought Holmgren aboard to do yet another "reboot" of the Browns' malfunctioning operating system after previous attempts to create "49ers East" (with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark), "Miami Hurricanes North" (with Butch Davis) and "New England Patriots West" (first with Romeo Crennel, then with Mangini) all failed dismally, resulting in just two winning seasons and one playoff berth since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999. Then, Mangini's Browns--who spent the first three fourths of the 2009 season redefining offensive ineptitude--suddenly discovered a winning formula that involved heavy doses of running back Jerome Harrison, kick returner/wide receiver/"wild cat" formation quarterback Joshua Cribbs and an improving defense: the Browns closed the season with four straight wins, the team's first such streak since Bill Belichick coached the franchise's original incarnation back in 1994 (which is also the last season that the Browns won a playoff game). The Browns' strong finish raised the possibility that Holmgren would not clean house but instead give Mangini the opportunity to continue to coach the team.

Although respected Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Terry Pluto asserts that "the easiest move would have been to fire coach Eric Mangini," a more in depth analysis of the situation proves that the opposite is true: while firing Mangini would have been "the easiest move" to make a month ago, Holmgren would have had little to gain and much to lose by firing Mangini right now. If Holmgren canned Mangini and the Browns started out slowly next season then the heat would be on Holmgren for not giving Mangini a fair chance. Mangini has made an improbable transformation from the coach who fans wanted to run out of town to the coach that many fans feel has earned the right the right to keep his job. The only reasons for Holmgren to get rid of Mangini now are (1) if his long range plans are completely incompatible with Mangini's coaching philosophy and/or (2) if Holmgren has a top notch, proven winner lined up to succeed Mangini.

Regarding the first reason, by keeping Mangini around so soon after Mangini had been a dead man walking, Holmgren has all but assured Mangini's loyalty: if Holmgren offers input--say, about how to handle the quarterback position--and Mangini balks then Holmgren can justify getting rid of Mangini by referring back to what Holmgren said in his introductory press conference, namely that a team can only be successful if the owner, executives, coaches and players are all on the same page. So, Mangini has little choice now but to do things Holmgren's way; the four game winning streak saved Mangini's job but it did not give him carte blanche to do whatever he wants to do. With noted quarterback guru Holmgren running the franchise the Browns will hopefully enjoy some stability at the quarterback position by either firmly establishing one of the two incumbent signal callers as the definite starter or by acquiring a better player to fill that spot.

As for the second reason to dismiss Mangini, there is no way of knowing whether or not whoever Holmgren may have wanted to bring in to coach the team is even available but coaching the Browns is hardly a dream job at this point for any coach who has established himself as a winner and therefore can pick and choose where he lands.

Then consider that even with that final four game push the Browns still finished dead last in the NFL in net yards gained (4163) and 31st (next to last) in net yards allowed (6229); the Browns gained nearly 2300 fewer yards than the top ranked offensive team did (New Orleans Saints, 6461) and they allowed nearly 2000 yards more than the top ranked defensive team did (New York Jets, 4037). In other words, the Browns must not only find a way to maintain their late season performances in the running game, defense and special teams but they must also upgrade themselves in other areas (most notably the passing game) in order to contend for a playoff spot. If Harrison is not cranking out 100 yard rushing games and/or if the Browns do not placate Cribbs' demands to renegotiate his contract then the team could get off to a miserable start next season. In that case, Holmgren can fire Mangini with no negative repercussions from the media or fan base and Holmgren will have a bit of a grace period to find a new coach and turn the team around.

Of course, if the Browns race out of the gates next season and become the latest team to vault from last place to playoff contention then Holmgren will receive a lot of praise for being flexible and patient and resisting the urge to fire Mangini. I don't know what kind of season the Browns will have in 2010 but whatever they do Holmgren has ensured that he will not face serious scrutiny until at least 2011.

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