The five deadly sins of Mike Holmgren and the Cleveland Browns
On Monday, Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren went from wise father figure atop a rebuilding Browns organization, to a man under significant pressure to deliver.
It’s one thing to tell a fanbase that Eric Mangini hasn’t met expectations — it’s another to meet them yourself. While Holmgren excels at win-you-over press conferences, it’s his football decisions this offseason that will define his tenure with this star-crossed franchise.
The Browns are about to hire their sixth head coach since their return in 1999. Whoever finally turns the ship around will never buy a drink in Ohio again — but it’s no small task, and one that’s left wheelbarrows of dead along the road out of town.
Here are five mistakes Holmgren must avoid, if he wants to turn this ship around:
MISTAKE #1: Miss on the coach
While some were thrilled to see Mangini swept aside, they might look back and wonder why the move was made if Cleveland goes in the direction some predict.
Holmgren talked about spreading a wide net, but lead candidates for the coaching vacancy appear to be limited to those also represented by Holmgren’s agent, Bob LaMonte. He fronts John Fox, Jon Gruden, Jim Mora, Brad Childress, Pat Shurmur and — ugh — Marty Mornhinweg.
“I don’t want to have to do this again, so I have to get it right,” said Holmgren.
It’s hard to get excited about that “right” choice being Mornhinweg, who went 5-27 as coach of the Detroit Lions.
The Browns also plan to interview Mike Mularkey and Perry Fewell (while the latter’s intriguing, Holmgren’s unlikely hand the team over to a defensive-minded coach). People have mentioned Bill Cowher, but that’s fantasy.
People fall in love with Gruden for his persona, but after taking a Tony Dungy-built Bucs team to the Super Bowl in 2002, the team was 45-51 over the next six seasons, and Gruden largely failed to develop a young quarterback during his tenure with the Bucs. Would Browns fans rather have Gruden — or his successor Raheem Morris?
Bottom line: Unless Holmgren names himself coach, it’s hard to picture why a switch was made in the first place. Everyone of these guys were fired or not hired for a reason.
Holmgren’s apparent desire to hire someone he knows and trusts could mean a very unsexy pick for Browns fans.
Unless, of course, he picks the man he knows best.
MISTAKE #2: Reverse Mangini’s positive changes
The Browns have rebooted to the point of compulsion since ’99.
Mangini, of course, was let go because he didn’t gel with Holmgren’s football philosophy or long-term vision on offense or team-wide.
Mangini was allowed a second season while Holmgren studied the franchise, hired his people, and prepared for the arrival of a coach he could claim buy-in with. It was a lose-lose for Mangini. To make matters worse, wins against New Orleans and New England were followed up by too many inexcusable defeats, but there is no questioning the desire and hard work of the coaching staff and many of the players.
“This is my ninth year and I’ve never been a part of something like this,” defensive end Kenyon Coleman told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “This team is a family.”
Josh Cribbs defended Mangini before the hammer dropped: “I feel like one man can only do so much,” he said. “This is the biggest team sport there is. You’re asking one man in two years to turn a football team that hasn’t been winning into one of the greatest football teams. I mean, it takes some time.
“I believe in what (Mangini) stands for. It’s hard to make a change. I’m tired of rebuilding.”
Two years wasn’t enough time to overhaul a losing organization. Browns fans were beginning to understand the type of players Mangini wanted: tough, team-first guys who loved to play the game. This team played hard in 2010, despite the record. Mangini’s goal was to build a strong foundation, which isn’t done quickly with the chaos he inherited. The next coach has a better chance to succeed than he did, but few will credit Mangini for that, just as he’s been forgotten by Jets fans after developing many of the young players Rex Ryan is given credit for coaching today.
The team has made strides, but with a new coach, fans must confront another rebuild. Large chunks of the roster will be overhauled. Assuming the next coach will be given more than two years, one can only hope the team will mirror some of the good qualities Mangini valued.
MISTAKE #3: Fail to acquire a No. 1 wide receiver
Nothing is more important to the development of Colt McCoy than developing a strong chemistry with his wide receivers.
The Browns were forced to throw primarily to Peyton Hillis and Ben Watson in 2010, and teams quickly learned to disregard the passing game.
The Browns must acquire — primarily through free-agency — a legitimate, game-ready No. 1 wide receiver.
Second-year wideouts Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie have failed to become the one-two punch the team had hoped for, but they certainly look like a respectable two-three combo. Robiskie, invisible up to now, bloomed late this season. Massaquoi has performed well at times, but gets lost against No. 1 cornerbacks. A legitimate receiving threat will correctly position these two.
Rookie receivers take time to transition to the pro game — often longer than rookies at other spots. Cleveland must think about signing a proven free agent. Failing to significantly improve this position will sink the Browns in 2011.
MISTAKE #4: Ignore the running back position
Hillis was a revelation for the Browns in 2010. Largely anonymous for most of his pro career, he seemed dropped from Heaven onto Cleveland’s doorstep. For long-time Browns fans (what other type is there at this stage?), Hillis recalled images of Kevin Mack blowing through AFC Central opponents two decades ago. Just as Mack had Earnest Byner, the Browns cannot plan for Hillis to carry the ball as often as he did — essentially alone — in 2010.
Hillis needs to be given the chance to lead again. He’s for real, and it’s astonishing that he pounded front-sevens the way he did when teams knew he was the only game in town — but he was figured out by teams late in the year, namely within the division.
Backfields-by-committee can poison and prevent a back like Hillis from getting into rhythm, but the Browns need a change-of-pace back (in theory Montario Hardesty, injured in the preseason) who can make an impact with 10 carries a game — and must be game-planned for by defenses.
While Hillis exemplified what Eric Mangini’s style of “Browns football,” there are questions how the big back fits into Mike Holmgren’s precious West Coast offense, which the team seems destined to morph into from here on out.
While multiple Browns coaches couldn’t figure out how to use Eric Metcalf back in the day — Bill Belichick‘s agonizing “Metcalf-up-the-middle” over and over on 3rd-and-long tortured fans — one would hope Holmgren’s yet-to-be-named wondercoach will effectively deploy this unhinged wrecking ball.
MISTAKE #5: Draft a quarterback
We all know Holmgren likes to find a young quarterback to develop in every draft.
The benefits of this philosophy were on display in 2010, as McCoy fearlessly entered the fray against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 6, throwing for 281 yards and playing with a moxie that’s been nonexistent in Cleveland since Bernie Kosar darted around the field.
McCoy tailed off a bit at season’s end, but his 60.8 percent completion percentage is impressive considering the dearth of talent surrounding him.
Browns fans couldn’t help but notice McCoy’s ability to perform under pressure, and his desire to learn and improve make him a legitimate centerpiece for season’s to come.
They’ve found a quality leader in this young man, and McCoy is someone this team must commit to without distraction.
This team has searched for decades for that player — since Kosar left in 1993, quarterbacks drafted by Cleveland tell the story: Eric Zeier (1995, 3rd round), Tim Couch (1999, top pick in the draft), Spergon Wynn (2000, 6th round — selected 12 spots ahead of Tom Brady – excuse me while I go pour myself a tumbler of whiskey), Luke McCown (4th round), Charlie Frye (2005, 3rd round) and Brady Quinn (2007, 1st round).
Holmgren must not muddy the waters by selecting a passer with the sixth pick in the draft — some brohan the “new coach” wants to build around.
We’ve got the guy.
McCoy, without it being his fault, is one of the main reasons Holmgren dispatched Mangini.
“I’ve talked about (McCoy) before and I think you see the potential there, I certainty do,” Holmgren said on Monday. “Who the head coach is, who the offensive coordinator is, who his position coach is they’re important for any team, but if all of a sudden you have the quarterback you think can be the quarterback a young man who can be the quarterback for the next 10-15 years hopefully it becomes even more important. Absolutely that is going to be one of the considerations in the search.”
The Browns finally have a quarterback worth considering.
Who guides him is key, according to Holmgren.
The last thing Browns fans want is The Big Show up in luxury suite, gritting his teeth, while Mornhinweg — or some alternate hobby-horse — gets off to a 1-7 start in yet another hopeless era of Browns football.
It’s time for Mike Holmgren to hang up the suit and lead this woe-begotten team out of the wilderness.