The Browns On The Coaching Carousel, Again

The Eric Mangini years are over, and now Mike Holmgren has to find a new leader to coach the Browns.  Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer has an article identifying some of the possible candidates and their competing qualifications.  They fall into familiar categories — the failed former head coaches, the respected up and coming assistant coaches, and the hot college coaches.  The categories are familiar to Browns fans because the Browns have, since their return to the NFL, picked at least one coach from each category.  Mangini was a failed former head coach, Romeo Crennel was the respected up and coming assistant, and Butch Davis was the hot college coach.

Obviously, the Browns know from firsthand experience that none of the categories is a sure path to success.  Picking an NFL head coach and hoping that he “fits” with your organization is a crap shoot, but there are some qualities that seem to be required.  The person has to be hard worker who will sacrifice a lot of free time for success on the football field.  He has to be able to recruit and manage capable assistant coaches and weld them into a cohesive staff.  He has to have some idea of what kind of team he wants to put on the field.  Is it a spread offense or one that focuses on a grind-it-out ground game?  Will the defense play 4-3 or 3-4?  The coach has to be able to identify and coach up talent and fit that talent together.  And does the individual have sufficient football smarts that, when he looks at film of the opposing team, he can spot weaknesses to exploit?

This time around on the coaching carousel, at least, the Browns have someone, in Holmgren, who clearly knows what it takes to be a successful NFL head coach because he was one himself.  He may be right or wrong about whether an individual has those qualities and characteristics, but at least he knows what they are.  That’s a good start.

The issue is whether Holmgren will try to find a candidate whose scheme and approach fits with the abilities of those members of the Browns who are likely to survive to next season.  Clearly, the Browns have some talent — they wouldn’t have spanked New England and New Orleans and played the Jets to a standstill without some NFL-caliber players — but equally clearly they have a ways to go to become one of the better teams in the league.  For example, the Browns have a good offensive line, a good tight end, and a good big back.  Those pieces may be useful to a head coach who wants to build off the running game, but they might not fit so neatly with some who plays the spread.

It would be nice to see the Browns pick up a coach whose scheme would readily accommodate the Browns’ existing NFL-level talent, so that the emphasis is on finding missing pieces through the draft or free agency rather than wholesale changes.  I’d like to see the Browns focus on making the playoffs next year.  I don’t want them to bring in a coach whose approach is so inconsistent with the existing talent that the team has to rebuild — again.

The Season Limps To A Close

The Browns play their final game of the year on Sunday.  It will be a home matchup against their bitter rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The game means everything to the Steelers, who are fighting to win the division and get a first-round bye.  For the Browns, the game is all about pride and rivalry, as the Browns have been out of the playoff hunt for weeks.

This game should be a mismatch.  The Steelers are one of the best teams in the NFL.  Their defense is terrific — the best in the NFL against the run — and their offense is balanced and productive.  They are a seasoned team that routinely makes the playoffs, and this game is important to their Super Bowl prospects.  The Browns, on the other hand, seem to have hit the wall both offensively and defensively.  Offensively, the Browns struggle to score points; they have not reached 20 points in the last four games.  Last week, the Ravens shut down Peyton Hillis and the Browns’ running game and picked off rookie quarterback Colt McCoy three times.  The Steelers can also be expected to focus on stuffing the run and harassing McCoy.  Defensively, the Browns seem to be getting worn down.  The Ravens and the Bengals both moved the ball on the ground against the Browns, and the Steelers will try to do the same with Rashard Mendenhall, one of the best backs in the league.  The Steelers, moreover, will bring Ben Roethlisberger and a better passing game, too.

It is disheartening for Browns fans to see another season grind to a close without a playoff berth, but the players and, in particular, head coach Eric Mangini and his staff cannot afford to be disheartened.  They are fighting for their jobs and coming to an end of a season that has seen some progress.  It would be nice to see the Browns’ final record come in at 6-10, rather than duplicating last year’s 5-11 mark.  And, of course, it would be sweet to see the Browns beat the Steelers and throw a wrench into their playoff plans.  Rivalries aren’t really rivalries if the underdog doesn’t rise up and win once in a while.  Now would be a good time for the Browns to do so.

When Mike Holmgren Earns His Pay

What should the Browns do with Eric Mangini?  With two games left in another mediocre regular season, the question lingers.

The Browns look to be heading toward their second straight 5-11 season.  Last year, they closed with a rush, winning their last four games.  This year, they have played many close games and won against two of the best teams in the NFL.  Unfortunately, however, they have lost a lot of winnable games, and they will miss the playoffs — again.  Mangini seems to have brought some order out of chaos and has made some progress, but the Browns still have not gotten over the hump.  Can they do so with Mangini at the helm?

That is the question Mike Holmgren has to answer.  It is a tough question.  5-11 records are not acceptable, obviously, and the team’s lackluster performance in the last two games is not encouraging.  On the other hand, constant coaching changes are not a good thing, either.  For decades, the Browns had one of the most respected front offices in the NFL, marked by competence and stability, with virtually no coaching turnover. Since the Browns have come back into the league, however, the team has been a coaching carousel and experienced constant front office change.  It has not turned out well for the franchise. I’m confident that Holmgren recognizes that.

I’m inclined to withhold judgment on Mangini, for now.  He has tried to establish an approach and a system and has made some progress — slow progress, to be sure, but progress nevertheless.  I’d like to see whether the Browns play with some spirit in one of the last two games, when they will be competing against two of the best teams in the AFC, at a time when both Pittsburgh and Baltimore are gunning for playoff position.  If the Mangini can lead the Browns to a victory in one of those two games, I think it would say something about his ability to coach, inspire, and lead.

A Missed Opportunity

There are two ways to get to the playoffs in the NFL.  First, you can build a core of talented players and coaches, establish a system, and maintain the system notwithstanding the ravages of free agency and personnel changes.  The Patriots, Colts, and Steelers all fall into this category.  The second option is for a less talented team to take advantage of opportunity — a soft schedule, the unexpected emergence of a previously unheralded player, and a favorable bounce or two — and come from nowhere to win enough games to make the playoffs.  Once you are in the playoffs, anything can happen.

The Browns are a long way, talent-wise and system-wise, from falling into the first category, although I believe that is where Mike Holmgren and, if he is retained, Eric Mangini are aiming.  Therefore, the Browns’ only hope of making the playoffs this year was to fall into the second category — and it is there that the Browns have, I think, missed an opportunity.  They had a chance to come roaring out of the gate with some easy initial games.  They built upon the run-oriented success they had at the end of last year by finding a big back, Peyton Hillis, whose tough running style put them in a position to compete against the better teams in the league.  And the Browns’ defense played much better than expected.  With some grit and determination, and a lucky bounce or two, at this point in the season the Browns could be in the thick of the playoff fight.

It hasn’t happened that way.  The easy initial wins did not materialize, and after last week’s very disappointing loss to Buffalo the Browns stand at 5-8 and are on the outside looking in.  The game against the Bills neatly captured the Browns’ shortcomings this year.  After a good opening drive, the Browns stalled on the one-yard line and kicked a field goal instead of going for it on fourth down.  After the defense forced a turnover, the offense gave the ball right back through a Peyton Hillis fumble.  And when the game turned into a defensive struggle, the Browns offense stuck with a predictable run, run, pass on third down offensive style that Buffalo easily defended.  The fact that Jake Delhomme is really no longer an NFL-caliber quarterback and the Browns’ wide receiver corps is lackluster isn’t helping, either.

If you are one of the less talented teams in the NFL, you have to be willing to take some chances.  You need to gamble on fourth down, run a few trick plays, and maximize your scoring opportunities.  The Browns’ defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, understands this.  His defensive takes risks and looks for big plays and turnover opportunities.  The Browns’ offense also did this in some games, such as their signature wins against the Saints and the Patriots.  For some reason, however, they stopped taking risks in recent games, and their one-dimensional offense has not done the job.  And so, for yet another year, the Browns Backers of the world are disappointed, and thinking wistfully of what might have been.

No Quitters Here

The Browns play today in Cleveland against the Carolina Panthers.  The Browns stand at 3-7, the Panthers are 1-9.

This is the time of the NFL season where some teams are still in it, and some teams are out of it.  The Browns and the Panthers are in the latter category.  Some teams in the “out of it” category just quit.  Our neighbors to the south, the Cincinnati Bengals, are a good example.  The Bengals started the season with high hopes and have been putrid.  The team appears to be riddled with dissension, the coach is on his way out, and the players look like they have given up.  If I were a Bengals fan, I would be furious and embarrassed.

Last year the Browns did not quit, even after a string of early losses eliminated them from playoff contention.  It was a tribute to their coaching and the professionalism of the players.  We will see if, this year, Coach Eric Mangini can work the same magic.  Unfortunately, the Browns will be without the enthusiastic play of quarterback Colt McCoy, who is out with a high ankle sprain, and instead will turn to the aged Jake Delhomme.  I’m hoping the Browns can get back on the winning track against a dismal Carolina team.  Even if the playoffs are out of reach this year — and it certainly looks that way — I want to see some character and grit.  The Browns need to show that they aren’t the Bengals.

A Grim And Morbid Fascination

Well, the Browns are 1-7, and they suck in ways that are beyond all imagining.  Only those people who have a certain morbid bent — the kind of people who slow down to carefully scan an accident scene in hopes of catching a glimpse of blood and bone — would watch the Browns play.

Their owner, Randy Lerner, says he is “sick” of losing.  Well, thank goodness he has taken such a strong position!  The reality is that the Browns have been poorly managed since their return to the NFL, having gone through an endless parade of GMs and coaches who have wasted high draft choices and failed to develop talent.  (And the most recent Browns GM reportedly was escorted from the Browns’ practice facility today and has gotten the boot.)  It is time to point out that fish begin to stink from the head down.  Mr. Lerner is part of the problem, and his claim to be sick of losing is meaningless.  What has he done about it?  Mr. Lerner, are you sick of taking one of the storied franchises in NFL history and running it into the ground?  Are you sick of taking a team that was rich in tradition and turning it into a laughing stock?  Are you sick enough of the Browns’ abysmal play to refund part of the season ticket prices paid by the poor sap, loyal, blue collar fans who support the Browns through thick and thin?  I read an article recently that argued that Eric Mangini was the worst head coach hiring decision in the history of the NFL.  I think we could argue that Randy Lerner and the current Browns ownership are the worst owners in NFL history.  Nothing that has happened since the Browns returned to the league suggests even a shred of competence and capability.

In the meantime, a quick look at the Browns’ statistics demonstrates how mind-bogglingly bad they are.  The Browns are 31 out of 32 NFL teams in total offense.  They rank last in total defense.  in the last two games, they have been outscored 61-9.

Thanks to UJ for wisely recommending several weeks ago that I not watch any more Browns games this season.  I took his advice on Sunday and raked leaves instead, raising and bursting two blisters — and it was far preferable to watching the Browns.