When Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage were fired at the end of the 2008 season, I had my hopes set high. I saw a wide-open sea of potential new head coaches and general managers that could help right this ship.
My first choice for head coach was Bill Cowher. Surely, this former Browns player could make his triumphant return to Cleveland and bring this city back to its pre-Super Bowl-era glory days. But Cowher wasn't interested.
How about Scott Pioli for GM? He had helped Bill Belichick bring three championships to New England in four years. This time, owner Randy Lerner balked, as Pioli's control demands were deemed unreasonable. Of course, that didn't stop Kansas City from hiring him.
Okay, shake it off, I thought.
But before I could say Marty Schottenheimer, reports began to surface that Lerner was "fascinated" with Eric Mangini. Next thing I knew, Mangini was hired as the head coach—before the hiring of a GM.
I hated this move. Isn't the GM supposed to hire the coach? Are any good GM candidates going to want to go where the new coach had already been hired?
Then the Browns hired George Kokinis, a relative unknown considering the GM candidates whose names had been suggested for the job. Mangini had hand-picked his own guy. Lerner said he hadn't even considered Kokinis before his initial meeting with Mangini.
Again, I asked, isn't the GM supposed to hire the coach, not the other way around?
Neither Mangini's nor Kokinis' press conferences were inspiring. In fact, they both came off as being uncomfortable, awkward, and even a little goofy. These guys were anything but "fascinating" to me. They seemed destined to lower expectations for a franchise that couldn't possibly have lower expectations.
Then free agency opened and...well, nothing happened. At least nothing that didn't subtract talent from the team.
After quietly releasing some veteran backups, the Browns made perhaps their biggest move of the offseason so far: They traded exceptional but loud-mouthed tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. to the Bucs for a second-round draft pick and a fifth in 2010.
I wasn't pleased at all. I thought if we were going to make a statement by trading a veteran receiver, Braylon Edwards made more sense. During the last game of the year, when the Browns' season had long since been lost, Edwards looked annoyed to be there and disinterested at best.
After clearly miscommunicating on a third down pass play, rent-a-QB Bruce Gradkowski went to Edwards to talk it over. Edwards just turned his back to Gradkowski. He had clearly given up on the season—a season that saw him drop more passes than seemed humanly possible.
Kellen Winslow was a lot of things, but I never saw him quit. Never.
Next came the signing of Robert Royal more than a week into the opening of free agency. The low-profile blocking tight end seemed a feeble answer to the loss of one of my favorite players. Would this guy even be able to beat out Steve Heiden?
By this point, difference-makers like Albert Haynesworth, Bart Scott, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh had been signing everywhere but Cleveland. The Browns didn't show any interest in re-signing safety Sean Jones, the most experienced and arguably the best player among a young and promising secondary.
Then the Browns re-signed backup safety Mike Adams, who had filled in for Jones when he was injured. Like the timing of the Royal signing, it seemed as though Mangini was sending a message: The Browns were moving on.
On paper, the roster now looked like we'd added Robert Royal and Mike Adams in exchange for losing Kellen Winslow and Sean Jones.
Oh, and did I mention that Pro Bowl defensive tackle Shaun Rogers had asked to be traded? According to Rogers, Mangini failed to come over to introduce himself on separate occasions. Surely, Rogers was acting like a three-year old who didn't get a toy at the grocery store, but how hard would it have been to avoid that problem? You didn't see him? 400-lb. Shaun Rogers?
Suddenly, the Browns started signing players on a daily basis:
Defensive lineman C.J. Mosley, a former Jet under Mangini.
Defensive back Hank Poteat, also a former Jet.
Linebacker David Bowens, a former...yep, he was a Jet, too.
Linebacker Eric Barton, a—you guessed it—former Jet.
The Browns even signed former Jet safety Abram Elam to a restricted free agent offer sheet...one that the Jets later matched.
Not only were these guys all former Jets, they were mostly backups or versatile fill-in starters at various positions. Mosley could play end or tackle. Poteat was mostly used as a nickel back. Bowens could play inside or outside linebacker. All were special teams contributors.
To Browns fans like myself, this smelled a lot like the Butch Davis era. Davis had a penchant for signing guys who had played for him at the University of Miami. His Browns coaching career ended when he practically fled in the night from rabid Browns fans after a 3-8 start and an out-of-control quarterback controversy between former overall No. 1 pick Tim Couch and (temporary) fan favorite Kelly Holcomb.
Speaking of quarterback controversies, word had come out of Berea (the Cleveland suburb that is home to the Browns complex) that Mangini had no intention of naming his starting quarterback just yet.
Browns fans had thought that the issue was finally put to rest last season when first round pick and Ohio-grown kid Brady Quinn took over for a struggling Derek Anderson. Quinn was subsequently lost for the season with a hand injury, but he showed promise in his limited action.
To add insult to injury, the Browns released wideout Joe Jurevicious, who had grown up a Browns fan in northeast Ohio and had returned home to his "dream job" to help bring the glory days back to the city he loved.
It was as if each move was designed to be a public relations mess. Meanwhile, I wondered how many backup players one team can have.
At that point, I had been broken. Mangini did it. He tore me down like a young Marine in basic training. My will had been mashed to a pulp.
So I started to look deeper at what he was trying to do.
At that point, I received a clue from an unlikely source: The hated Denver Broncos. It's been 20 years since the days of "The Drive" and "The Fumble" and the dashing of Super Bowl hopes. Some wounds heal slowly.
In Denver, news of a clash between new head coach Josh McDaniels and quarterback Jay Cutler had become a national headline. McDaniels had apparently been involved in trade discussions that would have sent Culter packing in favor of Matt Cassel. Cassel, of course, had filled in nicely for Tom Brady under the tutelage of then-New England offensive coordinator McDaniels.
When that deal went sour and Cassel went to Kansas City, the fireworks began in Denver. Cutler was as upset as Shaun Rogers at the West Side Market. When Cutler and McDaniels finally sat down face to face, the ego-bruised QB attempted to solicit a no-trade guarantee from his new coach.
It was in McDaniels' response that I began to see the light. McDaniels told Cutler that while he wants the guy on his team, he has a responsibility to listen to any and all offers and consider them on a case-by-case basis. In the end, with each trade proposal, he and GM Brian Xanders would do whatever they felt was in the best interest of the team.
That makes sense, I thought. It was a bold thing to say to your whining star quarterback, but in the end he's absolutely right.
It was with that comment that I began looking more closely at the Belichick model.
Both Mangini and McDaniels had spent a great deal of time under New England coach Bill Belichick's wing. Former Browns coach Romeo Crennel was also part of this line, but Crennel was a seasoned veteran coach. Belichick's influence was perhaps less apparent with Crennel.
In the previous Browns front office, GM Phil Savage seemed to be the one with all the decision-making power. But in New England, Scott Pioli's role as vice president of player personnel was the closest thing the Patriots had to a GM. Belichick had all the power.
Shortly after McDaniels was hired in Denver, existing GM Jim Goodman was fired. Brian Xanders was quickly promoted and the team's power structure had been reshaped. It is yet to be seen where the power lies in Denver, but this certainly was an unusual move, considering that Goodman had assisted in the selection of McDaniels.
Considering the influx of former Jets to the Browns roster, it has become clear where the decision-making power is coming from in Cleveland. Mangini hired his own guy and Kokinis' role is quickly looking like that of Scott Pioli in New England.
In all three of these places, the front offices have been tight-lipped with the media—that is, except for the Cutler situation, which has taken on a life of its own. In Cleveland, longtime Browns beat writer and reporter Tony Grossi has been quite vocal about his displeasure with his lack of access.
I began reading old articles about the building of the Patriots dynasty. Many of the articles focused on Belichick's (with Pioli's help) ability to create depth on the roster. They've focused on picking up guys who can play multiple positions (think Adalius Thomas, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, and Troy Brown) and who are team-first guys.
When a player, any player, started making noise about making top dollar, that signaled their end in New England. I started to look at this approach in terms of how it applied to the new-look Browns.
As I was investigating the characteristics of the Belichick approach, Mangini and the Browns remained busy.
Along the offensive line, they renegotiated OG/OT Ryan Tucker's contract down to the league minimum and released overpaid RT Kevin Shaffer. They signed former Seahawk OG/OT Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack and former Bear OG/OT John St. Clair. Both of the new guys can move around on the line; Tucker and St. Clair even played center in college.
In more recent days, the Browns have signed backup running back Noah Herron (no appearances with Tampa last year), veteran defensive back and former Raven Corey Ivy, and journeyman wide receiver David Patten, who was a key player during the Patriots' Super Bowl run.
While I know very little about Herron, Ivy is a high-energy guy who can bring vocal leadership to the Browns defense. David Patten flourished under Belichick and then- offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.
What is beginning to emerge here is a plan. The Browns know what type of player they want. They want team-first guys who are versatile. They don't want crybabies or guys who expect to be the highest paid at their positions.
They also have a sole leader. One guy that has a plan to put the franchise back on track.
I'm not sure what's next. Rumors are currently flying about a specific trade involving Braylon Edwards for draft picks and a player. The Shaun Rogers fiasco remains unresolved, and both quarterbacks' names get brought up in trade rumors on a daily basis.
Some reports are now saying that any player on the Browns' roster is available, except left tackle Joe Thomas and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. The Browns also appear to be attempting to trade down with the No. 5 pick in the draft.
A lot remains to be seen about the Mangini Era in Cleveland. I may not like all the moves he makes. Certainly, he's not concerned about how things look to the fans.
But one thing has become clear to me: Mangini has a plan for rebuilding the Browns, and I, for one, find it "fascinating."