Mike Holmgren and those who support Eric Mangini's firing, don’t have to look very far to figure out why Cleveland will be searching for its sixth coach in the past 13 years. A far less-talented Browns team finished last season on a four-game winning streak, the highlight of which was a win over the hated Steelers. This year’s much more talented team ended the season on a four-game losing streak, including two losses to teams with four wins, and ended with the same record as last season.
The Browns also lost several games by seven points or fewer, and failed to defend fourth quarter leads in several games. Even casual fans were able to notice the offensive play-calling was often vanilla, bland and predictable in many games.
Despite this, Holmgren erred when he fired Mangini. He should have been given at least one more season in Cleveland, provided he agree to bring in a new offensive coordinator. Why?
First of all, records can be deceiving. Sure, it’s true by looking at records alone, the Browns didn’t improve in 2010. However, as enjoyable as last year’s 4-game winning streak was for us long-suffering Cleveland fans, the Browns didn’t exactly beat the best teams in the NFL during that streak. In fact, the only team the Browns beat in 2009 with a winning record was the Steelers. Contrast that with 2010, during which the Browns solidly beat two of the top Super Bowl contenders—the New England Patriots and the New Orleans Saints—and came within seconds of defeating the New York Jets, another playoff team.
Although the Browns lost several games by seven points or less, the fact that the Browns kept the games close is a testament to the progress Mangini made during the past season. In 2009, the Browns suffered lopsided losses in several games, including a humiliating 3-game losing streak during which the Browns only scored nine points total!
Secondly, the players supported Mangini. Several key players, including Josh Cribbs, Lawrence Vickers and Sheldon Brown, voiced their support for Mangini. Additionally, contrary to popular belief, the team did not quit on Mangini against the Steelers. Anyone who saw Ben Watson hurdling defenders and fighting for additional yards or Colt McCoy hanging tough despite the Steelers’ constant pressure could tell you this team still had a lot of fight left.
The players’ support of Mangini can’t be underestimated—Vince Lombardi could be resurrected and clad in the orange and brown, but if the players didn’t want to play hard for him, nothing would change on the shores of Lake Erie.
Thirdly, a new coach means yet another offseason of change and disruption. Within the last 10 years, Browns fans have already suffered a carousel of coaching and quarterback changes. Butch Davis turned the team into a University of Miami alumni squad, and Romeo Crennel allowed the team to turn into a less-talented version of the New York Jets, with players making headlines for all the wrong reasons. We’ve watched the hesitancy of Charlie Frye, the inaccuracy of Derek Anderson and the sheer ineptitude of Ken Dorsey.
Mangini brought a sense of stability and gravitas to the franchise that had been lacking for quite some time. Although he wasn’t the most charismatic guy on the sidelines, Browns fans could sleep easily knowing he created the type of team whose top players wouldn't engage in injury-inducing races during pregame warmups, as Braylon Edwards did at a preseason game during the Crennel era.
Fourthly, the Browns’ key players were hit hard by injuries this season. Would the Browns have had the 4-game winning streak in 2009 if Jerome Harrison had already been worn down from a season’s worth of punishment at the end of the year? People fail to underestimate the fact that Peyton Hillis—who hadn’t been a featured running back for years—took a beating all season long and was simply worn down by the end of the year. Would the Browns have beaten the Steelers with an injured Josh Cribbs? Probably not.
On the defensive side of the ball, Scott Fujita, who brought a strong veteran presence to the defense, was also lost to injury toward the end of the season. The play of the defense—the strong point of the season all year long—declined dramatically once he was injured.
Generally, I trust Mike Holmgren’s judgment. He had a fantastic draft in 2010 and netted several players who will be standouts for years to come. He also brought in several solid free agents who fit in well and helped the Browns improve as a team. His only bad move was signing Jake Delhomme, and this move hasn't been a total wash considering Delhomme has been a solid mentor for Colt McCoy.
Although I can see why he made the move he did, I wish he had given Mangini one more year. Replacing him will only be successful if roster turnover is minimized and the team’s culture is not dramatically overhauled. Sure, we need a lot of tweaking on the offensive side of the ball, but an entire defensive overhaul would destroy the strength of the team. The top teams in the league—the Colts, Patriots, Steelers and Eagles, to name a few—have stability as one of their hallmarks, with transitions occurring smoothly and with little disruption.
In order to ensure that the Browns do not regress, Holmgren must ensure that the transition to a new coach occurs quickly and seamlessly, or else the Browns will continue to remain in the malaise of mediocrity that has characterized the team since its return to the league.