When the Browns hired Mike Holmgren to clear out the giant mess they had on their hands and rebuild their team from scratch at the beginning of 2010, Cleveland fans knew they were in for something different than what they had been presented with for the last decade.
This was it—no more no-name GMs, vague rebuilding plans, and excuse-making. This was Mike Holmgren, he of Packer glory, with the shiny Super Bowl trophies and impressive resume. No more lip service from the Browns. This was the miracle worker who was going to change it all.
Lovely sentiment, but the problem with being cast as a miracle worker is that people expect, well, miracles. Holmgren, like every other mortal human, cannot perform them.
And thus the questions began to arise, quietly at first, but getting louder by the minute. Does he really know what he's doing? Did he promise us something he can't deliver? Suddenly "The Plan" was looking very, very iffy.
Yet Holmgren never claimed to be a miracle worker—that was an ideal projected onto him by a fanbase so starved for success that they could convince themselves that the Easter Bunny would bring them a Super Bowl.
I can sympathize. Ideally, we all wanted the mess that was the Browns to be fixed overnight. But if we really want to evaluate how The Plan is working, we have to take a step back from what we were wishing for and take a look at it in terms of whether it is working in a progressive sense according to the timetable that Holmgren and company promised.
Following is a look at how The Plan is really progressing according to the actual timetable originally presented by Holmgren and his staff. How far the offense has come, how far the defense has come, whether the plan appears to be progressing as promised on the whole, and finally, whether we should expect that someday it might actually work.
Is it too early for such an evaluation? Probably.
But if we truly evaluate the progress of Holmgren's plan according to the timetable he promised it would begin to work on, rather than according to how quickly we wish everything would fall perfectly into place, we should be able to get some idea of whether The Plan is likely to be everything it was cracked up to be.
When Mike Holmgren and the Browns' version of a disaster relief corps came to town, it was tough to determine which was the bigger mess they had on their hands—the offense or the defense.
In the end, it didn't matter much, as Holmgren immediately started an overhaul on both sides of the ball.
Holmgren, a direct descendant of the namesake of the Bill Walsh Coaching Tree, predictably started the process of moving the Browns into a west coast offensive system.
When examining offensive overhauls and the players involved, it's often a chicken-or-the-egg thing—was the system created to best suit the players available, or were players chosen because they fit well into the desired system?
In the Browns case, it may be a bit of both, though many of the key players on offense were brought in specifically to fit the mold.
Colt McCoy is, of course, the prime example. His strengths and abilities are perfectly suited to a traditional WCO. He is still learning, but so far he is looking like an excellent fit.
The story with the receivers is a little different. Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie and Josh Cribbs were already with the Browns when Holmgren arrived in town.
Cribbs doesn't really belong in this discussion, but Massaquoi and Robiskie might make a good case that the system was designed around the players already on the team.
As convenient a theory as that is, though, I highly doubt Holmgren would have any interest in building an offense around players like these two. It's more likely they were kept around because they happen to fit into the system Holmgren was planning to install.
And then there is Greg Little, who was drafted in part because he's a good fit for the Browns' system as well.
Overall, The Plan on offense seems to be progressing nicely, if a bit slower than we would all like. But before we start jumping up and down in frustration that things aren't happening faster here, remember that the timetable Holmgren gave said the Browns would turn the corner in 2012, and thus far, the offense seems to be on pace to do that.
On the defensive side of the ball, The Plan wasn't as clear from the outset.
The Browns spent 2010 in a 3-4 system and switched to the 4-3 in 2011. We can speculate that 2010 was merely the last of the Mangini hangover and Holmgren was content to let the 3-4 play out in what he probably knew from the get-go was Mangini's last season, biding his time until he could install a 4-3, but we probably won't ever know that for a fact.
Whether it was in the works all along or not, the move to the 4-3 was immediately put into motion as soon as the 2010 season came to an end—and probably much earlier behind closed doors.
As with the offense, the defense, despite already appearing to be worlds better than it was in the recent past and in a 3-4 scheme, still has a ways to go before it achieves the actualization promised by The Plan. Again though, Holmgren and his staff said 2012.
And the defense—at least thus far—appears to be on track to make that deadline.
Clearly, the issues at linebacker still need to be addressed. The pass rush still needs work, the defensive line is young and still learning, and we still see a lot of silly mistakes and mental errors in the secondary.
But if you're paying attention to Holmgren's timetable for The Plan, those things are to be expected at this point. Thus far it seems reasonable, given the rate the defense is progressing at, to assume they'll make that 2012 deadline.
So of course, what we're left with is that, as I cautioned in the opening paragraphs, it's simply too early to tell whether The Plan is going to work. But what we are seeing is that the team seems to be hitting the invisible markers along the way to getting where it needs to be.
In other words, so far, so good.
It's also important to remember, as over-eager as we all are, that no one promised a Super Bowl in 2012—merely that that would be the year that the team would turn the corner and fight for contention.
While we haven't even reached the season where we were told to expect a visible turnaround, I already hear a lot of grumblings that Holmgren, Heckert, and the rest of the staff aren't delivering.
I know it's frustrating to have to wait, especially when your team has been so bad for so many years, but Holmgren and his staff cannot work miracles, nor did they promise anyone they would.
Everybody wants to be that team that brings in some sort of football genius who turns them from zeroes to heroes overnight.
But guess what? That guy is an NFL urban legend. I don't care how much of a football genius you are, nobody takes a team that is an absolute disaster and turns it into a contender in two seasons.
So let the rumblings cease—at least for this year. Holmgren has not yet given us any reason to believe that his plan isn't going to work.
He respected us by being honest about how long it would take to fully actualize the plan and put a contender on the field in Cleveland. So let's respect him in kind by granting him the amount of time he asked for to get us what we want.