Reading Between The Lines: The Mike Holmgren Teleconference

Walsh ViterbiContributor IDecember 30, 2009

SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 21:  Head coach Mike Holmgren of the Seattle Seahawks walks the sidelines during the game against the St. Louis Rams on September 21, 2008 at Qwest Field in Seattle Washington. The Seahawks defeated the Rams 37-13. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Like a school kid waiting for the dismissal bell to ring, Cleveland Browns fans and media eagerly awaited for the clock to strike 5 p.m. yesterday afternoon to hear the new team president, Mike Holmgren, formally introduce himself via conference call from his vacation digs in Phoenix, AZ.

With pencils sharpened and tape recorders capturing his every pause, media, fans (myself included) and perhaps even players and coaches, pensively listened in to what the new leader of the organization had to say.

A few were hopefully optimistic that some questions would be answered. However, replies to many topics were understandably open ended to prevent appearances of NFL rules violations or interference with the current staff's preparation for the final game of the 2009 season.

It was disappointing but not surprising. At the same time, we also heard some refreshingly candid remarks from Holmgren regarding his plans and past faux-pas that Clevelanders have grown unaccustomed to hearing. It was refreashing after several years of coaches who graduated from the Bill Belechick School of Fine Arts majoring in media relations.

"In Seattle, when I went in there the first time, I would say if I had to do it all over again, differently, I would have made some of those changes sooner. It took a couple years to get the right people in place. Now, Mike Reinfeldt is the president of the Tennessee Titans. Ted Thompson, who was with me, I brought in, is now the president of the Green Bay Packers. Scot McCloughan, who was there, is general manager of the San Francisco 49ers. We had a good group of people. If I had to do it all over again, I would have made immediate changes and tried to get the ball rolling a little sooner. That was one thing. Second thing is, in the personnel part of it, our first draft was less than spectacular, because I had really two groups giving me information: the existing group that had been there and the new group that came in with me. We didn’t do a good job with the draft, because I didn’t. I learned from that. Those types of errors, I trust I won’t do again, I won’t make again.”

So, what can we categorically state as gospel from yesterday's call?  Very little. But here is what we know for sure:

  • Mike Holmgren's Roles and Responsibilities. Like the sign on Harry Truman's desk during his tenure as President of the United States that said, "The Buck Stops Here," Holmgren has carte-blanche authority over all decisions in the organization. He does not view his role as a dictator but rather as a republican. Staying true to his breeding by Bill Walsh, the coaches, GM and scouts all give their opinions regarding personnel decisions. It is then Holmgren's decision to make the final ruling. As he stated, the changes will be quick.

“I think so. I think I have way too much responsibility (joking). I am really looking forward to it. It’s quite different than what I’m used to. When I went to Seattle, I went as the coach and general manager and executive vice president. I did have a president that I answered to, who was in between me and the owner. Then my duties changed there, obviously, after about four or five years. This, Randy Lerner is my boss, and I answer to Randy. Then it’s my job to kind of direct traffic and put the organization together after that. I have all the responsibility anyone could ask for, and now I have to hire good people.”

"I get the final say on everything, which is fun. Now, does that mean I go in and pound the desk and say, ‘We have to do this, and this is what we’re going to do?’ No. The coach is involved big time. The general manager is involved. I am going to be involved. I anticipate a couple other really good football men to be involved. It’s always been my experience, with teams that were successful that I was involved with, that it was more of a consensus than one person just saying this is what we’re going to do. Now, I’m there to break the ties. If we can’t come to a consensus, then I see that as my role. As far as specifics and who sets up the 53-man roster, who makes the cuts, how we go do all that kind of staff, I can get into more detail with you when I get there. That’s not one man’s decision, ever, in any organization I’ve ever been in."

  • Will he hire a GM? “I’m going to hire a general manager, yes.”

  • How long is your contract? “Let’s see, it’s a five year contract.”

  • Why Did You Want To Work With The Browns?
    First of all, I knew I wanted to go back to work. For a long time in this year I took off, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to still be on the field coaching or in a different role. Once I made that decision, that I wanted to kind of try something new, then we had a few options. The reason that I am in Cleveland now, and proud to be in Cleveland now, is Randy Lerner. I’ve had the privilege of serving on a lot of committees in the league, know a lot of owners. I call some my friends. I had never really met Randy or spent any time with him. I will tell you this, it was very, very refreshing. Clearly, he wants his football team to do well. When he presented the job to me and what it would entail and the type of access I would have to him and his vision for the team and the fans and the city of Cleveland and all that stuff, as far as I was concerned, he hit a home run. Obviously, the job’s a great job, but I really took this job because of the owner. I think he cares that much, and I really don’t want to let him down.”

Interpreting the rest of the comments and deriving conclusions of the decisions that Holmgren will make is pure prognostication. While many claim to be able to read the tea leaves, no one can really discern what Holmgren's intentions are for sure. I don't think Holmgren even knows for sure! Time will tell. But one of the reasons people like to blog is to prognosticate and to foster constructive conversation with others. Notice I say "constructive."  So with that being said, let's dig into the meat of what everybody wants to know and my two cents.


  • Is Eric Mangini going to be the head coach next year?
    I have not made a decision on Eric. I met with Eric when I was back there for my brief stay and have talked to him on the phone a couple of times about football issues. There are a couple reasons [I have not made a decision]. One, I think it would be really unfair. He’s at the end of finishing his first season there and the team is doing well and clearly responding to him. That type of decision will be made once I get back there. I’m arriving back there on Monday. Eric and I will meet next week, and then we’ll come to some sort of a decision. I didn’t think it was right. He’s working like crazy to finish the season on an upbeat note. We’ll have those discussions next week.

"Eric and I talked about this, I’m not a big fan of the quick hook. I would never do that with quarterbacks when they played for me. I really don’t think one year is enough to prove what you’re trying to get done. Sometimes you go into situations and because of things that you have no control over, all of a sudden the team is suffering. Sometimes you have control over situations and poor decisions are made and that’s another reasons teams [suffer]. That’s what I have to evaluate."

"I wouldn’t be a big fan of just allowing a guy to coach one year and out, but having said that, I haven’t made any decisions yet. Eric and I are going to talk next week. I still have some time to think about this. I want to do what is right for the organization and the Cleveland Browns. That’s my charge. I want to see the team’s record better. I want the organization to be functioning properly. I want the fans to be very proud of their team. That’s the decision I have to make and that’s going to take a little time, not a lot of time, but a little time.”

What I really believe that Holmgren is saying is he has not made up his mind. What an epiphany, right?! But think about it. Besides meeting Mangini briefly in Cleveland a few weeks ago and a few phone calls, it sounds like a lot of ground has not been covered between the two. And intentionally so.

Mike has kept an arms distance away from the team to allow Mangini to run things as he sees fit without Holmgren looking over his shoulder. He wants an honest evaluation of the head coach without Mangini possibly tainting his decisions trying to please the new boss.

Furthermore, it's not a stretch to state that  Holmgren really doesn't even know Mangini. All Holmgren probably knows of Mangini is through the press.  Therefore, his mindset has got be negative at this point in time. As well connected as Holmgren is, I suspect one of the things he's been doing is talking to friends about Mangini and what they hear. 

Part of the debrief next week is going to be Mangini explaining to Holmgren why things went so bad. As Holmgren said, "Sometimes you go into situations and because of things that you have no control over, all of a sudden the team is suffering. Sometimes you have control over situations and poor decisions are made and that’s another reasons teams [suffer]. That’s what I have to evaluate."

Having said this, I think that this is a salient point. Mike Holmgren was brought in to restore credibility to the Cleveland Browns. Part of being credible is being a fair-minded organization. Do players/coaches want to go to an organization where they feel the head is always on the chopping block? 

It makes no sense for Holmgren to just come in and cut Mangini loose.  What coach is going to want to come behind him knowing what just happened to his predecessor? Besides Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders, I can think of no other organization that runs their club that way. We all have seen how successful Oakland has been of late. Remember Richard Seymour earlier this season? 

Even if Holmgren really has already made up his mind and this is just a dog-and-pony show, one of the main reasons he was hired was to give a facelift to the Browns. Raising doubts in potential suitors does not help the job at hand.

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