It's fair to say that it's been a busy few months for Cleveland Browns head coach, Eric Mangini. First he was dumped, some say unceremoniously, from the New York Jets just days after the regular season ended. Then, almost just as quickly, he was hired by Browns' as owner Randy Lerner saw him as the perfect blend of experience and hunger to lead the latest franchise resurrection. Since then Mangini's been busy putting his fingerprints all over Berea while pondering just how to prioritize the Browns' makeover. In the meantime he's spent some time paying homage to the mentor he no longer speaks to, Bill Belichick, by cultivating his own image as a media curmudgeon who likewise has perfected the art of talking while saying nothing.
Thus it is with some surprise that Mangini is being taken to task by Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com for doing something that seems so out of character-talking. According to Florio, Mangini's public statements about the Browns' interest in New York Giants free-agent-to-be Derrick Ward could possibly be considered tampering. The theory is that Ward, part of the Giants' running-back-by-committee, isn't free to negotiate with other teams until free agency begins on February 27. Until that time the Giants have the exclusive right to negotiate with him. By Mangini expressing his interest, he's arguably upped the price the Giants might have to pay to retain Ward.
In a technical sense, Florio has a point. As a practical matter, the chances of the league considering this kind of relatively innocuous public comment as tampering is as thin as the Browns' 2009 Super Bowl chances. Decent running backs are always in demand, something both the Giants and Ward's agents already know. Besides, if the Giants are really worried about losing Ward, they can slap a franchise tag on him and be done with it.
Still, this bit of "inside football" that Mangini engaged in does have the chance of coming back to bite him, eventually. That's assuming, of course, the Browns ever have potential free agents that are in demand by other teams. If/when that happens, it would surprise no one if the Giants, or some other team, return the favor by dropping a similar vial of blood into the shark-infested waters the media swims in by expressing their interest in a Browns' free agent. And just as the Giants aren't really making much of Mangini's comments about Ward, it will be up to Mangini to take the high road then as well, knowing that loose lips, deliberate or otherwise, may not sink ships but ultimately they will cost you money.
One of the great things about combine week in the NFL is how overheated the stories become on a daily basis. Not an hour goes by when someone isn't talking about some college player whose stock has risen and another whose stock has taken a dive based on something that happened at the combine.
What fans need to remember most, however, is to take all of this with a 55-gallon drum full of salt. The combine is far less about actually taking the measure of players and far more about giving teams a forum to spread as much disinformation as possible about their plans. That the teams do this on the back of college kids may be a bit unseemly, but as Hyman Roth would say, "this is the business we chose."
If you follow the stories just this week about the Browns, they plan on taking a linebacker, or maybe a defensive end, or just maybe a right tackle. Running back intrigues them. They plan on keeping quarterback Derek Anderson, or maybe they'll trade him for draft picks. Josh Cribbs may move to safety or maybe running back. Sean Jones is a player the Browns like or maybe they don't.
In other words, the charade the Browns are perpetrating in Indianapolis is a variation of the same game being played by the other 31 teams in the league. There simply is no way to discern what either Mangini or general manager George Kokinis may be thinking based either on what they do or what they say in Indianapolis.
Far more instructive is discerning Mangini's tendencies and this team's needs. In this case, they more or less fit hand in glove. Mangini will build this team from the defense on out and in much the same way he watched Belichick build his teams. When it comes to offense, he'll concentrate first and foremost on the line.
That means that Mangini wants versatile defensive backs. A one-dimensional safety will have no room in Mangini's defense. It also means that he will want to find a linebacker that can do all the things that a player like Mike Vrabel in New England does for the Patriots. Speed will trump size. Mangini also likes big strong athletes on his defensive and offensive lines. He took former Ohio State Buckeye Vernon Gholston to do that job last year on defense, and former Buckeye Nick Mangold the year before to do that on the offensive line. He also signed Alan Faneca from the Steelers as well. That means overweight space eaters on either side of the ball better find another team.
Thus, if you're handicapping this year's draft and free agency sweepstakes and you remember even for a second the huge gaps this team has before it can field a credible 3-4 defense, then forget the receivers and running backs (sorry, Beanie, though you'd look great in a Browns uniform) and focus more on Aaron Curry, Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews, Jr. and even James Laurinaitis. Mangini may be tempted to zag when everyone expects him to zig, but this is hardly the year to be clever. Mangini and Kokinis need to be right and with the linebacker prospects out there, it affords them the opportunity to be both safe and right, which is never a bad thing.
It was interesting to hear that Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli heaped enthusiastic praise on new Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz at the combine on Saturday. According to Marla Ridenour in the Akron Beacon Journal, Pioli said "Schwartzie is probably one of the smartest people I've encountered in this business or outside this business. He's brilliant. He's a guy who is really, really hardworking, motivated, strong personality. Tough-minded....Schwartzie is going to be a really good football coach." Wow.
Sure, the two have a history so for most this nugget probably came off as one friend paying his respects to another who finally got the chance he deserved. And maybe that's all it is. Maybe.
But those with a naturally cynical bend may see it as Pioli's explanation of why he didn't end up in Cleveland. As most will recall, Pioli was interviewed early by Lerner and speculation was that he had been given an offer to take over the Browns' football operations. Pioli seemed to have pondered the situation interminably while Lerner supposedly was left to stew in the corner. Whether an offer was made or not to Pioli is still one of the great unknowns, but the bigger question always has centered on why a natural fit like Pioli didn't end up in Cleveland. It seemed inevitable.
Some have speculated that Pioli took a close look at the problems in Berea and decided they were far deeper than he originally thought. I've always doubted this view, if only because someone like Pioli isn't going to shy away from a challenge. If anything, that gives someone like Pioli far more chance to make his mark and reputation than a team that is on autopilot.
Others have speculated that Lerner's fascination with Mangini pushed Pioli away. Mangini and Pioli, who once were friends, no longer are likely because of Mangini's role in the Spygate affair. I think this is far closer to the truth. Those two working together would have been difficult given all the grief Mangini's whistle blowing caused for the Patriots and Pioli.
But don't discount the fact that Lerner didn't give Schwartz a more credible look as head coach as the real reason Pioli didn't sign on in Cleveland. Schwartz was scheduled to interview with Lerner but it got cancelled under the guise of the ubiquitous "scheduling conflict." Had Lerner gone ahead with that interview and, instead, hired Schwartz the strong sense is that Pioli would have come along as well. Even though Pioli wouldn't have had the chance to hire his own head coach, it's pretty clear that he would have embraced the idea of coming to a team with Schwartz as head coach.
In that context, it's easy to view Pioli's words as carrying an undertone of criticism about what did and did not happen in Cleveland. If that is indeed the case, then at least for the next few years, the rivalry worth watching will not be Pioli and the Patriots, but Pioli and Kokinis. Browns fans won't have to wait to long for the first installment. The Browns are at Kansas City in week 13 next season.
By hiring Mangini, Lerner inherited Mangini's Spygate legacy as well. It potentially cost the Browns a chance at Pioli, which leads to this week's question to ponder: What other fallout might there be for the Browns from Mangini's role in Spygate?