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The Great Escape
January 8, 2010 · By Gary Benz
If this were Hollywood, it could easily pass as a remake for The Great Escape.  Just know, though that is sports, particularly football in Cleveland,  thus significant hand wringing was probably involved.

To the surprise of some, apparently, new Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren today decided that Eric Mangini could co-exist in the new organization that Holmgren is building.  Exactly how Holmgren came to that conclusion may not be known but whether it proves to be the right assessment will play out in the weeks and months to come.

After a miserable 1-11 start that had nearly everyone calling for Mangini's head, the Browns improbably won their final four games, leading many to conclude that the Browns really were headed in the right direction.

That late season win streak shouldn't be overvalued or under appreciated.  It gave Browns' fans some needed good news but it didn't automatically erase the three months of hell that preceded it, either.  Ultimately, it was just another data point in a season filled with thousands of them.

But as data points go, it was enough to convince Holmgren, along with whatever else Mangini had to say in his defense, that Mangini could lead this team each and every Sunday and do it in a manner that reflected the vision of his boss.

For Mangini, this is a transformation of near historical proportions.

From the looks of things, Mangini appeared to be done within 24 hours after he orchestrated the ouster of former general manager George Kokinis.   Of all the mistakes Mangini made in his short time in Cleveland thus far, this was by far the worst. That power grab had two significant impacts on Mangini's future in Cleveland, neither of them good.

First, irrespective of how it was done the fact that it was done made the Browns a bigger joke on the national stage than they already were.  And that's going some.  Browns fans have gotten used to a high degree of dysfunction when it comes to this franchise so they probably didn't appreciate the impact that the Kokinis firing really had on the franchise and Lerner from a national perspective.  But it was substantial.

The Browns to that point already looked like a franchise that couldn't tell its ass from an apple.  Mangini seemed to be at war with the media, the league, the players and the union and was being called the worst hire ever nationally.  Lerner looked like a buffoon.  It was a situation that Lerner could no longer tolerate.  It forced him to conclude, in words that Mangini should have realized were a dig at him, that the Browns needed a serious, credible leader.  Obviously, to Lerner at least, that person wasn't Mangini.

Second, it solidified in the mind of established league players, folks like Holmgren for example, that Mangini doesn't play well with others.  It's almost irrelevant whether or not it's actually true.  Perception became reality.

Remember, Mangini had just been fired in New York.  He had a frosty relation with Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum who declared, just three years into Mangini's tenure, that the organization needed a new direction.  Mangini, too, had laid waste to his relationship with Bill Belichick, setting it ablaze in spectacular fashion.  Whether or not Mangini was technically correct about Belichick's misconduct, Mangini looked like a rat and to many, that's a far worse crime.

All of this is context to both the schism that developed between Mangini and Kokinis, who was handpicked by Mangini to be the general manager in the first place, and the decision facing Holmgren regarding Mangini's future. 

The fact that Holmgren was hired may have been the first clear sign that Mangini's future looked to be elsewhere, but there were others as well.  Pointedly, in Holmgren's first conversation with the media he didn't give Mangini any sort of vote of confidence.  That confirmed that Lerner put no shackles on Holmgren from the outset.

Then, in that same call, Holmgren pointedly said that the biggest mistake he made in his professional career came in Seattle when he didn't put his own people in place from the outset.  He didn't criticize those he inherited, but he was clear that their way of operating didn't match his and the organization suffered as a result.

When Holmgren arrived in Cleveland on Tuesday, he told the media that he gave Mangini some issues to think about before the two would get together the next day.  It's pretty safe to assume that he pressed Mangini to honestly assess whether he could operate in a structure significantly different than he was operating under before Holmgren arrived.  Holmgren didn't want to just know whether Mangini could accept two new layers of management.  He wanted to know whether Mangini could fully embrace the kinds of changes operationally that Holmgren intends to implement, changes that in many instances were probably at odds with Mangini's philosophies.

It would have been easy, very easy, for Holmgren to cast Mangini adrift on a ship called "Creative Differences."  It happens all the time.  That wouldn't have meant that Holmgren believed Mangini was a lousy coach, just a coach that did things too differently.  Yet, improbably Mangini managed to escape the shrapnel of all of these grenades to coach another day in Cleveland.

My sense is that some of the other stuff, such as the divide that developed between Mangini and some of the players, didn't move Holmgren's needle that much.  Holmgren is a coach at heart and in that role he knows full well the wisdom in what Casey Stengel once said about what it takes to be a successful manager: keep the five guys who hate you away from the four guys who haven't made up their minds.

Holmgren, as thoughtful of a person as exists in the game, put Mangini through his paces and came to the conclusion that keeping him was the right move.  It's unlikely that this is merely an interim step, either.  If Holmgren had any doubts that Mangini was the right person for the long haul, he would have gone in a separate direction.

On this score, there will be no second guessing of Holmgren.  His track record in the league has earned him the benefit of the doubt.  Like many others, Holmgren probably figured that with Mangini it wasn't the coaching so much as the other things that always clouded everyone's judgment of him.  With those duties now dispersed elsewhere in the organization, Mangini is now free to establish himself as a credible head coach.

And if Mangini is that credible head coach, he can do it with a West Coast offense of a 4-3 defense or all the hundreds of other little things that will be different from this point forward.

If Mangini thought he already was putting in long hours inside the Berea complex, he'll probably look back and realize that was mostly a picnic.  For Mangini, as much as for Holmgren, the real work is about to begin.


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