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Healing The Wounds
January 13, 2010 · By Gary Benz

Time heals all wounds as much as it wounds all heals.  Case in point is Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini.  

A year ago he was the full-of-himself new sheriff in town quickly and nosily putting his imprint on the Browns.  It mattered little that there was a general manager, hand picked by Mangini at that, in his path.  He had a direct line to owner Randy Lerner which was pretty heady stuff for someone who had just been fired for, among other things, being a full-of-himself pain in the butt in New York.   

Indeed, Mangini's presence in Cleveland then was of such overwhelming force that Tom Heckert, Jr., then the Philadelphia Eagles general manager, withdrew his name from consideration for the same position in Cleveland.  Heckert wanted to hire his own head coach more than he wanted Mangini thrust upon him. 

Fast forward those 12 months and all the miles in between and now Mangini finds himself chastened by the turn of events he set in motion and Heckert finds himself as the Browns' new general manager even though he didn't get a chance to hire his own head coach and even though he had Mangini thrust upon him.  And everyone seems perfectly happy with all of it. 

What's changed?  Everything.  The version of the Browns today is by far, by leaps and bound far, by country miles far, by night and day far, by farther than far, the most professional version since probably the Marty Schottenheimer days. 

There is an owner in place that has no interest in meddling in anything, content is he to simply write checks and occasionally watch the team from the tunnel.  There is a president in place that is as credible of a football mind as exists in professional football today.  There is a general manager in place that actually has a proven track record of success as a general manager.  There is a general counsel in place to oversee the legal issues that this team tends to get embroiled in too often that is a respected legal mind on the fast track to league-insider status.  Then there is Mangini. 

I'm not sold on Mangini.  But I am sold on Holmgren and trust his judgment.  If after interviewing Mangini formally and informally for the last few weeks he's convinced that Mangini can be an asset to this franchise, then the decision deserves every bit as much of the benefit of the doubt as does Holmgren's hiring of Heckert. 

Holmgren's decision to keep Mangini and how that decision interplays with the hiring of Heckert seemed to stem from a number of factors.  Holmgren's convinced, for example, that Mangini is a team player.  That's probably the most debatable point.  Mangini has developed a track record of discarding members of his teams in very dramatic ways when it suits his self-interest. 

Holmgren also seemed impressed in the way Mangini's team recovered from an incredibly bad start to finish strong.  It's not worth arguing this point, either, but let's just say there's plenty of valid counterpoints to the whole "we're on the right track because we beat 4 straight non-playoff teams" kind of thinking.   

Ultimately, though, it seems that the decision to keep Mangini was professional courtesy.  It just seems to rub Holmgren the wrong way to dump a head coach, any head coach, after one season.  Holmgren seems to have taken a look at the landscape, concluded that it would have been difficult for anyone to have had success in such a dysfunctional environment and absolved Mangini of his role in creating that dysfunction. 

Having grown up schooled in the Belichick way, Mangini really didn't know any other way of operating.  The Jets were not a Belichick-inspired organization and that, as much as anything, is what made it difficult for Mangini to survive there.  Having been hired immediately in Cleveland gave Mangini no sense that there were even problems in his approach.  

It's not even so much that Mangini's vaunted process failed him so much as it is that he was ill-equipped to oversee it.  If this past season has proven anything it's that Mangini works best when he can concentrate on coaching.  Putting himself in charge of everything created the disaster that ultimately led to Holmgren's hiring. 

Holmgren obviously sensed the same thing and said as much in his press conference.  Heckert is now in charge on the roster and Mangini is in charge of getting that roster to play winning football.  Technically, that's what the structure looked like a year ago, too.  But with Holmgren and not Lerner ensuring that the boys play nice together, it's far less likely for the general manager to get cut off at the knees.  That's a far different scenario than was presented to candidates like Heckert a year ago and is why, ultimately, Heckert is in Cleveland today. 

Browns fans should be excited about not only having Heckert aboard but about the changes that have taken place in the organization that have allowed it to attract a candidate like Heckert in the first place.  Whereas Phil Savage and George Kokinis supposedly were being groomed for a general manager's job while in Baltimore, neither had been in that slot before. 

Moreover, neither of them had any specific public accomplishments while in Baltimore that would give fans confidence that they were the correct hires.  It's likely true that within the Ravens organization each had played significant roles in helping Ozzie Newsome establish the roster, but ultimately it was Newsome that set the course. 

In Philadelphia, Heckert didn't have final say on the roster but he did run the Eagles' draft and in doing so he's been much more successful than the Browns have been in that same period of time.  That as much as anything will determine whether this team is a success because it has as much as anything been responsible for its failures. 

In a way, though, this whole process seems to have been more cathartic to Mangini than anyone could have anticipated.  With plenty of time to absorb the concept that the paradigm he created had dramatically shifted Mangini from all accounts seems to have shifted with it.  

Mangini now enters 2011 in a far different way than he did 2010.  Sure, he's still head coach,  still gets to wear the brown and orange and he kept his parking spot at the Berea location.  But no one inside or outside of Berea sees him as the final word on anything anymore.  

Relieved of that burden,  Mangini may actually turn into a credible head coach.  At least that's what Holmgren and Heckert and banking on.  If that turns out to be the case 12 months from now, then the organization will be far better off as well.

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