McBride: The Holmgren Bubble

Why the media won't criticize Mike Holmgren. And why they should. OBR Publisher Barry McBride looks at the early tenure of a Team President, who is still finding his way.

Mike Holmgren is new in town, and being a newcomer is about the only insulation from criticism that the front office of the Cleveland Browns can expect.

Phil Savage had several years before the tide turned against him. Fans even rallied to his side to save his job following his first season in Cleveland. Butch Davis had three years before the calls came for his scalp, aided by visible improvement during the team's first two seasons under his watch.

Holmgren, likewise, will get an extended honeymoon in Cleveland. His buffer of goodwill will last longer than most because of his track record, and due to the organization's pampering of key media outlets. Don't underestimate how Browns coverage is influenced by business relationships between the team, Plain Dealer, WTAM, WKYC and Larry Dolan's cable channel. For a lot of fans, these outlets dominate their perceptions about the team, and they will handle the front office with velvet gloves.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the hopes of Browns fans center around Holmgren and the perception that he can bring respectability to the organization. Since Holmgren and Heckert are well-known and generally respected, national media attention has been almost entirely positive. There is a lot of mild praise about the team being headed in the right direction, which derives almost entirely from the generally high regard in which Holmgren and Tom Heckert are held.

But now times are getting tough in a hurry. In difficult seasons, the local media will naturally split between over-the-top attention-seeking histrionics from traffic and rating-seeking outlets and relatively mild criticism coming from "official" outlets approved by the team. Surf around the web and the radio this beautiful Cleveland Monday, and it's easy to see the same old patterns developing.

Which is why I feel it is important that the Orange and Brown Report calmly, logically, strive to report on the issues facing the team rather than jumping headlong into one of these two camps.

In my opinion, some of the despair Browns fans feel right now is due to their Team President failing to get his footing quickly, and refusing to put his own distinctive stamp on the organization. Perhaps, if spotted early, things can be turned around before Mike Holmgren becomes another story of local football failure. This is why it's acceptable, if not essential, to put even the town's designated football hope under the microscope.

* * *

In Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, it's suggested that the behavior of large groups can be mathematically plotted, and the future of civilizations divined from equations.

I don't know if this is true - the same priniple certainly fails with respect to predicting the weather - but it may be possible when it comes to the limited arena of predicting how the Brownsverse will respond to another year of struggle.

It's a familiar pattern: First, come the calls for the quarterback. Then come the calls for the offensive coordinator. Once he's been tossed under the bus, the call will come for the head coach. If Eric Mangini wants to survive with his job intact for as long as possible, he'll put off changing those first two things as long as he can.

Criticism generally climbs the organizational chart like a vine, its rate of growth depending on the severity of the team's struggles. When the team fails to improve after changing the quarterback and play-caller, the head coach will become entangled. Unless there's rapid success after these changes, criticism will slowly extend its tendrils into the upper tiers of the organization.

The fundamental problem the team faces, of course, is that the talent on the roster is decidedly mediocre, particularly at offensive skill positions. Neither Delhomme or Wallace are in the top half of quarterbacks in the NFL, and their young receiving corps is, frankly, at this point expansion-team quality. Some of this is due to Mangini's Scorched Earth policy in 2009, as he dumped the team's most talented skill players in the name of locker room harmony.

Despite the wealth of coaching experience at his disposal, there's no magical scheme that Daboll can employ which will hide this basic issue for long. Many realize this, but, unfortunately, Daboll's play-calling is flaky enough that his prospects for continued employment are fragile at best.

So, Daboll will be the first to go. The pitchforks are already being gathered. There won't be magical fixes, as there weren't when Seneca Wallace started this Sunday, and the vine will continue climbing.

* * *

I do remember one exception to this pattern: It took only three months for the vultures to start circling Eric Mangini.

I suspect that the instant savaging of Mangini was partly due to Cleveland's inferiority complex, and the assumption that rabid criticism from New York needed to be repeated here. Almost immediately, the local media started printing nearly anything negative that an agent or player would tell them, be their complaints be about trvial matters such as escalating water bottle fines or enforced bus trips. In most cases, the reporting was not only lazy but dubiously accurate, and it succeeded mostly in advancing the self-promotion of the reporters involved. Because of this, Mangini never got the benefit of the doubt that is being lavished on Mike Holmgren.

In this context, only a few media outlets retained a sense of fairness to Mangini, among them Plain Dealer Designated Nice Guy Terry Pluto and, I'm proud to say, the OBR's Lane Adkins.

The same critics vanished into the woodwork as the team turned things around later in the season, as weaker opponents, good fortune with injuries, cold weather, and a reduction in turnovers allowed Mangini's Browns to compensate for their roster weaknesses. As much as Mangini deserves criticism for many of his decisions, he deserves immense credit for holding the team together in 2009.

For whatever reason, the media critics who went after Mangini three months into his reign are unwilling to go after Holmgren after eight months. Again, this may just be the local media echoing what they think they're supposed to say based on the opinions voiced by their more famous colleagues, or may be reflective of the organization's savvy approach with the media.

But if you look beyond all today's fist-pumping histrionics aimed at replacing offensive coordinators, you'll see that Holmgren's start in Cleveland has been marked by a number of mistakes. Here is a list of Holmgren's decisions that deserve appropriate questioning:

1. Retaining Eric Mangini

Holmgren elected to keep the Browns head coach for another season, based partially on the late 2009 turnaround and Holmgren's own sympathy for the coach. As polls around the league show, however, Mangini may be an effective coach in many ways, but the perception among players is that they don't want to play for him. Mangini's reputation, created partially by his own benavior and partially by attention-seeking reporting, gives the rebuilding club a perhaps-insurmountable challenge when it comes to improving the roster. Mangini needs to go back to being a defensive coordinator for a few years, reverse his reputation, and get some successes under his belt.

Fifteen years ago, I felt that Bill Belichick would ultimately be a successful head coach, and that his Cleveland failure would aid his development. I feel the same way about Mangini, assuming his personality allows him to make an honest self-assessment about his successes and failures in both New York and Cleveland.

2. Investing in Jake Delhomme

During the off-season, the Cleveland Browns dumped quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, neither of whom were ever going to emerge in the top half of NFL quarterbacks. They were replaced by Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace, to whom the same description applies. While most media observers, including this site, were happy with Delhomme's performance in the pre-season, his quick reversion to the habits of 2009 in Week One is a very deep concern. The team spent the off-season telling us that Delhomme's issues last season weren't physical. That infers they were mental and psychological, which can be devastating and impossible-to-resolve at this level of competition. Ask any golfer or baseball player the importance of the mental game, especially as competition heightens. Holmgren, a reputed quarterback guru, appears to have swung and missed.

3. Handling Jim Brown

While most of the media have turned their scorn on the Browns running back, perhaps deservedly, the mis-handling of the Brown situation around the recent Ring of Honor ceremony was not exactly a challenge to detect in its infancy. The running back may not be rational in how he deals with slights, but he's at least consistent, and the team wound up embarrassed by his reaction to how he was managed.

4. Neglecting the Wide Receiver Position

While this could perhaps more properly be pinned on GM Tom Heckert, Mike Holmgren is assumed to have significant influence in all areas of the offense and, in particular, the passing game. While watching yesterday's game against the Chiefs, it was impossible not to notice the role played by veteran WR Chris Chambers. With such a young receiving corps, which lacked both a track record and respect in the league, the Browns went into the season making a huge gamble in the pass-happy NFL. The Browns made a conscious decision to stand pat with their roster at the position, and refused to import the experienced receiver help that nearly every observer said they needed. Now they are paying the price.

5. Failing to Embrace His Own Experience

Romeo Crennel faced a lot of criticism during his tenure here, but none of that was around his decision to go with what he knew: The 3-4 defense. While Crennel gave lip service to sticking with the 4-3 during his first few months, the move to the linebacker-friendly scheme he knew so well was inevitable the moment he walked in the door.

As with the decision to retain Eric Mangini, Holmgren is showing considerable empathy for his coaching staff and allowing them the freedom to make their own mistakes. Trust me, I can personally relate to this, and even in my little business, it has created many challenges.

Sometimes it's better for everyone for a leader to simply impose his or her vision of what they want, and not project themselves onto the plight of employees. I've rarely managed to put my empathy aside when making business decisions, and Holmgren is displaying the same tendencies.

Mike Holmgren knows the West Coast Offense, and is one of the league's foremost practitioners of the offensive strategy. He knows how to evaluate players for the scheme, how to develop a playbook for it, and the appropriate play-calling structure to support it. Allowing Brian Daboll to muddle along, mixing and matching his ideas about the Wildcat, Flash, Cyclone, Kitchen Sink - or whatever this week's offensive fashion happens to be - does neither him or the organization favors.

If I could offer some advice born mostly from my own experience and mistakes, it would be that Mike Holmgren needs to realize that it's all right to say what you want and change the organization to support it. After decades of struggle, the Cleveland Browns organization needs vision, direction, and a plan to get there. None of that is visible at this point, despite the gratuitous yammering in the national media that the "team is headed in the right direction".

Holmgren needs to truly take charge, for better or for worse. Randy Lerner invested in him because of his experience, his track record, and his vision. He owes it to his employer to put his version of the Cleveland Browns on the field to fail or succeed. So far, muddled half-steps have failed to move the team forward. We can, and should, expect more, and not be afraid to voice it.

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