The strain of another losing season rests on players and fans alike following yesterday's season finale and the team's worst performance of the season. Fan frustration will predictably spill simultaneously toward cries for a Holmgren-picked messiah who can deliver the promise of winning right away --- and also frustration at the prospect of rebooting.
And with new players that fit a new coach's scheme. Or simply new players and change.
The situation harkens back to 2000. Back then, the coach finished his second season with a similarly disappointing finish to a losing season after allowing 42 points in a season finale following losses of 23-0, 26-3, and 31-3 piled up in embarrassing fashion during the course of the season.
The 2000 team and coach? Not the Browns and not coach Palmer.
Some guy named Mike Holmgren, who had finished 6-10 in year two for the Seattle Seahawks.
Mike Holmgren saw an offense that needed help as he drafted a big play wide receiver with his top pick in round one and drafted for an improved offensive line as he returned for year three. Holmgren hit big with Steve Hutchinson at guard and with a late round one pick and also with Floyd Womack in round four. Holmgren swung and missed with his pick at wide receiver and a player with issues.
What do similar and familiar needs signal to Holmgren? Will Holmgren make reference to his own experience and a 9-7 finish in year three? Will he remember that his first winning campaign was followed by another losing season before a string of winning seasons and a trip to the Super Bowl in year seven? Or will Holmgren reboot?
There are good signs. The numbers show that the Browns are headed in a direction of consistency associated with winning teams:
- Entering yesterday's season finale, the Browns ranked 3rd in fewest penalties per game - signaling a well disciplined and well coached team. Winning teams tend to play disciplined football, and the Browns rank right ahead of perennially playoff-bound Indianapolis, Green Bay and New England. Not surprisingly, the 2008 team Mangini inherited was among league leaders in most penalties. Mangini succeeded in taking one of the loudest complaints in the call to fire Romeo Crennel and made it a team strength.
- Of the 12 teams heading to the playoffs, 9 of the 12 teams have had both coaches and quarterbacks in place for a while.
- Rob Ryan in last Friday's news conference was quick to point out other measurables. The Browns are ranked seventh in points allowed, sixth in red-zone defense and 9th in takeaways. The Chicago Bears and the Steelers are the only other teams in the top 10 in those categories.
- Entering yesterday's game the Browns were the only team to not give up 30 points to another team. Embarrassing losses happen and good teams can have at least one mulligan, too. Pittsburgh gave up 39 points in losing to New England. New England gave up 34 points in losing by 20 points to the Cleveland Browns. A 10-6 Chiefs team was shut out 31-0 by San Diego--- amidst other losses by more than 20 points. Yesterday's game not withstanding, coach Mangini may have led a marginally talented roster to play some of the most consistent ball of any team in the NFL this season. Arguments to the contrary and aimed at successive losses to the Bengals and Bills miss the bigger picture and an impressive one.
The ability of a newly assembled Browns roster to be in the same company as veteran and perennial playoff teams in stats like penalties is no small achievement and a testimony to the head coach.
The difference between the Browns and these other teams? Talent. Few who witnessed yesterday's disappointing loss would be able to make the case that any Brown's linebackers or wide receivers would start for Pittsburgh.
If the difference between the 2010 Browns team and league leaders is talent, Mangini's approach to bring in players who understand his system and can serve as mentors to the team's young and top talent is paying dividends --- and quickly in some cases and on both sides of the ball.
- By all measures, Colt McCoy has exceeded expectations of a third round draft pick. By McCoy's own admission, he has grown a lot when watching film of his first game against Pittsburgh and comparing himself to where he is now. There are few signals to suggest this is a coaching staff holding back the young QB. They have opened the playbook for Colt McCoy at a pace consistent with his growth and development.
- Coach Mangini is not one prone to exaggeration, but commented this week on Joe Haden's play and progress as ‘huge, huge, huge improvement. Huge'. Mangini is mentioned as personally involved and instrumental in coaching up Joe Haden. Coach Ryan also recognizes Haden's improvement and play as "phenomenal".
Mangini and Heckert appear to grow together and, to outside observers, is a relationship that appears to be working. They are identifying green sticker players who can develop in Mangini's system.
Who knows what churn may happen amidst a new coach working with Tom Heckert. The marriage of egos isn't an easy task, and we need not look any further than the Mangini/Kokonis experiment to understand familiarity and a past relationship may not signal for the best combination in new roles and relationships.
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After yesterday's finale, the ball is now in Mike Holmgren's court.
Will Holmgren agree with coaches of divisional foes who are smart enough to be perennial players in the playoff's and in their honest assessment?
"This team over the last two years just keeps getting better and better,'' said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "This is a legitimate football team. How many close games have they played in? You just go down and look at the scores and you're like, ‘oh my goodness.' Then they dominate two of the best teams in the league — the Patriots and the Saints. We haven't been able to do that this year against that kind of competition. This football team is really, really good. They may have their quarterback. I think they're really well-coached on both sides of the ball and special teams".
Will Mike Holmgren see a team being developed in the mold of a winning program with a young coach but still absent top-end talent to compete with divisional foes? Did Holmgren just witness a veteran team ladened with top talent that played at the top of their game?
Is Mike Holmgren less than the teacher and mentor he advertised himself to be last summer, and is his relationship with Mangini less than what is needed to continue to grow an organization and team in the right direction?
Does Holmgren lack faith in Mangini? Or himself?
And if a new coach, hand-picked by Mike Holmgren, arrives amidst fan expectations that the team is lacking a messiah at head coach that can deliver with the talent on board and we don't win... where to next?