BEREA, Ohio — These Cleveland Browns keep making franchise history in January, just not the kind made on the field in playoff games.
Two Januaries ago they replaced Romeo Crennel, a defensive-minded coach who struggled mightily with things like clock management on game day, and who had just completed a disappointing season in which a dominant win over the defending Super Bowl champions was overshadowed by too many losses.
In came Eric Mangini, not just as head coach but as the authoritarian emperor. No one in position to reach Browns owner Randy Lerner reminded him that he was the only one among his NFL peers pursuing Mangini, who'd just been fired by the Jets. Apparently, no one reminded Lerner that the Browns had been down that emperor road with the less-than-great Butch Davis — and also down the road of trying a Bill Belichick assistant with ties to the Browns.
This January history these "new" Browns keep making? It's not happening by accident. And it keeps repeating itself.
Among Mangini's first acts as Browns boss: trade Kellen Winslow, sign Robert Royal and install a Sun Tzu quote on a mural at the players entrance to the team's training facility: "Every battle is won before it is ever fought." That mural eventually got moved, but the quote still was displayed prominently outside the locker room.
Mangini loved history. He loved and embraced the Browns' history, too — he'd broken into the NFL as a ballboy and public relations intern in Cleveland — but after a 1-11 start in '09 with a roster Mangini had shaped with Jets retreads, a bunch of special teamers and zero dangerous receivers, someone reminded Lerner that the Browns weren't exactly scaring the rest of the NFL. Lerner went in search of a "strong, credible football leader," and found one in Mike Holmgren.
Almost a year to the day after he left a year of riding a Harley and playing golf in Arizona to become president of the Browns, Holmgren fired Mangini on Monday morning. At the afternoon press conference, Holmgren insisted he had no regrets about keeping Mangini the previous January, but the gap between the Browns and the bullies of the AFC North, the Steelers and Ravens, did not shrink during that time.
Now that it's history, it's clear Mangini never really had a chance with the guy many around the building call "Coach." Holmgren's background is with high-scoring offenses. Mangini's Browns offenses were offensive. Holmgren talked Monday about not "painting himself into a corner" with his next coach. That's exactly the spot he was in with the detail-oriented, defensive-minded Mangini, who stubbornly emphasized smarts and versatility and, come Sundays, loved to play for three points.
Even with an aggressive offseason spurred by Holmgren and new general manager Tom Heckert, the 2010 Browns still didn't have enough players. Heckert made some trades that netted the Browns' biggest weapon in Peyton Hillis and a couple Mangini-type guys in Sheldon Brown and Chris Gocong. The Browns signed and got production from two more of similar ilk, Ben Watson and Scott Fujita. The rookies looked good, and Colt McCoy's flashes brought real optimism both internally and to a win-starved fan base, and almost made up for the fact that Mangini actually started Jake Delhomme in a quarter of the season's games.
Again, this whole "start again" thing that keeps happening is no accident.
Mangini did some good things with the Browns. Before he had to turn over the really fancy keys to Holmgren he gutted, updated and significantly upgraded the entire training facility. He beat the Steelers — just once, but that was more than Crennel did in four years. In back-to-back games this season, his Browns outsmarted, outschemed and dominated the Patriots and Saints. The Saints won the Super Bowl last year. The Patriots haven't lost since, but the Browns never sustained the momentum they built that day.
History. Because it's a bottom-line business, and because he won only 10 games in two years, Mangini's run with the Browns is just that. In all of three plays against the Steelers Sunday — the team against which all Browns coaches are measured — it was clear he was going out like Custer.
So a January tradition in Berea is reborn, and soon the Browns will start in another new direction. They'll hire a new staff, try to get the fan base re-energized and, eventually, replace that Sun Tzu quote. If there's one thing constantly on the postseason to-do list for the Browns' maintenance folks, it's stock up on white paint.