A couple years ago, I offered something of an attempt to rationalize just what was occurring with the Browns under the leadership of then-coach Eric Mangini. Back in depths of the 2009 season, after the Browns were thumped at Baltimore, I wrote about The Process – or the Military Approach to Better Football. At the time, darkness was quickly setting in on the winless Browns and a feeling of apathy was beginning to fester among a proud fan base.
What follows are some of the highlights of a piece designed to justify any sense of positive momentum the Browns had at the time – or at least one could consider the following as an effort to rationalize what looked like a possible 0-16 record. In any case, it's worth revisiting these words from 2009 as we look ahead to 2011. After all, an expression like "the Process" has become synonymous with Cleveland football during an expansion age.
HOW WE GOT HERE - 2009
"Following a strict adherence to recent Browns history, the rule of thumb for team management is to leave things far worse than they found them. Much as Dwight Clark set the franchise back years in a little over 20 months, the reclamation project started by Butch Davis begat the Phil Savage era, whose flames are slowly being doused by the apple of Randy Lerner's eye, Eric Mangini."
"Instead of providing a clear answer to the question, I offer this instead...the harsh reality of the situation is that Mangini is more than likely Randy Lerner's last hire in Cleveland. And no, I do not believe that Lerner is going to sell the team, basically because much like his life as a whole to this point, Lerner has inherited a cash cow that requires very little effort on his part."
HOW WE GOT HERE - 2011
Both the present evidence and the Browns' future prospects have or will reveal an expansion-age organization that has actually improved from one leader to the next. While the current talent in Cleveland is spread thin, it's obvious that Mangini's contribution to the Browns came in the form of finally instilling a system of accountability and professionalism in his players. Despite only achieving ten wins during his two-year coaching tenure, Mangini's Browns teams showed the kind of discipline and toughness that was lacking over the past decade.
Talent-wise, it's hard to accurately attribute Mangini with either a full share of blame or credit for the current roster's shortcomings. Mangini's 2009 draft delivered a Pro Bowl Center in Alex Mack and two wide receivers in Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie – who have each suffered through drastic stretches of inconsistency. The rest of the draft didn't produce any immediate help, which has stained the ex-coach's reputation as a talent evaluator.
However, any blame assigned to Mangini has to be weighed against his contributions in last year's draft. With the exception of Colt McCoy, Mangini was influential regarding the defensive direction of the draft – which landed starters Joe Haden and T.J. Ward. Also, Mangini had a hand in delivering Peyton Hillis, Evan Moore and Marcus Benard to Cleveland.
But of course, we are all guilty of misses. I firmly believed that Mangini would be Randy Lerner's last hire. Instead, the man who eventually fired Mangini – Mike Holmgren – could now be considered the last of Lerner's hires. After all, Holmgren is essentially the chief executive Lerner thought he was getting in Mangini. And who knows? In a year or two, he may also be a future replacement as head coach.
TEARING DOWN – 2009
"Much like the military process of stripping a recruit down to his or her bare essentials, then rebuilding them as a soldier, it appears that Mangini's version of boot camp is beginning to test the limits of just how much abuse a player can take. Basically, it appears that what Mangini is doing right now is not trying to win games, but rather trying to identify the types of players that he can count on in the future. This is a process that will likely not be stained by a long string of regular season losses, fan discontent or management disagreements."
"Phase Two of the Military Approach to Better Football states that once the team is completely stripped of its confidence, then they are reprogrammed in a more efficient manner. In terms of the Browns, the Mangini Process should be reflected in how the individual players play the game, which could be measured in bigger terms of overall, season-long production, or simply based on how effectively a player ties their shoelaces. And yes, Mangini has gone on the record before stating that this is a key priority for players to embrace."
TEARING DOWN - 2011
Now that the laces have been tied, the players appear to be switching shoes. Although most media outlets haven't offered any direct affirmations, the Browns are clearly entering into a new rebuilding mode. On the defensive side of the ball, players such as Shaun Rogers, Kenyon Coleman, Eric Barton and David Bowens have already been released. Free agents Matt Roth and Abe Elam are likely to follow – assuming that some type of labor resolution occurs over the next few months.
On offense, it appears that a new development is occurring. Instead of removing pseudo-diva distractions in the form of Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow, the Browns now appear poised to simply add a few pieces of talent around a small core of talent. With Colt McCoy installed as the 2011 starter, flanked by the likes of Hillis and a decent offensive line, this offense could return to respectability with the addition of a young wide receiver and some offensive line help.
BUILDING UP – 2009
"Or, another question to ask is how many of the current Browns players will actually survive to realize this process? In barely half a year, Mangini has already turned over more than half of the roster....and it doesn't appear that he will be finished anytime soon."
"Obviously, Mangini is the most competent and talented coach the Browns have had since their 1999 return, at least in terms of instilling fundamentals. Certainly, if Mangini had the Browns current roster under his watch for several seasons, the results could be dramatically different."
BUILDING UP – 2011
Currently, there are only 19 players on the current roster who were listed as members of the Browns in 2009. However, it's worth noting that this is a bit of a generous number, considering that a lot could change between now and September. General Manager Tom Heckert has already indicated that the team's 2011 roster will look dramatically different. Of course, the current labor impasse has all but crippled any future roster transactions.
Again, to point to the team's biggest weakness – the defensive line badly needs some reinforcements. Beyond a shift to a 4-3 defense, the veteran core of last season's unit rapidly aged during the final months of 2010. Offensively, the biggest addition to an eternally struggling unit could come in the form of a new offensive system. While a West Coast Offense is not a panacea, the current available talent would appear to be better suited to this new attack.
THE PROCESS – 2009
"While it is perfectly natural to resist or even to revolt against the current leadership of the Browns, you have to resign yourself to the fact that we have only just begun the process."
THE PROCESS – 2011
So – two years later – here's the question: Does The Process continue?
Or, have we simply embarked on a new one? Because the faces behind a new Process are considered much friendlier than the one who exited a few months ago, this narrative has yet to gain any traction.
In many respects, Mangini fully realized his past vision of simply serving as "the cleaner" of the Browns. Although it was a mostly thankless job – perhaps partly due to local media who largely contributed agenda-based reporting - Mangini did rid the Browns of several self-serving types of talent and managed to instill a sense of physical and mental toughness throughout the organization. While Mangini's Process obviously did not reach its intended effect, his fingerprints are currently found all over the organization. Regardless of anyone's personal opinion about Mangini, he clearly laid the foundation for any future success the Browns may enjoy.
Or, for a stark comparison – just imagine if the likes of Holmgren, Heckert and Pat Shurmur had to inherit the 2009 squad. Much like Mangini's coaching record indicates, the current trio of Browns' power would have faced a similar uphill battle.
However, entering the 2011 season, the current front office and coaching staff at least have a foundation to work with. While certainly the makeup of the roster will look strikingly different than the one Mangini inherited in 2009, a new process shifts from addition by subtraction to an idea of complementary roster-building.
Yet, this new focus will still take time to root in Cleveland. Although Mangini proved to be the first expansion-era coach to leave things better than he found them, Holmgren and Heckert are embarking on some offseason work that may often curiously resemble 2009. New coaches, schemes and players will again take time to coalesce in the face of fans and media who have become reluctant to continually embrace the kind of constant change that has occurred over the past decade.
In this sense, The Process continues. How could it not?