We can now, realistically, begin to ponder how long Mike Holmgren is going to last as Team President of the Cleveland Browns.
The reboot risk factors are all there: more losing seasons, a roster that remains thin and riddled with holes, lack of confidence in the teams starting quarterback, a rough schedule, a toxic media environment.
While the team argues that "things have changed" in Cleveland, those changes aren't obvious from their won-loss record, where a 5-11 and 4-12 record under Holmgren's leadership are identical to what the team accomplished in five of the seven seasons prior.
Optimistic fans could point to possible parallels to 2007. That squad had gone 4-12 the year before and had a schedule that was heralded as certain doom for team's front office. Somehow, miraculously, the offense clicked and the Browns had their best season since 1994, going 10-6 and barely missing the playoffs.
Barring that sort of reversal, this season already feels more like the 2009 campaign, where fan frustration and media opportunism overflowed into a season of pure misery.
The biggest risk factor heading into 2012 is that that Holmgren's image in Cleveland has gone from savior to savaged in just three seasons. Justified or not, the image that Holmgren is currently being promulgated in Cleveland is that of a somewhat uninvolved, vacation-happy chief executive resting his feet on a large desk in his corner office while he talks to radio shows in Seattle.
This image is likely unfair to the Team President. Fans and the local media focus entirely on the football side of the organization, and expect Holmgren to have a similar focus. But that doesn't map to his role in the organization: Holmgren's responsibilities supposedly encompass both the less-visible business side of the organization in addition to being Tom Heckert and Pat Shurmur's boss. Being the lead "football man" in the organization actually IS a part-time job for Holmgren.
The developing negative perception of Holmgren, plus the selection of the low-key Shurmur as head coach and the go-slow approach of building through the draft, has provided a wide target for ratings-frantic sportstalkers and page-view-hungry websites to go on the attack during this off-season. That will only heat up when the team is playing games that matter.
The most recent broadside levelled at Holmgren is that he was not present during a rescheduled visit by QB prospect Ryan Tannehill. Speculating endlessly and without the benefit of any of the relevant facts, the local media has filled airtime with continually reinforced images of Holmgren as a do-nothing Team President.
The greatest irony is that the Browns are finally doing things in a way that makes sense for the long term, delaying gratification in order to try to build the team around a consistent philosophy. Resisting the urge to duct tape the roster by overpaying for free agents, the Holmgren team has the misfortune of having adopted a philosophy in 2012 that should have been in place in 1999.
The football moves largely make sense, even if they've been immediately unsatisfying on the field. Last year's trade-down in the draft was a textbook example of what to do when you have roster riddled with holes. Knowing that the rebuild was going to be a multi-year process, the Browns accumulated future picks while trading into an area of the draft that allowed for the more cost-effective reconstruction of their defensive line.
While Shurmur still has a lot to prove, his hire and the Browns personnel moves revolve around Holmgren's preferred West Coast Offense, giving the team a nascent offensive identity for the first time since their return in 1999.
But Holmgren and crew are being asked to pay back a debt to Browns fans that has been amassing since 1999 and before. The Browns faithful are the most put-upon fans on the planet, and are well aware of their status. Patience disappeared years ago.
But patience is what is needed now.
It will be up to the team's owner, Randy Lerner, to determine if this is yet another abortive experiment, or whether a long-term winning culture is being established.
Lerner, despite his carefully maintained low profile, is very sensitive to criticism of his team, and is particularly aware of criticism by passionate fans. He soaks it all in, and responds in some situations where he feels he can make his case fairly.
It is incumbent upon Lerner to ignore what is likely to be a firestorm of vitriol directed at his franchise throughout the 2012 season. Holmgren and Heckert need to have at least through 2013 to show progress with the franchise, given draft-oriented approach they've taken to building it.
The validity of the team's draft orientation won't matter if it loses the first five games. The airwaves will be full of nothing but negativity, and no excuses for poor performance will be tolerated. Local sports personalities will jockey for attention, attempting to out-do each other's over-the-top rants as the team struggles.
The Cleveland Browns post-expansion history of pre-ordained failure has been well-documented. It's up to the team's leaders to determine whether they are currently writing just another repetitive chapter of that book, or are whether they are finally bringing it to a conclusion.
It won't be easy to put in the blinders, keep a sense of humor, and get through what may be another tough season. In fact, it may be the hardest thing that Lerner and Holmgren have ever done.
But it's the best hope we have.