Outside the Perimeter: A Matter of Trust?

Does the Eric Mangini era have echoes of Browns coaches past? Thoughtful comentary from Mark Leonard...

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A matter of trust?

More than likely, each of us knows at least one defensive individual. Extremely territorial. Secretive. Hyper-sensitive. Almost paranoid. Tight. Anal. Controlling. Oft-times physical and aggressive. The kind that, if threatened, might even mount a blitz.

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged defines "defensive," among other ways, as being: "excessively concerned with guarding against the real or imagined threat of criticism, injury to one's ego, or exposure of one's shortcomings."

As the term applies to football, defense is about resisting attack, protecting one's turf, especially one's endzone. If an opposing team cannot score, it will be difficult for it to beat you. It is commonly held that defenses win championships. For this reason, defensive-minded coaches are often prominent personalities throughout the sport.

The stereotype resurrected whenever one is considered for the head-coaching position is that he will be conservative, almost to a fault. Difficult to deal with. Stubborn. Inflexible. Driven obsessively. Not an altogether pleasant sort at all.

These are the guys who moreso play to avoid losing rather than seize wins. Marty Schottenheimer is as close an example of that stereotype as the Cleveland Browns have ever seen. The circumstances of his dismissal, his legacy as a close-but-no-cigar type whose downfall was his prevent defense, his jut-jawed and grim visage, his passion and his competitiveness were other tell-tale indicators.

The legendary Bill Parcells—who constructed winning organizations with the Giants, Patriots, Cowboys and Dolphins—was also a noted defensive-minded NFL head coach. A few years ago, I had a very minor incident with Parcells above the North endzone of Mobile's Ladd-Peebles Stadium that nonetheless exemplifies the nature of a defensive personality.

It was before a morning practice during Senior Bowl week a few years back. Because those stands are regularly populated with an array of grown men, many of whom are recognizable as old pros, Hall-of-Famers and league luminaries, one doesn't tend to dwell too heavily upon who it is one might be sitting amongst. I'd slipped into an innocuous row just high enough to gain a favorable perspective of proceedings and became engrossed in them.

Soon, I became aware of the arrival of the old coach positioning himself several rows beneath, directly in my line of sight, were I to be focused downward. The old man paused to scan the faces of those seated around, but especially behind, himself before settling in. This, too, was not completely uncommon and I was paying it no particular attention. At least until I felt him staring directly at me, minding my own business and assessing the talent on display below.

Shortly, I engaged his glare through my dark glasses and waited for some reaction, eventually saying: "Good morning." He just continued to glare, remaining unresponsive. But decidedly defensive. Presumably, the 12 or so rows between us was insufficient for his comfort.

I might've thought, of course, that he'd simply been examining those situated slightly above and behind me; but I knew none were there, inasmuch as I, too, am a bit defensive and, therefore, sit predominantly in isolation.

Better to be defensive, I guess, than the opposite. After all, who wants to be defenseless, offensive or indefensible?

Thoughts of such men came to me when viewing last Sunday's Browns' loss in Denver. The 2009 edition of what once had been the Yankees of the NFL is now being coached by a defensive-minded individual named Eric Mangini, sort of a grandson of the aforementioned Parcells in that Bill begot Belichick and Belichick begat Mangini.

Mangini's Browns were again impotent offensively, replicating much of the same inefficiency and hopelessness displayed in their opener versus the Vikings. On this day, the overriding summation was: "Either this is all QB Brady Quinn is capable of doing or this is all the head coach will allow him to do."

Either way, promise was elusive.

In brief, Mangini's Men personified the stereotype assigned to outfits managed by defensive-minded head coaches: tight, controlled, conservative to a fault, inflexible, stubborn, not at all pleasant.

The numbers were horrific. Out-gained 449 to 200. Eleven first downs to 25. Outrushed 186 to 54. Outscored 27-6. Unable to convert on 3rd down, contrary to the opposition. Too many completions of the why-bother? variety, as evidenced by Josh Cribbs' five catches for 22 yards and Mike Furrey's one for two. A dismal display, indeed.

Days afterward, Mangini, whose post-game countenance reportedly did little to inspire calm or confidence, described his team's issues as "controllable." Perfect. Fans must feel so much better.

It is early in the man's administration. Rash and/or harsh judgements might best be stifled. But one must acknowledge that all things Browns these days are under this man's control. All that is and all that is not are because Mangini wants things that way. Or so we must assume. He is the latest Italian Dictator, to borrow on another stereotype.

The man has told those following the fortunes of the Browns that he can win with either guy, when pressed about what had been a QB competition between Quinn and deposed starter Derek Anderson. We must assume, then, that he also felt he could win with the roster he and hand-picked GM George Kokinis assembled.

One must assume the vet free-agent offensive linemen he and Kokinis signed for the right side, Floyd Womack and John St. Clair, carry his endorsement and are guys he can win with. One must assume the two second-round wide-receivers he and George selected, Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi, also qualify for those descriptions, though the former was inactive Sunday and the latter has the only catch between them thusfar.

Similarly, we must assume what has been done about providing whomever was to win the QB competition with a running game was deemed sufficient by this former NY Jets coach. These things are being listed because none of these measures has yet to bear fruit, any more so than did the signings of veteran DB reserves Corey Ivy and Roderick Hood.

The point is there does not yet seem to be very much at all that indicates the man knows what he's doing, at least insofar as personnel and winning football games are concerned. Minimally, during that period when his signal-caller was being decided, Mangini should have assured his offense would be able to move the chains rushing the football. As it now stands, his squad can neither run nor pass the pigskin. Regrettably, there is not much else that exists by way of offensive football.

Schottenheimer and Parcells, for their parts, always made certain their teams could and did run the football with authority. They also saw to it the other clubs could not.

That Quinn survived as the Cleveland starter was surprise to very few. What stuns is the realization little in the way of complementary pieces exist to support Quinn's style and preferences. His top pass-catching target is a player whose best work is done beyond the reaches of the passer's arm—outside the hashes and 18 or so yards downfield. Not only is there no ball-control ground game to consume the clock, move the chains and lessen his burden, but there is s no ball-control ground game to consume the clock, move the chains and lessen his burden, but there is no one with requisite quickness and wiggle to convert a dump-off into a run-after-catch conversion.

Only recently-signed Cedric Peerman among the RBs is accomplished catching the ball out of the backfield. The TE may be adequate as a run-blocker, but he frightens no one—except the Browns themselves—as a target.

There is, however, some merit to insinuations what the coach and his OC Brian Daboll envision of the attack is not being properly executed by the on-field personnel.

For example, twice during the Denver game, both times with the club moving (the term is used loosely) from left-to-right across the television screen, LG Eric Steinbach pulled so as to lead the runner off right tackle. What was shaping-up as a promising development, with the blocker achieving the edge and heading upfield, quickly disintegrated into yet another insufferable no gain because the RB elected to deviate from the script and try his luck through the center of the collapsing Cleveland line.

There are times a runner must trust his instincts, but employing his eyes would've told him more promise existed following Steinbach than free-lancing. Perhaps it was a matter of timing, with too much space between the blocker and the runner, but both Jamal Lewis and Jerome Harrison got what they had coming to them if it was their own judgement to blame.

There are also indications Quinn is not optimizing the play-calls nor properly trusting his assistance. At least once he flinched his way into an avoidable sack, the first of four achieved by Elvis Dumervil, whose other three came against St. Clair.

Quinn is also doing a poor job of anticipating, seemingly wishing for greater separation before pulling the trigger than is realistic on the pro level. On this point, the words of former Niner WR Dwight Clark—assuredly, none of his insights as former Browns' GM merit repetition—once responded to a question about Joe Montana's NFL excellence despite his less-than-powerful throwing arm with this apropos tidbit: "Joe overcomes his lack of arm strength with accuracy and anticipation."

Heretofore, Quinn models neither.

Since it seems we're at the portion of the program during which failed Cleveland administrators are being quoted, how about this one from Tribe skipper Eric Wedge? "The kid just needs to trust his stuff."

In summation, the theme is about trust. The head coach and his OC must better trust their passer, while simultaneously assuring the approach fits his skill set and all complementary pieces exist around him. To begin with, the club needs a reliable ground game.

And, for his part, that QB must trust himself, his mates, the play call, his protection (which many times Sunday was adequate in its duration), his instincts and the techniques he's been taught. He's got to set his feet, align his shoulders, throw before the break and step into his throws. It would also help if he occassionally threw deep, if only as a threat.

What has been occurring is a mamby-pamby representation of professional football, embarrassing the participants, the league and a fan base that deserves much more than it has been getting—for most of the past 11 NFL seasons.

If they're gonna go down, let's go down fighting, with guns ablazing.

——————–

Though this may not be a popular opinion, I like the brown pants for road games. In fact, more than two years ago, I'd written calling for precisely this look, down to the detail of omitting the leg stripes.

What had become too prevelant was the association of orange with a team known as the Browns. Simply put, the Browns needed more brown. Besides, the white-on-white was not only dated and boring, but pajama-looking.

This team can be sleep-inducing offensively without adding the suggestion of bedtime.

It is anticipated the club will eventually display a brown-on-brown look, possibly for a night game, and evolve on an alternative basis into orange tops with the brown pants.

Not that the outfits will ever mask what has been foisted upon us by way of performance. The clothes don't make the man in professional football.

——————–

As closing beckons, those favorable indicators detected must be acknowledged. Not all is bad, though few can find fault as well as NE Ohioans.

The D again showed early energy, hustle, activity, toughness and the discipline to deny the edge, though it surely all broke down in quarter four.

Coach Mangini may defend his offensive (no pun intended) approach by saying: "We were in it through three quarters. It is was an imminently winnable ballgame." And he'd be correct. It was.

The problem is the approach leaves little room for error and may not be suitable for a defense more likely to crumble than the opposition's. Perhaps it would be better to get them some points to defend, possibly permitting them to dictate.

But this portion is to be about emphasizing the positive: Were the offense to now show comparable evidence of successful coaching and join the D in maintaining it for a full four quarters, week upon week, that would be a demonstration of progress.

That would be worthy of the faithful fan base, devotion even over geographical distances. Here's hoping it begins Sunday in Baltimore and continues for years to come.

We can all dream. It's what's sustained us through all these many seasons of immense disappointment.


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