Browns head coach Eric Mangini has coached in a number of games – playoff contests, even Super Bowls, three of them, in fact, all of which he was on the winning side – in the last 16 seasons.
But in a lot of ways, Sunday's game at Detroit against a team that, like his, is 1-8 and on a long losing streak, putting the contest as far away from a playoff atmosphere as Michigan is from Ohio State in the Big Ten football standings, will be the biggest of his coaching career.
A one-sided loss to the Lions in which the Browns look to be non-competitive, especially offensively, just as they have been in nearly every other game this year, could cause him to get fired – not after the season, but on Sunday evening or Monday morning – thus sending his career into a downward spiral from which it will be hard to recover.
It's one thing to get ground down by the Baltimore Ravens, as the Browns did on Monday night, 16-0.
It's one thing to get ground down by the Chicago Bears, as the Browns did on Nov. 1, heading into their bye week, 30-6.
It's one thing to get ground down by the Green Bay Packers, as the Browns did on Oct. 25, 31-3.
It's one thing to get ground down by the Pittsburgh Steelers, as the Browns did on Oct. 18, 27-14, in a game that wasn't really even as close as the final score might seem to indicate.
It's one thing to get ground down by the Ravens in the teams' first meeting, as the Browns did on Sept. 27, 34-3.
It's one thing to get ground down by the Denver Broncos, as the Browns did on Sept. 20, 27-6.
It's one thing to get ground down by the Minnesota Vikings, as the Browns did on Sept. 13 in the season opener, 34-20, in another game that wasn't really even as close as the final score might seem to indicate.
Yes, it's one thing to get ground down by any of these teams, for they all are in the playoff chase in one form or another.
Although the Steelers are now behind the Cincinnati Bengals by a game in the AFC North, and trail them, too, in the first tie-breaker, head-to-head meetings, after losing to them last Sunday for the second time this season, they are still the defending Super Bowl champions and, at 6-3, are right at the top of the wild-card race in the conference.
At 8-1, the Vikings have the second-best record in the NFC, but they may be the best team not just in that conference, but in the NFL overall right now with the way they're playing.
The Broncos have lost three in a row, but at 6-3, they're still tied for first place in the AFC West.
The Packers and Ravens are both 5-4 and hanging in the wild-card fight in their respective conferences.
At 4-5, the Bears have to really pick it up, but on paper at least, they have the capability to do that.
So while losing to any or all of these teams is certainly not something the Browns wanted to do, or are proud of, it's understandable because of the quality of these clubs and with the fact this is the rebuilding season or all rebuilding seasons for Cleveland.
But – pardon the pun – the Lions are a different animal altogether.
They have not won an NFL championship since the days of black-and-white TV. It's certainly not going to happen this year or, by the looks of it, happen anytime soon, either.
Yes, the Lions have played some good games this year – many more than have the Browns, in fact. With that, coupled with the fact that they've scored 143 points, or just less than half as many as the Browns, they've played much more exciting football than Cleveland. The Lions lost 45-27 to the New Orleans Saints, 48-24 to the Bears and 28-20 to the Steelers. Points-starved Browns fans would give their right arm to see their team play three points-filled games like that instead of the hard-to-watch ones they've had this year.
So former Browns scout Jim Schwartz, the first-year head coach of the Lions, definitely has his team on the right path. It will take some time – maybe even a long time because they've been so screwed up for so long – but Schwartz will get the ship righted.
In the meantime, though, these are the Lions – the Lions, for goodness sakes. And almost as important is the fact the Lions defense is like a sieve. It can't stop anyone – anyone! The Lions have given up 264 points, the most in the league. They are ranked 31st in the NFL – ahead of only the Browns – in total yards given up per game, and are dead last – 13 spots behind Cleveland – in passing yards surrendered.
Now, if the Browns can't move the ball and score points on this bunch – if it's the third quarter and they have only two field goals and 100 total yards to show for their efforts – then they will have hit absolute rock-bottom. And when the offense can't score points, your team doesn't win. The Browns have learned that painful lesson this year.
If that happened, then the Browns defense, which has kept fighting for most of the year, would gradually get worn down on Sunday and lose hope, opening the floodgates for the Lions offense to get going and win in a breeze.
With such a crushing loss, Mangini could well lose the locker room – if that hasn't already happened – and owner Randy Lerner, with six – count 'em, six – games left overall, including two at home after Christmas, and with plenty tickets left to sell for three of the four contests left in Cleveland, would have no alternative but to make a change and give the fans a visible sign that he is trying – at least trying – to fix it. Now, making a change at this point isn't going to be much other than a cosmetic fix, but you have to make the attempt.
The only candidates would be assistant head coach/special teams coach Brad Seely, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Both aspire to be head coaches someday, and this would be an opportunity for one of them to have a test run. Ryan's twin brother, Rex, is, of course, the first-year head coach of the New York Jets.
Either one of them would be fine. Seely is calm, poised and very knowledgeable and has the respect of a lot of the players. Ryan, whose answers during his weekly Friday availabilities with the media are so comedic that he could do stand-up, is a fiery guy who knows defense inside and out and wears his heart on his sleeve.
And even if such a move would be a total disaster – which it probably wouldn't be – how much worse, if at all, could it be than the nightmare that has taken place thus far?
The players and fans would need some hope, for a loss to the Lions would provide more hopelessness than already exists – and that's a lot.
So while Mangini says he's trying to build something in Cleveland, that it's a process and that there are no quick fixes, the fact of the matter is that this train wreck of a season has reached the point of the journey where some concrete results – wins -- are sorely needed to provide fuel for the rest of the trip. Schwartz alluded to the importance of such the other day in a conference call with the Cleveland media while talking about building the Lions.
A win would save Mangini's job by any estimation. Even a close game, one in which a lot of points are scored by the Browns, would probably do it as well. A close game in which few points are scored, though, might not be enough.
And a final score – and an overall non-competitive performance – like the Browns had against the Vikings, Broncos, Ravens twice, Steelers, Packers and Bears, would be a death knell for him. He would likely have no chance to survive that.
He would lose his job, and the embarrassment that it happened in less than a year's time, plus the fact that it got fired by the Jets after just three seasons, would trash the resume of a guy who once was one of the NFL's rising young coaching stars – Mangenius, as they called him in that first year in New York in 2006, when he guided the Jets, who had been just 4-12 the year before, to a 10-6 mark and a wild-card berth.
He might not get another head coaching job right away. He might have to go back to being a defensive coordinator for a time to build back up his reputation.
Obviously, no one hopes it comes to that. No one wants to see that kind of public and professional sacking occur to any human being.
But it could happen – very easily – to Mangini. He is really teetering at this point
So despite the mounting injuries and all the other issues, Eric Mangini needs to coach 'em up on Sunday. His job depends on it, more so that at any point in his career.