It's five wins in a row now for Browns head coach Eric Mangini and the members of his coaching staff – four little ones to end the regular season and one in the postseason that's as big, personally, for them as any Super Bowl triumph they have had, or will have, in their careers.
The news broke just after 3 p.m. Thursday that new Browns president Mike Holmgren has decided to retain Mangini and his 15-member coaching staff, including assistant head coach/special teams coordinator Brad Seely, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
There was strong speculation that if Mangini and his staff were dismissed following the team's 5-11 finish this year, a one-game improvement over the 4-12 mark of 2008, then Ryan would join his twin brother, Rex, head coach of the New York Jets, a job Mangini held for the three previous seasons before being fired.
Now all that is a moot point – much to the delight of Mangini and his aides.
"I'm happy to announce that Eric Mangini will return as head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2010," Holmgren said in a prepared statement after meeting directly with Mangini for two straight days, and informally for a day before that after arriving in town on Tuesday to begin his new job.
"Over the past few weeks, Eric and I have had a chance to talk on a number of occasions, including our meetings over the last two days. I was able to gain some tremendous insight into his thought process and philosophies, and came away from our meetings very impressed.
"In my opinion, Eric has gained the respect and admiration of players, coaches and others in the organization, and with him continuing to lead the team, I feel that we are headed in the right direction. Working together, our goal is to build on the strong tradition of this franchise and help get the Browns back to the playoffs."
The announcement comes one day short of the one-year anniversary of Mangini being hired, Jan. 8, 2009, and keeps the Browns from having to hire what would have been their fifth full-time head coach as they begin to prepare for what will be the 12th season of the expansion era since they returned to the field in 1999 after a three-year absence.
"I want to thank Mike for the opportunity to not only meet with him and share my thoughts and vision on what it takes to lead a team, but also to continue what we started here," Mangini, who will celebrate his 39th birthday in two weeks and was a ball boy/public relations intern and then a coaches assistant in the last two years of the original Browns in 1994 and '95 before the franchise's move to Baltimore to become the Ravens, said in his own prepared statement.
"I believe we made some real, tangible progress throughout the course of the season, culminating with wins in our final four games. I feel as though the culture and mindset that we established this year have laid the foundation for success in 2010 and beyond, and I'm looking forward to working with Mike and a general manager in making this happen."
Holmgren is looking to hire a GM, which means that unlike last year when he arrived, Mangini could be working under two layers of administration, Holmgren and the GM. Team owner Randy Lerner last year hired Mangini's hand-picked choice for GM, George Kokinis, who also worked in the last seasons of the original Browns as a scout. But Mangini was clearly running the entire operation, making Kokinis a GM in title only.
Kokinis was fired midway through the season "with cause," according to the Browns, but he is pursuing a lawsuit claiming he was unjustly dismissed. The whole incident created a messy situation – legal and otherwise – and added to the chaos of the first three-quarters of the season.
The Browns were a franchise-worst 1-11 at that point and on their way to setting all kinds of team and even some NFL records for offensive futility, but, beginning with a stunning and totally unexpected 13-6 nationally-televised win at home on Dec. 10 over the arch rival Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that had beaten them 12 straight times, they fashioned a four-game winning streak to end the year. The Browns hadn't won four consecutive games since 1994, when Mangini was a 23-year-old greener-than-green kid helping to break down film late at night for head coach Bill Belichick to get his foot in the NFL coaching door.
What was especially impressive about the late-season surge is all the offense that came with it. In a 41-31 win at Kansas City 10 days after the Pittsburgh victory, Jerome Harrison came out of nowhere and rushed for 286 yards, the third-most in NFL history, on his way to ending the year with three straight efforts of 100-plus yards. Joshua Cribbs, of course, was Joshua Cribbs, returning two kickoffs for TDs to raise his career total to a league-record eight.
Talk about a tale of two seasons – a historically bad start with no offense and a historically good finish with plenty of offense that included a 23-17 triumph over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the finale.
If Mangini had been fired, then it would have marked the first time in Browns history that a coach was dismissed after just one season. The late Bud Carson lasted 1½ seasons before being let go midway through the 1989 campaign. Chris Palmer, the first head coach of the expansion Browns, had the job for two full seasons, 1999 and 2000.
But there may – or may not – be more to Thursday's announcement than was released. Holmgren, who was the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers for a combined total of 17 seasons, going to three Super Bowls and winning once, has left the door wide open for a return to coaching at some point. As speculated by the OBR in this space recently, it could be that Holmgren will re-evaluate Mangini at the end of the 2010 season and, if he doesn't like what he sees, will take over as coach of the team himself.
If Holmgren had fired Mangini, then he would have been almost obligated to give his replacement at least two, if not three, seasons to implement his program. Maybe Holmgren didn't want to wait that long. In this way, Holmgren gives Mangini a fair shake with the extra year, something he said from the outset he was sensitive to, and at the same time sets up at least the possibility that he could be back on the sideline as soon as a year from now.
But while that speculation certainly won't die, especially if Mangini's 2010 Browns get out of the gate as slowly as the team in 2009 did, it has to be put on the back-burner for now. The Browns are going forward with Mangini and his coaches again, with a new president in Holmgren and a GM to be named as they try to get this team back on track.
For real Browns fans, particularly the ones who followed the original franchise, who helped fight to get a new team and then have suffered mightily through the struggles of this expansion era, that has to be the one and only focus now.
No matter what anyone's focus, though, it will be good for the Browns to go into 2010 with four wins in a row, as opposed to the way they entered 2009, coming off six straight losses – and no offensive touchdowns in those games – to end 2008.