He's a great communicator, and an even better story teller. When a big guy uses his hands to talk, it seems to add to what he's saying. You ever hear of John Madden? Anyway, when new Browns team president Mike Holmgren put his elbows on the table, opened the palms of his hands and moved his arms slightly as he began to speak, you just knew this was going to be good.
And it was.
Not wanting to repeat himself – but really, who would care if he did? – Holmgren apologized if he had already told this story to any of the media members in the jam-packed Dino Lucarelli Media Room at Browns Headquarters the other day. "When I first got the job of head coach of the Green Bay Packers, they gave me a cell phone," Holmgren said. "I wasn't a cell phone guy then, but it was the first cell phone I had had so it was kind of cool.
"Then the business guy says to me, ‘When you get fired, remember to give the cell phone back.' Now, I had been there three days – just three days – and already they were preparing for when I was going to get fired."
Everybody laughed. They laughed a little harder and longer than normal because, as mentioned, Holmgren is such an extraordinary story teller. But more than just a funny story, it was one of those Aesop fables in that it carried a message – a very special message – with it. Green Bay and Cleveland are a lot alike in the tremendous passion they have for their NFL teams. Their home games are civic events. It's the place to be in town at that moment.
And the similarities between the two cities – and the two teams – are even more apparent when you look at them in respect to when Holmgren arrived there. After having served the previous six seasons as an assistant with his hometown San Francisco 49ers, including the last three as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Holmgren said he came to Green Bay in 1992 and found a Packers team that was far removed from its glory days of the 1960s. "It had been a long time since Coach (Vince) Lombardi had been there," Holmgren said.
Indeed. Since the Pro Football Hall of Famer had retired – temporarily, as it turned out -- following the 1967 season after leading the Packers to victories in Super Bowl I and II, they had fallen on hard times. They didn't make the playoffs again until 1972, and not after that until the strike-shortened '82 season. Those two times reflected their only playoff trips in the 24-year period from 1968-91.
Moreover, the Packers had posted winning records in just four seasons. In the four years, 1988-91, immediately prior to Holmgren's arrival, the head coach was Lindy Infante, who took the job after serving 1986 and '87 as offensive coordinator of the Bernie Kosar-led Browns when they made back-to-back trips to the AFC Championship Game. The Packers went just 24-40 under Infante.
Not even former Packers greats Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg, a one-time head coach of the Browns, couldn't consistently buoy the franchise when they served as head coaches.
Lombardi, who died in 1970 of cancer at age 57 after having led the Packers to five NFL championships in a seven-year span, had to be turning over in his grave. It didn't take long for Holmgren to change all that.
After his first team in 1992 started 2-5 and then 3-6, including a 17-6 loss to Bill Belichick and the Browns at Cleveland in the third game Brett Favre ever started at quarterback for them, the Packers rebounded to win five of their last six, along with five straight, to finish 9-7 and nearly make the playoffs. The Packers were 9-7 the next two seasons as well but made the playoffs, losing to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC divisional round both times.
In 1995, the Packers went 11-5 and made it to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. The following year, the Packers posted a 13-3 mark and then beat Belichick, Romeo Crennel and the New England Patriots 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI.
The Packers went back to the Super Bowl following the 1997 season but fell to the Denver Broncos. In Holmgren's final year, Green Bay was 11-5 and made the playoffs again.
When it was all said and done, Holmgren had gone 84-42 over seven years, never suffered a losing season and led the Packers to playoff appearances in each of the last six seasons. Lombardi had to be smiling.
Was it OK, though, for Holmgren to give the cell phone back then? Holmgren did the same thing when he went to the Seattle Seahawks the following year, 1999, turning around a struggling team and getting it to the playoffs six times in 10 years, including the franchise's first trip to the Super Bowl after the 2005 season. Now he comes to Cleveland, where the Browns have had two straight losing seasons and nine in the 11 years in this expansion era. They've played in just one playoff game during that stretch.
In fact, in the 17 seasons dating back to 1990 (there was no team, of course, from 1996-98), the Browns have made the playoffs only twice, with but one victory.
It's been a long time since the great run the Browns had in the last half of the 1980s during the Kosar era.
Holmgren talked the other day of having to change longstanding attitudes, getting rid of the negativity, when he went to Green Bay. "We got some confidence that first year, then got some more the next season when we made the playoffs," Holmgren said. "We kept doing a little better every year, and everyone kept getting a little more confidence with it."
The Browns are where the Packers were over 27 years ago. Can Holmgren, now in a different place in the country and in a different place the organization as well, change attitudes – and history? Can he create another Aesop fable? If he can, then it would be a great story. We'd even let him tell it – hands and all.
And about that cell phone? He could keep it as a well-deserved thank-you gift from the Browns and their fans.