In his fourth year as an NFL head coach, and after his first with the Cleveland Browns, Eric Mangini found himself in the presence of greatness -- and it wasn't his own. When the Browns hired coaching legend Mike Holmgren as team president, Mangini wasn't just working under a new boss; he was also going to be inevitably compared to one of the better coaches of the modern era. And of course, any coaching failings of Mangini's would have an unexcited fanbase calling for Holmgren to pick up his playsheet.
Holmgren intimated as much on Friday, albeit in a joking manner. I told a couple of our security guys, ‘You are standing by me at all times. If I start to run out there (to the practice field), grab me.' That was one of the things I talked to Eric about when we decided to keep the group together. I'm going to have my challenges, there's no question about that in watching practice and watching games, and those things. He's got to trust me a little bit, that I'll handle that part of it properly."
If Mangini is feeling the pressure, he's not showing it -- as he said when he took the podoim on Saturday, he's used to coaching in some serious shadows, having worked in various capacities for Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. Of course, he was an assistant under them. "I understand that," he said. "But being able to work with them, you never view that as a negative. It can't be a negative. It's like having the best professor at a university. Sometimes the course work is a little more challenging, but you're really happy that you have that chance."
Mangini has struggled to gain and maintain credibility at the head level. His tenure in New York ended less than swimmingly, and Cleveland's four season-ending wins in 2009 may have been enough to save his job, but his 29-36 career record looks rather stark in comparison to Holmgren's 161-111 mark. Is it a learning experience for Mangini? He believes in the value of Holmgren's experience.
"And it wouldn't be uncomfortable to me to have those guys, Mike or (new GM) Tom (Heckert) or anybody else for that matter, to be in meetings in any of the things we do," Mangini said of the coaching transition that leaves him with a partial hand-picked coaching staff. "I really liked when (Jets owner) Woody (Johnson) would come to meetings in New York or Randy (Lerner), right on down the line. Because I believe in what we do. I think we have really good coaches. I think the way that we teach and the things that we're teaching are sound, so I like it when they're part of that process. And they also understand why we're doing things, why we're approaching the team that way, the offensive philosophy, whatever it is. And it's good because sometimes that generates questions and those are questions that I want to be able to answer. So I think that's a positive thing and I'm really confident in the guys that we have as teachers and coaches."
Of course, the biggest gold star on Holmgren's resume is his ability to develop quarterbacks. From his evolutionary work with Joe Montana as an assistant to Bill Walsh in the late 1980s, through Steve Young, Brett Favre, and Matt Hasselbeck, the Big Show seems to have the golden touch. How much does Mangini defer when it comes to the "Anderson/Quinn/New Guy" evaluation process?
"I don't think anybody's looking at it as how can push our viewpoint through or how can we influence the process," he said. "It's more about how can we give the best information and how can we come to the best conclusion. It's not agenda-driven at all, except with the agenda of getting to the right point."
And in the general sense of the offensive game plan, expect more elements of Holmgren's beloved West Coast offense to be worked in. Again, Mangini's fine with that. "We'll still be gameplan-specific," he said. "Sometimes we were bunched up in tight formations, sometimes spread out, sometimes we ran 40 times, so that general approach will not change. ... But to get some more ideas that will be incorporated could be in different areas. Some may be reflected in red zone, some in two-minute, some in our base sub. I think we have a lot of good things we have done. This is always the time of the year where you go and try to find what else you can do, what things you want to move away from. That's part of the offseason study and program that we do."
Does it sound like a man trying to balance powers above him, transcending his reputation as a "my-way-or-the-highway" guy? Or is less Zen and more about job-saving? "I think that's been unfair for a while," Mangini said of the rep. "It's not been about that for me. What I want to do is the right way and the best way. Sometimes that may take a little longer to get to that point. I like to check things over a lot. But I've never had an aversion to new ideas or change. I think that's important if you're going to grow."
He'll have to share the right way and the best way, but maybe that's how Eric Mangini finally finds true credibility at the top.