Did The Browns Make The Right Choice?

Call it a sense of self-preservation. Call it self-serving. Call it anything you want, but the reality is that the Cleveland Browns have worked hard to spin the public perception of their decision to hire Eric Mangini over Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli. If Pioli is not the right fit, why then are other GM candidates still backing away?

Three GM candidates have now been ruled out of the Cleveland Browns quest to land a man in charge of their football operations, and none of them were by the team's doing. The number moves to four if you include Bill Cowher who reportedly wanted to bring in his own GM. The three GM candidates the Browns spoke with are Rich McKay, Scott Pioli and Tom Heckert, all of whom have been removed from consideration through one means or another.

Now the Browns are throwing out new names for the new GM candidates including Patriots director of pro personnel Nick Caserio. If Cleveland doesn't get the next target reported to be George Kokinis, what's next, moving forward with plan D, E or F?

The Browns GM and coaching search went from backwards quickly. Cowher stepped out of the picture early, telling the Browns he wasn't going to coach in 2009. He repeated that answer to the Jets. However multiple reports indicate that Cowher may have seen the structure of the organizations as an issue. Not so say the teams. Regardless, Cowher out and he's happy with the decision.

McKay removed himself from the process early when it became clear that the Browns were pursuing Pioli and were willing to let those negotiations play out. The President of the Falcons had another good reason; Atlanta was still in the playoffs

The Browns - or their agents -- put forth a concerted effort to get information to the local news outlets by leaking information about their GM search as they worked hard to land their new head coach Eric Mangini. Browns owner Randy Lerner decided to hire Mangini early, even before a GM, explaining his rational to the media in carefully orchestrated interviews. That hire has been spun in a positive light by Cleveland papers. From the outside, the situation looks like Lerner is forced to back up his early infatuation and subsequent hire of Mangini to the fans and the national media.

Conspiracy theory?

Sure it is, but that doesn't mean it's wrong. .

The entire situation in Cleveland is baffling to many NFL insiders. Media reports painted a glowing picture of the future with Scott Pioli taking over to revive a franchise that has taken on enough water to sink the Titanic. Pioli was seen as the white knight. He is experienced in the ways of winning with four Super Bowl appearances in seven years, three of them championships. He's helped reload a roster with talent after losing top running backs, receivers and defensive backs. He knows personnel having acquired talent such as Tom Brady (6th round), Dan Koppen (5th round), Jarvis Green (4th round), Matt Cassel (7th round), Asante Samuel (4th round).

Although the list of demands Pioli reportedly asked for may be daunting to many franchises, the Patriots VP of player personnel could have had an immediate impact on a Browns franchise that has managed just three blue chip draft products since 1999; Kellen Winslow Jr, D'Qwell Jackson and Braylon Edwards. Every one of Pioli's first round picks since 2001 remained with the club until their contract expired; some are on their second or third contract restructuring. Cleveland had it's first three washout early. Two are no longer in the NFL, and one is in Oakland a place known for taking chances on players no one else wants..

Browns owner Randy Lerner has told Cleveland reporters that the discussions with Pioli never reached contract negotiations and that reports of Pioli's excessive demands were "entirely untrue."

How then can Lerner rule out Pioli so quickly? If the discussions never reached the negotiation phase, and his demands weren't outrageous, why didn't Lerner push for Pioli? Maybe a better question is why did he hire a coach so fast before getting into serious contractual discussions with arguably the best candidate for GM?

Lerner explained his reasoning by stating that his research shows that hiring the right coach is more important than the right GM. That doesn't seem to be the case in Baltimore, Atlanta, or Miami where a strong front office found the right coach to lead the team back to respectability in just one season. Or Pittsburgh and San Diego where the front office is responsible for maintaining competitive teams even after coaching changes.

Baltimore is in the AFC Championship game with a first year head coach. Atlanta found their blue chip quarterback, added a running back and made its way out of Michael Vick's shadow to reach the playoffs. Miami set an NFL record from worst to first in their division, also reaching the playoffs with a first year, first time head coach.

By all appearances, Lerner is making excuses to cover for a decision to hire a coach the fans, league insiders and the football media had serious concerns about. It's possible Lerner found the right man, as second term coaches have more often found success in the NFL than first timers. It helps that Mangini is familiar with the same type of roster Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage just built. But if Mangini succeeds early, how much of that is having the right coach compared to having success courtesy of the outgoing regime, much like his success in New York as a first time head coach?

As some Cleveland papers have already stated; Lerner wants to win and he's not going about his business with an air of indifference. A genuine fan of the team since he was little, no one should question Lerner's motives for wanting to put a winning product on the field. But the public perception is against him. And Lerner's fighting a fight that can only be won on the field.

Of the three different hires of former Patriots employees - Josh McDaniels in Denver, Scott Pioli in Kansas City and Mangini in Cleveland - the most pressure to succeed lies with Lerner's Browns.

For Lerner's sake, Mangini better use the foundation Savage and Crennel built to win early, or the fans - often described as the most rabid in the NFL - will take a bite out of Lerner's hide which will leave a mark.

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