Along about the time that the Cleveland Browns were at their nadir this past season, many openly speculated whether anything or anyone could fix the mess. The theory was that the Browns were so off track in so many ways that no one with a lick of sense would even bother.
It was also about that same time when owner Randy Lerner essentially undertook the implied challenge and emerged, rather quickly actually, with not just anyone but someone in the form of Mike Holmgren, the former head coach of the Seattle Seahawks.
Most people that I’ve talked with in the league think Holmgren has more than just a lick of sense. He’s viewed as a thoughtful and inside player, someone whose resume is neither artificially enhanced nor noticeably thin. You might be able to poke as many holes in it as you care to, but Holmgren’s record still stands solidly intact.
The underlying question is why Holmgren would take the job. The answer to that is easy enough. It had the essential elements of any good opportunity: freedom, power and money. Holmgren has the benefit of working for an owner that wants to stay in the background even more than Deep Throat of Watergate fame. Indeed, Lerner wants nothing more than to have someone like Holmgren oversee every aspect of his asset and enough money to pay him to do so. In legal terms, it’s as if Holmgren has Lerner’s full power of attorney.
But it actually goes much deeper than all of that. Case in point, look at the mess in Buffalo and then start counting your blessings.
The Bills have had all sorts of difficulty filling one of the toughest jobs to get in football: NFL head coach. There are only 32 such jobs and yet the Bills have all but posted the job on Craigslist in order to get a taker. People selling time shares in Boise have an easier time getting nibbles than the Bills do on their head coaching job. After scouring the cut out bin, they finally got Chan Gailey to take the job.
To understand the dynamic, consider the contrast between Bills owner Ralph Wilson and Lerner. The 91-year old Wilson is nearly double Lerner’s age. He’s a Hall of Famer whose seemingly run the franchise since there were real buffaloes in Buffalo. He has a history Lerner could only imagine.
And it’s not as if the Bills are perennial losers. It just seems that way lately. Hey, you lose in consecutive years to Cleveland you’re going to take a few lumps. But the Bills actually are a relatively storied franchise dating back to its days in the AFL. They had pre-double murder O.J. roaming their backfield. They had the aptly named Electric Company of an offensive line supplying the Juice. They had Jim Kelly and Jack Kemp. It’s a franchise with a real history.
The problem these days is that Wilson is a meddling fool of an owner. He’s become the Al Davis of the East, someone who is so far past his prime that he’s forgotten what it looked once looked like. Since 1997, the Bills have been through five head coaches and are searching for their sixth.
With that kind of track record you’d think that every one of those coaches have been abject losers. Actually, that isn’t even close to being true. Wade Phillips was 29-19 in his three seasons. In fact, in those 12 years, the Bills have only approached Browns-like territory once, in 2001 when they were 3-13. Otherwise, they’ve mostly just bounced around just below .500.
Wilson is one of the league’s great complainers about competitive balance but it’s fallen mostly on deaf ears in a salary-cap construct. Buffalo is small market, like Green Bay, but it’s got an equal chance as New York. The owners share revenues and the draft can’t be manipulated by the draftees to ensure they end up with large market teams with the wherewithal to pay them.
Yet the Bills hade no hope of finding a someone as their coach. They’ve been turned down by Bill Cowher and Mike Shanahan. They’ve also been turned down by the next lower tier-- Brian Schottenheimer, Russ Grimm and Jim Harbaugh. By hiring Gailey, I guess they did find an anyone.
If you want to understand the state of the Bills’ franchise, that’s it. As Jerry Sullivan, a sports columnist for the Buffalo News aptly put it, “it’s a second rate franchise struggling to hire a second-rate coach.”
Say what you will about the Lerner family’s stewardship of the Browns, but it’s only been a second rate franchise in terms of results on the field. Lerner may be a fool for other reasons, but a meddling fool he’s not. He hasn’t been afraid to toss his money around like confetti as a trail of fired coaches and administrators would attest. He’s worked hard to enhance the game-day experience as best he could, at least on the periphery. Indeed, the only place he’s failed is when it comes to hiring the right people to get the right football results.
About the only time the Browns really had trouble attracting a coach was in its first years back and with good reason. The Browns were saddled with all sorts of league-imposed impediments to getting up and running and most potential coaches could see that results would be years off.
But since then, even as coaches have been run off in droves, others have been willing and eager to step forward and fill the breach. Debate all you want the merits of the coaches that have been hired, but the fact remains that the Browns generally got the person they targeted. The only problem is that their aim has been awful, but that’s a far different issue.
Another part of this whole equation is the fans. This isn’t to get into a pissing match with anyone over whose city has better fans, but the fact remains that Browns fans enjoy a somewhat exalted status within the league. Team owners, head coaches, able assistants throughout the league know that the Browns have a deeply loyal fan base that ultimately will put whatever differences divide them aside when game day arrives.
The best proof of that lies in the swirl around Eric Mangini. When the Browns were wallowing at 1-11, he was essentially the devil incarnate. His every flaw was magnified and most fans couldn’t wait until Mangini’s siege was over. They vocalized it loud and long.
But a simple 4-game winning streak became an intoxicating tonic. Fans didn’t care about the quality of the wins or the competition. They just cared about the wins themselves, especially the one against the Steelers.
As each win built upon the next, a large portion of the fan base altered its view of Mangini. It’s not that they became convinced that he’s a misunderstood genius. They just felt that he had achieved enough in that last month of the season to warrant another look and voiced it just as loudly.
That kind of passion is a heady motivator to the kind of A-type personalities that are attracted to positions of power in the first place. In short, the Browns fans show up week in and week out, good news or bad, win or lose, coddled or abused.
The question in Buffalo at the moment may be why anyone would want that job. It’s a pretty long list of reasons. The question in Cleveland always has been, why wouldn’t someone want this challenge? At the moment, it’s hard to think of one reason, which is probably how Holmgren arrived at his answer so quickly in the first place.