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Browns face quandary with question of Mangini's future

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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When Mike Holmgren arrived in Cleveland in 2009, presumably wearing shining armor and riding atop a white steed, he made an immediate declaration.

The new Browns president stated he would base his decision about the future of coach Eric Mangini not on wins and losses, but rather on his perception of the team's direction.

Eric Mangini has placed the rest of the Browns' season -- and perhaps his future in Cleveland -- with rookie Colt McCoy. (Getty Images)  
Eric Mangini has placed the rest of the Browns' season -- and perhaps his future in Cleveland -- with rookie Colt McCoy. (Getty Images)  
Holmgren was true to his word. Citing a stunning reversal after last year's 1-11 start, he brought Mangini back. The four-game winning streak to conclude the season was not the deciding factor, but rather how it was achieved in all facets of the game.

It can be assumed that Holmgren will use the same criteria to determine the coach's fate after this year. But these schizophrenic Browns are not as easy to judge, which makes his analysis far more difficult.

Though the team's 5-8 record can hardly be called a breakthrough, when looking beneath the surface it is apparent the team has made significant strides. While seven of the first eight losses in 2009 came by 13 points or more, this Browns team has been blown out just once despite a brutal schedule. While the four wins to end last season came against struggling teams, in successive weeks of 2010 the Browns dominated New Orleans and New England, neither of which has lost since. They followed up those wins with a heartbreaking overtime loss to what was then a highly respected New York Jets team.

But if Holmgren is indeed using the direction of the team as the final measuring stick, it must be pointed out that the Browns have since regressed. They would be in the midst of a five-game losing streak had Carolina's John Kasay not missed a game-winning field goal and Miami cornerback Nolan Carroll not dropped a sure pick-six in the fourth quarter of the following game.

Yet it was still easy to argue that the Browns had shown enough progress to justify Mangini's return until the fiasco in Buffalo last Sunday. The Browns played their worst game of the season against the Bills. A disturbing aspect of the defeat was that they performed with little intensity despite the iota of playoff hope that still remained. Several Browns admitted that the Bills played with greater energy and determination. That is a reflection on Mangini.

A study of the Browns' roster might lead one to conclude that Mangini has exceeded reasonable expectations in compiling a 5-8 record. Skill-position talent is woefully lacking -- though he was to blame for selecting unproductive wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie in the second round of the 2009 draft. The Browns must depend on trickery to generate a pass rush because of a lack of athleticism on the edge. There is promising young talent on this team, yet there is not one proven great player on either side of the ball.

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That ties in with one criticism of Mangini, who seems to place equal importance on qualities such as character, intelligence and selflessness as he does on pure talent. He rid the team of wide receiver Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow because he considered their conduct and attitude detrimental.

While that assessment was certainly not unfounded, the Browns had nobody to replace their production. The result is an offense that depends too much on battering-ram running back Peyton Hillis and must contend weekly with eight or nine in the box due to a virtually nonexistent vertical passing game.

Mangini has stated what should be the obvious, that the Browns must outperform opponents down the stretch to win games. He offers that they have to play mistake-free football, limiting turnovers and penalties, to have any chance to emerge with victories.

But critics contend that his goal should be to develop a roster that is strong and talented enough to overcome mistakes. Teams that accept the fact that they're destined for a dogfight against all opponents -- even those as weak as Buffalo -- are also destined to lose some of those games. Mangini admitted that the reason he opted for a field goal rather than a shot at the end zone with the ball at the Buffalo 1 on the opening possession was that he expected a battle to the finish. The Browns have lacked a killer instinct all season. And Mangini's coaching philosophy appears to be one reason why.

The promise of rookie quarterback Colt McCoy, who was greatly responsible for the wins over the Saints and Patriots, has provided a badly needed sense of optimism for justifiably pessimistic Cleveland sports fans. As much as his early development under Mangini would seem to be a mark in favor of keeping the coach, McCoy's presence could actually motivate Holmgren to take the team in another direction. Holmgren is steeped in the West Coast tradition and the deadly accurate McCoy would seem to be the perfect fit. That fact, as well as the criticism heaped upon offensive coordinator Brian Daboll for a perceived lack of creativity, will likely at least result in Daboll's ouster at season's end, even if Mangini is allowed to stick around.

Holmgren will not fire Mangini without a strong sense that a better candidate can be attracted. And based on Holmgren's bye-week proclamation that the coaching bug has yet to leave his system, that candidate could conceivably be the guy he sees in the mirror.

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