You can follow Charles Robinson on Twitter at @YahooSportsNFL.
The rumor began to circulate in late December, when it became clear the Cleveland Browns were intent on pressing the reset button on the entire football kingdom. As franchise owner Randy Lerner moved to make sweeping changes, an unbelievable nugget of information circulated amongst other front offices: the Browns were intent on letting the next head coach handpick his general manager.
For a moment, it caused some of the NFL's heavy hitters to sit up in anticipation. After all, this was the kind of gesture that spoke of something dramatic. You don't just let any coach make the call on his general manager. To justify that kind of loaded arrangement, it suggested the Browns were preparing not only to move the needle on their next coaching hire, but to break it off the scale.
Then Lerner tabbed Eric Mangini to preside over his empire. And in turn, Mangini selected his close friend and former Baltimore Ravens executive George Kokinis to oversee what promised to be a massive rebuilding job – two moves which left the jaws of many NFL decision-makers on the floor.
Not only had Lerner taken a leap on a coach who had yet to actually earn a significant amount of respect in the league, he then allowed that coach to effectively choose the man who should have been a balancing force in the equation. Lerner, often the smartest man in the room and with a surname fitting his rich education, had seemly out-thought himself.
"The thing was nonsense from the get-go," said an NFL executive who had intimate knowledge of Cleveland's offseason shake-up. "But I thought 'OK, [Lerner] is chasing a whale.' That was really the only thing I could think – that he must have been working on a bulletproof hire. If that's the decision [giving a coach the call on the general manager], it has to be that kind of coach, right? It has to be Bill Parcells or Tony Dungy or maybe someone like Joe Gibbs. … I was definitely curious. Then they hired [Mangini] and it was just like, 'Wow, where are they going with that?' "
Ten months later, we have the answer, and Lerner is still paying the price. The Browns have become the league's battered ship, 1-7 and foundering, with no map and no port in sight. Now the fan base has resorted to consistently spewing venom, while Kokinis was fired earlier this week under what can only be described as sketchy circumstances.
So who's to blame? Well, when Lerner met with some prominent fans earlier this week to discuss the Browns' problems, he pointed the finger at himself. And frankly, that might just be the first thing he's gotten right in the past 10 months.
Until recently, the easiest target in the Cleveland franchise has been Mangini, who has taken a consistent carpet-bombing from the media since the offseason. And I'm certainly no stranger to that, having criticized the Browns' head coach for a multitude of things – most recently his handling of his quarterback situation.
That Lerner continues to support Mangini really shouldn't be a surprise. After all, Mangini hasn't changed. He's the same coach he was with the New York Jets and, in some ways, the same coach he was when serving as an assistant with the New England Patriots. Say what you want about his style or demeanor or decision-making, but it's not vastly different than what he displayed at previous stops. In essence, Lerner is getting exactly what he hired.
But the product itself is worth some examination. What was Lerner getting when he tabbed Mangini? He was selecting a guy who had a penchant for running a tight ship and setting high expectations, but also for walling himself off and developing friction with key veteran players. He hired a coach lauded for an elite work ethic, but who also burned the candle beyond realistic boundaries, sometimes working his Jets staff into the wee hours of the morning.
Perhaps most telling, Lerner was hiring a coach who had been given an awful lot of credit and respect in an extremely short period of time – so much so that we have to look back and wonder whether Mangini might have been given too much too fast. In less than a year, he went from positional coach to defensive coordinator with the Patriots and then to head coach of the Jets. In that first season, he took a solidly talented Jets team to a 10-6 mark, but also did it with a remarkable run of health and with a roster put in place largely by Herm Edwards.
One minute, Mangini was a rising star paying his dues in the Patriots system. The next, he was being dubbed "Mangenius," appearing on "The Sopranos" and starring in a national cellphone commercial. All of this after a 10-6 season and a playoff loss in 2006. Then after a career 23-26 record (including his one postseason defeat), he gets fired by the Jets and then hired by the Browns seemingly before he's had a chance to put his suitcases down.
So yeah, excuse me if I think Mangini was afforded a lot of affection and a second opportunity that was slightly out of whack for his accomplishments. But that's not to blame Mangini. He simply took the respect and credit which the media and NFL establishment was so eager to give him. You can't blame him for that, particularly when he has remained the same coach in Cleveland that he was in New York.
But you can blame Lerner, who should have known that he was extending Mangini a dangerous line of credit – particularly where it concerned Kokinis. In hindsight, Lerner should have just stuck to the old-fashioned method of hiring a general manager and then seeking out a new coach who fit the larger plan. Instead, he sold Mangini selecting Kokinis as a marriage that would assure the two sides were constantly on the same page.
And yet it only assured ambiguity. Half a season in, there are still conflicting stories about who was supposedly given the final say over personnel decisions. Those in Kokinis' camp insist he was told he would wield that power. Those close to Mangini say that's not the case. But what is clear: This breakup wasn't as sudden as the Browns are trying to make it seem. While both Lerner and Mangini have painted a picture of "sudden circumstances" forcing a change, league sources close to Mangini suggest that he had been greasing the skids on Kokinis for some time, lamenting their inability to work together.
All of which brings us back to January. Those who knew Kokinis well in the Ravens organization were a bit puzzled by how he was going to be able to work with Mangini. Kokinis was known as an affable, open and rarely paranoid executive – which was in many ways the opposite of the traits Mangini has illustrated over his brief career as a head coach. And many, many league executives saw this same disparity.
I keep wondering where Lerner was in all this. Why wasn't he hearing the same things the rest of the football world was talking about in January? For an extremely sharp and well-educated owner, he certainly took a big gamble on Mangini. Then he took a bigger one when he let Mangini bring in Kokinis.
Either Lerner was ignorant to all of the conflicting issues which clearly existed or he chose to ignore them. Now he's stepping out and saying he wants to find a credible leader for his franchise. Perhaps it's time for him to start looking at himself. That's where this mess began in the first place.
- Randy Lerner
- Eric Mangini
- the Browns
- George Kokinis