April 24, 2014

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Browns season preview: The big 3 of Mike Holmgren, Eric Mangini and Jake Delhomme

Scott Petrak

The Chronicle-Telegram

The Browns have 53 players on their roster and eight more on the practice squad. They have 19 coaches. The front office is too large to count.

The 2010 season is all about three men: president Mike Holmgren, coach Eric Mangini and quarterback Jake Delhomme.

The undisputed leaders of the organization, coaching staff and players. Two newcomers to the organization and one unlikely holdover.

All have prospered elsewhere. Can they beat the odds, work together and transfer the winning ways to success-starved Cleveland?

The fate of the franchise is in their hands.

 

THE PREZ

Holmgren has the title, office and salary of a top executive. His preferred wardrobe is that of a coach.

If not for the impossible-to-miss golf cart necessary to take the stress off his surgically repaired foot, Holmgren would’ve blended into his surroundings during training camp. He wore athletic shorts and a T-shirt daily, just like every coach on the field.

That only follows. Holmgren was a coach for 38 years before taking a year off, then becoming Browns president in January. People throughout team headquarters still call him Coach.

But that’s no longer his job. The film sessions and game-planning meetings have been replaced by sales pitches and budget projections.

“It is a huge change,” he said Wednesday in an interview with The Chronicle. “I thought about it prior to the start of training camp, and I forced myself to eliminate having a whistle and blowing a whistle.

“I found myself thinking at times how I’d run a drill or what I’d say to a player, but I held off. I enjoyed watching the coaches work, watching Eric work.”

When Holmgren took the president’s job, he decided he would no longer be standing on the sideline on Sundays. But there are only so many marketing meetings a coach can sit through before he longs for the X’s and O’s.

So there he was at training camp watching every dull drill from right behind the action. When practice was over, he drove to the traditional team huddle and eavesdropped on Mangini’s speech.

“I don’t really critique. I don’t think it’s fair,” Holmgren said. “I’m interested in what he says. He’s a thoughtful guy.

“I’m watching the players. He gets his message across.”

Holmgren’s effectiveness as a communicator has been obvious in his eight-plus months on the job. He also has the ability to play the intimidator when he deems it necessary.

Seneca Wallace was a backup quarterback for six years when Holmgren was coach in Seattle. He said the players nicknamed him Deebo after a bully in the movie “Friday,”

“When he was coaching he definitely demanded perfection,” Wallace said. “That’s the kind of person he was. There wasn’t a lot of joking around. He demanded a lot out of his players all the time, on and off the field.”

Holmgren surely has high expectations for Mangini.

Holmgren won a Super Bowl as a coach in Green Bay and lost one as a coach in Seattle. He kept Mangini for 2010 but didn’t promise him anything beyond.

“With each day, with each month, I feel better about the decision to keep him,” Holmgren said. “I did the right thing. I’m convinced I did the right thing.

“But the pressure to win is always going to be there.”

Holmgren is back in the game he loves while continuing to adjust to his new role.

“There’s a lot to the job, but I came in with my eyes wide open,” he said. “I knew there would be different things I’d be responsible for, but I don’t know if I really had a grasp of how much. I wasn’t going to shortchange Randy Lerner, who gave me this chance. I’m probably working a little harder than I thought I was going to work.

“I have a much greater appreciation for the business side and all the people involved in making it work. There are a lot of good people in the building.”

The impact of a president on a team isn’t always recognizable. He doesn’t talk to the players or media on a daily basis and spends most of his time behind the scenes.

The players say the Holmgren Effect is obvious.

“There are certainly some changes he’s brought with him,” left tackle Joe Thomas said. “There’s a lot more confidence in the building in general. Just having him here is kind of a calming presence.

“A guy like him that’s had a fabulous career gains a lot of respect throughout the league. He demands respect, and I think that’s a good thing as a president.”

Delhomme said Holmgren was a big reason he chose to sign with Cleveland.

“When he walks into a building, a room, a locker room, I feel there’s instant credibility,” Delhomme said. “With a Bill Parcells and coaches of that nature, they’ve won, they know how to win, they know how to compile a team. It’s a comforting feeling to see he’s going to try to get the right pieces, and it’s up to us to make those pieces work.”

 

THE COACH

Mangini always seemed to be in the same pose last year. Arms folded tightly across his chest, face in a permanent scowl. You’ve seen the pictures.

He’s different this year.

His hands are relaxed in his pockets. He has a big smile when he passes in the hallway. He left a news conference with a slightly sarcastic but genuinely funny, “Good times,” after he grew tired of the line of questioning. He did a full-blown and dead-on impersonation of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

“He’s always been like that,” said linebacker David Bowens, who followed Mangini from New York. “People always ask me why he’s so mean. I’m like, he’s really not.

“Maybe he’s more relaxed or calm.”

Mangini’s core values haven’t changed. He remains committed to discipline and levies fines for not following the rules. He still pays attention to the smallest detail.

Mangini has always been confident in his ability and his method, but he sometimes came across as insecure. He’s found his voice this year.

“The thing I find with my kids is I’ll talk to them in my father’s voice sometimes,” he told the Associated Press. “I can hear his voice as I say something and I have to say, ‘OK, now I need to put this in my voice and take what I think is the most important lesson and deliver it in a way that I think it should be delivered.’

“I think the same thing happens in football. When you are raised by two very strong figures like Bill (Parcells) and Bill (Belichick), you tend to hear their voice a lot when you’re in that role and I’m learning more and more that those lessons are very important but I need to put it in my voice and I need to deliver it in my style.”

Only this year did Mangini rewrite a memo about offseason procedures. For four years, he had just changed the times and dates on an old Belichick form.

“People that I’m friendly with say, ‘Look, you’ve got a good sense of humor, why don’t you ever show it?’” Mangini said. “I guess I never really thought of it in those terms and when you do hear it, it’s good feedback and it reminds you — do it your way, put it in your style. Be who you are and that’s the most important thing.”

The real Mangini has been a hit with his players. Not only did Mangini relax the training camp schedule with more days off from practice, they find him easier to relate to and communicate with.

“I think the players get me a heck of a lot more than they did last year,” he said. “I think I’ve worked a lot harder to show who I am.”

“It seems like he’s smiling a lot more,” said linebacker Eric Barton, another disciple from New York. “But he’s the same coach.”

The most obvious external change is the addition of Holmgren, whose biggest decision was to not make a change at coach. He didn’t have a history with Mangini, yet felt the fair thing was to give him a second year on the job.

The presence of Holmgren could be seen as intimidating. A 6-foot-5 former Super Bowl coach with a legion of friends and pupils throughout the league who could replace Mangini at a moment’s notice.

But he has empowered Mangini.

“He definitely seems like he’s a lot more at ease,” Thomas said of Mangini. “Some of the weight has been lifted off his shoulders. It was almost like he was president, GM, head coach. He did everything.

“So now to have some of that responsibility taken off him and given what he knows best — the coaching, the X’s and O’s, the players — now he can have control over that. I think that’s really comforting to him.”

Mangini joked that contacting the NFL about a possible suspension of nose tackle Shaun Rogers was “above his pay grade.” He’s also referred questions about possible trades or the organization’s rift with Jim Brown to Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert.

“It allows him to listen more, to coach more, to understand more,” said Bowens, who added Mangini was accepting more input from players. “He’s always admitted he’s never been a player and it’s hard for him to understand it sometimes. When he’s out here and he’s talking to guys, he’s understanding guys more and he doesn’t have all these hats and things.

“He can concentrate more on the player and I love that about him.”

All the positive preseason vibes can’t remove Mangini from the hot seat. Holmgren wants to win and isn’t likely to stand idly by if this season starts 1-11 like last year.

Some around the league feel Holmgren would step back onto the sideline, or hire Jon Gruden or Marty Mornhinweg.

Mangini knows a coaching job is never secure. He was headed toward his second playoff trip in three seasons with the Jets before the bottom fell out, they missed the postseason and he was fired.

He learned to surround himself with guys he can count on. If he fails, he’s going to fail with a group of players who are smart, tough, disciplined, hardworking and committed to winning as much as he is.

“He’s just trusting his team more,” said receiver Chansi Stuckey, another former Jet. “He’s got his guys in here, he knows us, he feels comfortable.”

 

THE QB

In John Clayton’s ranking of quarterbacks for ESPN, Delhomme was 33rd. The NFL has 32 teams. (He was behind Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich.)

Like many outsiders, Clayton sees a 35-year-old coming off an eight-touchdown, 18-interception 2009 season and Tommy John elbow surgery in 2007. He sees someone who was run out of Carolina despite five good years and still being owed $12.5 million guaranteed.

If “Professor” Clayton is correct, the Browns are in trouble.

They’re not worried.

“Look at his track record,” receiver Mohamed Massaquoi said. “This isn’t his first go-round. He’s proven time and time again he can be successful.”

Delhomme had a difficult time leaving Carolina, where he had created a home and a career. He was then faced with a tough choice — the chance to start in Cleveland or be a backup for Super Bowl champion New Orleans.

He wanted one more chance to make an impact.

“You just want to be a part of helping turn something around,” he said. “That was so intriguing.”

Delhomme vowed to put 2009 behind him and start anew.

“Jake kind of got a raw deal down there,” former teammate Julius Peppers told the Chicago Tribune. “That’s the business side of it. It was just unfortunate, but I’m happy he landed on his feet.

“I was shocked when they let him go. He has done a lot for that team. He took more of the blame than should have been placed on him for the team underachieving.”

The Cleveland fans and some in the media piled on when Delhomme arrived. They didn’t see him as much of an improvement over Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn – whoever was their favorite.

Those within the organization had a different opinion. Delhomme quickly fit in his new locker room and displayed all the intangibles that had been missing at quarterback. It was a breath of fresh air from a guy who credits a fresh start for his wonderful attitude and nearly perfect preseason performance.

“You don’t know what ‘It’ is, but he has what ‘It’ is,” Massaquoi said. “You can’t teach it, you can’t coach it, he just has it. The presence that he brings, I don’t even know how to explain it.”

His preseason began to win outside support. He went 38-for-48 (79 percent) for 345 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 110.5 rating.

“Last season I didn’t play well,” he said. “It’s something that will always be with me, and that’s fine. Your history’s your history, that’s what it is, that’s who you are.

“I didn’t play well and I just thought a fresh start would do me well. I truly believe it has and it was everything I thought plus some so far.”

Delhomme took a long and winding road to reach his NFL dream, but he knows success. He wasn’t drafted out of Louisiana-Lafayette, played on the same NFL Europe team as Kurt Warner and was cut three times before taking the Panthers to the Super Bowl in his first year as a starter. He made the Pro Bowl in 2005.

“No disrespect to Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson, I love both those guys,” running back Jerome Harrison said. “But it’s a different feeling. It’s a different operation.

“He’s been to the Super Bowl, been around 14 years. He knows what’s going on and it’s very easy to get on the same page because he’s got all his stuff covered. He’s a true professional on and off the field, in the classroom.”

Harrison gushes over No. 17 – Delhomme’s way more Brian Sipe than Braylon Edwards – and even pops into the quarterback meetings to pick his brain.

“He’s a true leader,” Harrison said. “I had never played with a guy like that before.

“When he gets to the huddle, it’s clear, ‘I got control of it. This is how we’re going to do it.’ And he’s doing it in the right way.”

Part of Mangini’s relaxed persona must be attributed to Delhomme. Mangini botched the quarterback competition last preseason, then watched both combatants fall flat when given multiple chances during the season. He trusts Delhomme.

“He runs the offense, and there is no doubt about it,” Mangini said.

The preseason reassured Holmgren and Mangini, but it won’t mean a thing if Delhomme flops starting Sunday. He must manage games, limit turnovers and execute the carefully prepared game plans.

“I tried not to make a mistake last year,” Delhomme said. “You’ve just got to go out and play. See it, throw it, play it and go from there, hope you make the right decision. You have to enjoy it and when you have the bad ones, you take it and you move on.

“I love what I do, I still have fun doing this. I’m just myself, and hopefully guys can rally behind that and we can all rally behind each other.”

From the president to the coach to the quarterback.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.