AROUND AND around they ran at the practice facility in Berea, Ohio—players doing one Eric Mangini--mandated lap of the field for each mistake they committed. Drop a pass? Take a lap. Commit a penalty? Take a lap. Miss a block? Get running.
Quarterbacks and linemen, stars and undrafted rookies—they all ran counterclockwise, as if to turn back the clock to a time when the Browns seemed to be full of promise. Such as this time last year, when they basked in the glow of a surprising 10--6 finish in 2007 and looked forward to five prime-time games in '08. But the season started badly, with three defeats, and ended much, much worse. Cleveland lost its final six games, failing to score an offensive touchdown in any of the six, an NFL record for futility. The nadir came in the finale, a 31--0 thrashing at Pittsburgh that marked the Browns' 11th straight loss to their supposed archrival. Cleveland fired general manager Phil Savage that night and coach Romeo Crennel the next day. "The easy answer is to say we had a lot of injuries," says Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas. "But when things are going bad like that, it's top to bottom."
Enter Mangini, whom the Jets fired in December after three seasons and a 23--25 record, and whom the Browns a week later gave the task of remaking a team that had become rudderless and sloppy. The 38-year-old Mangini's attempt to instill discipline and toughness wasn't manifest only in the punitive laps. He has banned talking on cellphones and playing music in the locker room. He holds players accountable for parking their cars in their assigned spots. He requires that they memorize motivational phrases that he has mounted around the facility. (By the locker room's entrance: THE WILL TO WIN IS NOTHING WITHOUT THE WILL TO PREPARE.) His practices often exceed their scheduled two hours and sometimes include more hitting, players say, than a week's worth of Crennel's sessions.
"There was all this talk about Mangini coming in and tearing up a happy home, but I'll tell you what: It's been nothing but good for all of us," says fourth-year linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who led the NFL in tackles with 154 in '08. "What we were doing wasn't enough. We're buying in."
Says Pro Bowl return man Josh Cribbs, "He let us know that things were going to change by moving Kellen"—Mangini traded tight end Kellen Winslow to the Buccaneers in February—"and with the rules. We needed discipline, and he brought it to us."
Sitting in his office in early August, Mangini—who keeps information such as his depth chart and the status of players' injuries not just close to the vest but deep within its lining—explained his philosophy. "The one thing I learned in New York is the importance of explaining why I'm doing things," he said, sounding close to admitting that he'd been too despotic in his first head-coaching gig after nearly a decade at Bill Belichick's knee. "The rules are there for one reason. We've got white, black, old, young, East Coast, West Coast, all different types in one locker room. But on Sunday we have to be Browns. The rules are designed to let this diverse community operate effectively."
A day later receiver Syndric Steptoe suffered a season-ending torn labrum during what was scheduled to be a walk-through but became a full-speed practice in a heavy rain. Steptoe's agent publicly blamed the injury on the coach, which could be a sign of things to come. If the Browns—who'll be quarterbacked by either the unproven Brady Quinn or the regressing Derek Anderson, and whose schedule includes four games against the stacked Steelers and Ravens—don't improve significantly upon last year's disaster, Mangini could quickly turn from discipline-instilling savior into overbearing scapegoat.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: ERIC MANGINI
23--25 in NFL, first season with Browns