MIKE HOLMGREN spent his year away from football like many sixtysomethings. He doted on his grandchildren, caught up on reading and indulged in a favorite pastime—in Holmgren's case, riding his Harley. When Browns owner Randy Lerner offered him a job last December as team president, Holmgren knew that if he accepted, the rhythms of his life would change. He consulted Bill Parcells, Bill Polian and John Madden, a triumvirate of NFL lifers who had aged gracefully in different jobs, and most important, he talked with his wife, Kathy, who gave him her blessing. Says Holmgren, 62, of the task of resurrecting the Browns, "I call it the last great adventure."
Many in northeast Ohio were amazed that the adventure did not begin with a change of coach, possibly even with Holmgren—who spent 17 seasons as the head man in Green Bay and Seattle—naming himself to the post. But over two days of winter meetings with the incumbent, Eric Mangini, Holmgren chose to keep him on, though Mangini won't be responsible for personnel decisions as he had been. "I made a promise to myself to give him a chance and not really listen to anybody else," Holmgren says. "It doesn't take long to know he's very bright, he cares, he's a hardworking guy. I just had to get him to smile a little more."
Clevelanders have reason to believe happier days are ahead. Mangini survived a 1--11 start, marked by grumbling from players about his coaching tactics, to close out 2009 on a four-game winning streak, including a victory over the hated Steelers. In that last month of the season the Browns seemed to have bought into Mangini's mantras about the core characteristics of a successful player (smart, tough, hardworking, competitive, selfless, a guy to whom football is important) and the core values of a successful team (communication, focus, finish, trust). Once they started winning, nobody questioned the coach's lengthy practices or his fines for parking in the wrong space. "Everybody wants progress, but nobody likes change," Mangini says. "It is uncomfortable. We changed a ton of stuff, the way things are done. I think a lot of people get it now. They've grown as a group, and I went through growth."
Says Browns linebacker David Bowens, who also played under Mangini with the Jets, "This year everyone knows what they're supposed to do, how Eric is going to treat everybody, and it's allowing us to relax a lot more."
While they kept the coach, Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert made some big off-season personnel moves, acquiring veterans (linebackers Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong, cornerback Sheldon Brown) and shedding many holdovers from the previous regime (quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, running back Jamal Lewis). "Last year's team was a combination of Romeo [Crennel's] guys and [Mangini's] guys," says linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. "This year we have a better fit of his style of player."
With new quarterback Jake Delhomme needing to find chemistry with young skill position players, the Browns will likely be looking up at Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincy for a while longer in the demanding AFC North. Still, there's a sense in the locker room that Cleveland weathered a dark period and is headed for a turnaround. The person who might face the biggest challenge of all this season is Holmgren, who'll be watching games from a suite instead of his customary place on the sideline.
"When the game was going a certain way, I always felt I could fix it," he says. "I'm not tweaking anything anymore. Someone else is. I have to do what I do for the organization to get it going, and [Mangini] is coaching. I promised him, 'My door will always be open for you, but I'm not going to come running into your office pounding on the table.'"
Mangini appears comfortable with the relationship and happy to have an experienced sounding board on coaching matters. "When I sit down with him," Mangini says, "I'm not talking to someone who hasn't been through the whole range of problems."
It will be an interesting marriage, the elder Holmgren adjusting to his new role as president, the young lion Mangini, 23 years his junior, still finding his voice. The president's role might be new, but the nameplate on his golf cart during training camp looked familiar: COACH HOLMGREN.