I’ll admit. I’m a fan of Eric Mangini.
OK, I can hear you say “Why?” Well, as a defensive secondary coach for the New England Patriots during the 2004-05 playoffs and Super Bowl, Mangini was the guy who coached their injury-decimated secondary, filled with an undrafted rookie (Randall Gay) and a wide receiver (Troy Brown). The Patriots were 7th in interceptions that year and had 3 in the Super Bowl. As a head coach for the Jets, Mangini was handed a misshaped roster with a brittle quarterback, a poor offensive line and a defense ill-suited for his talents; yet made some decent lemonade with those lemons. He also was good at drafting and developing players, such as D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, Darrell Revis, Leon Washington, David Harris, Dustin Keller and Eric Smith (Vernon Gholston is the exception that proves the rule). In short, had he more of the players he wanted, he could have taken the Jets further—but he left the Jets a much better team than when he arrived.
That said, he should have definitely not taken the Cleveland Browns job.
It was always going to get worse before it got better in the Dawg Pound. The quarterbacks on the roster averaged an appalling 48.8% completion rating the year before Mangini got there. Despite having a supposedly aggressive 3-4 defense, the Browns were 31st in the league in sacks. They were fifth worst in rushing defense.
One year later, with Mangini at the helm, the Browns were 8th best in the league in sacks. Largely built from cast-offs and journeymen—like Matt Roth and David Bowens, Mangini built a fairly impressive defensive pressure unit. The rush defense had fewer improvements, but got better as the season went on.
On offense, the improvement was much more marginal—but when your quarterbacks are Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, the offense is going to be a bit bumpy.
But the team improvement was there. Consider the 2nd half of last season, after a terrible loss to the Detroit Lions, a game they should have won, had “Hall-of-Famer” Hank Poteat—no longer with the Browns—not made a bonehead pass interference. After that game, the Browns noticeably improved, even if it didn’t show up in the win column. They limited Carson Palmer to 110 passing the next week. They kept Darrin Sproles and the Chargers to 91 yards rushing total the following week. And then they won the next 4 games straight, including wins over Pittsburgh and Jacksonville.
The thing to notice in those last 4 wins is the rushing yards from scrimmage for the Browns. Suddenly, with Jamal Lewis out, Mangini found the personnel he needed to run his type of offense. In the last 4 games, the Browns averaged 225 Ypg, meaning that Mangini had to only ask the dreadful Browns QBs to average a mere 16 passes a game in those games. Against the Steelers and Jaguars, 2 of the better run defenses in the NFL, the Browns ran the ball 86 times for 385 yards, or 4.5 yards a carry.
If the last 4 games of 2009 were any indication, then the Browns are headed in the right direction. But the thing is, no matter how much of a genius Mangini may be in winning those 4 games with a CFL roster, in the NFL today, you need to turn things around quickly. And without an upper tier quarterback, Mangini won’t win the AFC North. He just won’t.
Toss out Eli Manning’s incredible postseason in 2007 and the recent Super Bowls go to Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Do you see any of those guys on the Browns roster? Is The Ghost of Jake Delhomme—he of the 2009 59.4% QB rating—in the same league as those guys? Maybe Colt McCoy could be some day, but right now he’s the 4th string QB in the Browns training camp behind Brett Ratliff. That number again, is “4th-string.”
The smart move for Mangini would have been to take a year or two as a defensive coordinator somewhere. Mangini was a very good defensive coordinator. And not just on the Patriots. As Head Coach of the Jets, when he took the defensive game-planning chores from Bob Sutton, the Jets defense was immeasurably better. (See the Steelers game in 2007, when the Jets were coming off their break: The Steelers had no idea what the Jets were doing defensively and as a result, the Jets had 7 sacks, and stopped the Steelers run game. The 1-8 Jets beat the 7-2 Steelers.) After doing the job as a DC somewhere (Broncos? Packers?) for a couple of years, then Mangini could have looked for a head coach job, but with the advantage on his side. He wouldn’t have had to jump into an awful situation where there was no QB, a talent-poor roster, and a shaky front office—in other words—a job were the deck wasn’t completely stacked against him.
The Browns have a decent shot to be respectable this year. Mangini has his philosophy a little more ingrained into his players; his roster is a little closer to where he would like it to be. And once again, they finished 2009 with a nice 4-game win streak. (I bet Mangini can’t have that said enough.) However, this season, the Browns not only have to play the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens twice, they also have to face the AFC East this season—Patriots, Jets and Dolphins—and the NFC South—Saints, Falcons and Panthers. That’s a hard 12 games right there, for any coach, especially for one without a quarterback. If the Browns manage to go 7-9 or better—a big if—then Mangini might get to keep his job. If not, the Browns are making yet another change. And the luster of Mangini’s star—regardless of what he was able to accomplish with lesser talent—will be much dimmed.