Moving Forward in Berea: Mike Holmgren, legacies and dirty water

In a lot of ways, I’m happy that Mike Holmgren’s services are no longer needed in Cleveland. Given the team’s record over the last three years, I welcome the opportunity to have someone else lead this team. Still, I’m a bit taken aback by some of the outbursts on Twitter and on local talk radio that look to cast Mike Holmgren as public enemy number one. Yes, Mike Holmgren made a lot of money. No, Mike Holmgren’s teams haven’t won anywhere near enough games. Yes, he personally led a few of the biggest PR nightmares of the last few years between Seattle radio and not addressing Colt McCoy’s concussion situation appropriately. Yes, Mike Holmgren almost undoubtedly hired the wrong coach when given the chance. Even all those things being said, I think memories are short for just how bleak things had become with Randy Lerner guiding the Browns.

I’ve come to grips with the fact that Eric Mangini was a good coach in many ways and his replacement is not. The lesson of Eric Mangini in all reality is that even a proficient NFL football coach can’t succeed in a leadership vacuum. The lesson of Mike Holmgren is similar in that we now know that a de facto owner, as Jimmy Haslam called Holmgren, couldn’t succeed in a leadership vacuum either. Or at least he couldn’t succeed in a three year period with any margin for error. Even with all that said, I don’t understand why there is such vitriol for Mike Holmgren as he departs.

The fact remains that Mike Holmgren gave this team structure where there wasn’t any. Randy Lerner is to blame for the Kokinis/Mangini fiasco. Mike Holmgren was faced with cleaning it up. He was faced with putting a organizational structure in place where there hadn’t been one since Phil Savage won the power struggle with John Collins. Holmgren brought in general manager Tom Heckert, as well as front office members like Bryan Wiedemeier, Gil Haskell, Jon Sandusky and John Spytek. Even though it hasn’t shown up on the field yet in terms of wins and losses, there’s little doubt that the Browns in 2012 are a significantly improved collection of talent than the ones left at the end of Romeo Crennel’s tenure. Considering that many of those executives have only been on the job since February of 2010, it all seems largely unfinished for good reason.

And that’s the larger point here: Mike Holmgren wasn’t the savior anyone fashioned, but there’s no telling if anyone would have been able to do better under the vacuous hole – Lerner – that required Mike Holmgren to sell season tickets, attend ownership meetings and also turn around an historically bad team on the field simultaneously. This isn’t to say Mike Holmgren did a great or even good job. This isn’t even to give Holmgren a pass. This is to say that it’s incomplete at best.

Mike Holmgren was working on a five-year plan. You can argue that it should have and could have been a shorter timeline without a few of the decisions we deem mistakes today, and you might even be right. The point is that I’m not crazy enough to say that things aren’t better than if Randy Lerner had continued in his role as hiring manager and absentee organizer of this football program as what led to Savage/Romeo straight into Mangini/Kokinis. This is currently a three win football team which is pretty abysmal, but at least they feel like they’re on some kind of positive trajectory. As Mike Holmgren departs you can’t feel that way about the roster while also just labeling his tenure with a blanket “Good riddance!” I don’t think you can do that while being intellectually honest about the complexities of building any kind of organization.

As I said on Twitter, Browns fans were dying of thirst after Kokinis was shown the door and Eric Mangini was seemingly alone in Berea. Maybe Mike Holmgren was a glass of dirty water, but it was still potentially life-sustaining water. Could anyone have done better? Maybe, but with Bill Parcells’ legacy playing out in Miami and culminating with fan protests this off-season and Scott Pioli’s playing out in Kansas City with Romeo Crennel, there’s really no way to say for sure. Let’s just say while I’m not ready to bow down and thank Mike Holmgren for his tenure in Cleveland I’m also not saying “Good riddance for being a lazy money-grubber with his heart in Seattle” like I’ve seen so many other people say over the last couple weeks.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The most appropriate thing to say today is probably, “Thanks for trying and good luck.” Let’s also remember that one of the alternatives for Mike Holmgren could have been Scott Pioli.

Would you trade places with the Kansas City Chiefs today?

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

  • Toddyus

    Craig, thanks for your courage in saying this, and I agree. It’s too early and way over the top to run the guy out of town. As a collective group, we fans are like a spurned girlfriend acting out meanly and irrationally, when in truth there were some good times and some bad times. At the end of the day, we just weren’t meant for each other.

    I don’t think we can underestimate the mess that Holmgren walked into, and I’m just surprised that so few people believe we’re in a better position now than we were then. I equate day 1 for Holmgren to a rocket launch – it takes exponentially more power to create inertia for that rocket, than it takes to maintain it. I believe we have some inertia where we never did before and Holmgren deserves some credit.

    I hope I’m not wrong.

  • I agree wholeheartedly with every sentence of this piece. I don’t understand the hatred for Holmgren one bit. Does anyone honestly think Joe Banner’s job moving forward is not easier today than it would have been had Haslam bought the team before Holmgren?

    And does anyone think Haslam would have even bought the Browns had Holmgren not steadied the front office and put a real NFL structure in place in Berea? Maybe he would have solely because opportunities to buy NFL teams are rare. But imagine walking into that nightmare.

    The team hasn’t found success on the field. My opinion is that Pat Shurmur is mostly to blame for that. And Holmgren is to blame for hiring Shurmur. No question. But looking big picture, I feel better about the Browns today than I did 3 years ago before Holmgren came into Cleveland. And I think Holmgren deserves some credit for that.

    As I always say, I don’t believe in absolutes or black/white issues. Life is all about the grey in between, and Holmgren’s legacy falls somewhere inside that grey. There is good and there is bad. But I believe he tried the best he could, and I’ll thank him for that. And then I’ll move on and be glad Joe Banner is here now and I’ll hope Banner can succeed where Holmgren failed.

  • Garry_Owen

    Still the calm voice of reason, Craig. I appreciate it. Well said.

  • MrCleaveland

    I second that. Good job.

    Problem is that we had such high hopes that we finally got it right, and now here we are at 3-8.

    I was at the first day of training camp in 2010, and near the end of practice, Holmgren came over to the perimeter to greet the crowd. When he said, “Thank you for coming,” someone shouted back, “Thank YOU for coming.” We were so geeked. So I think the main problem was the unmet expectations, which were perhaps not realistic to begin with.

  • BenRM

    The fact that people bring up how much money he made seems to indicate childish jealousy and laziness rather than a legitimate gripe (despite the fact that there are many gripes to be had).

  • BenRM

    but don’t tell Tony Grossi that.

  • AMC

    Well reasoned piece. I do think Holmgren inherited a complete mess and I do think he did some positive things. However, I think his ego/cronyism got the best of him with his one and only head coach hire and that will forever overshadow his tenure with the Browns as far as I’m concerned.

  • Dee P

    Just salivating at the idea of Haden and Milliner as the Browns starting corners in 2013. I mean seriously – where do you go with a pass as an opposing QB?

    We have seen how our D-Line when fully intact can shutdown a run game with Taylor and Rubin up the middle.

    Add a healthy Gocong to the LB unit and we are knocking on the door with a dominant defense.

    It is so critical we get a Milliner-type in the 1st round this April….so critical.

  • mgbode

    we wanted someone to build this thing the right way from the ground up and not just bandaid things. Holmgren/Heckert at least attempted it.

    I don’t know if it will ultimately be successful, but we have alot of talent/youth that have alot of promise. The team has been in every game and fights tooth and nail to the finish. The defense has been better than expected once finally healthy. Weeden is the ultimate question mark and perhaps the key to the whole thing, but we shall see what happens.

    Holmgren had many faults (PR being chief among them, he cannot seem to help but come off as if he’s talking down to the media), but the underworkings seem stable for the first time since the rebirth.

  • Kildawg

    Back to the 80s, which is something I want to witness instead of just hearing about it. Maybe Weeden can be more like Bernie Kosar (he wasn’t too mobile either). Is Watson going to be re-signed or is Cameron the starting TE (which might be a weak point if we let Watson go). A pair of dominant CBs with Brown at FS and Ward at SS, our awesome DL (maybe Winn is a bit better at DE- might need another though), and a young and hungry LB core led by DQ (OLB can be improved but the nickel package helps hide the weakness). At this point, all we would need is a competent head coach (maybe the guy out of Kent State?) and we would be in playoff contention yearly like the team we just beat.

  • Dee P

    Yep. I’d be even willing to use our 3rd rounder on an OG if a top one was still available. This year of experience is going to do wonders for guys like Winn, Hughes, Schwartz, Richardson, Gordon, Cameron, Weeden, Robertson, Wade, Benjamin, and Skrine.

    And then add the fact that guys will have another year of upward progression like Hardesty, Little, Mack, Ward, Haden, and Sheard.

    We are really on to something here if we just stop the nonsense and make sure we grab that CB from Alabama in the 1st round.

  • Cuzon

    I think the whole don’t call for playoff tickets and the general abrasive nature has a lot to do with it. At least the future is bright

  • “I’m a bit taken aback by some of the outbursts on Twitter and on local talk radio..”

    he took ‘a lot of money’ to learn ‘how-to-be-a-CEO’. we really didn’t need help on the business side of things. the business was profitable.
    on the football side, all data points to a mailed-in, crony hire. pat shurmur was surely not the most qualified coach available.

    you ask if we’d rather be kansas city. i ask why we’re not denver.

  • Hopwin

    I can only speak for myself when I say the reasons I harbor so much ill-will towards Holmgren are as such:
    1) Mangini appeared to have the Browns on track his final year and Holmgren canned him for it
    2) Holmgren’s pedigree as a “football guy” was always spurious. He took an inherited Green Bay team to the Super Bowl and then Shaun Alexander single-handedly carried the Seahawks (in the weakest division in football) to the Super Bowl.
    3) Holmgren’s first hire was throwing $6M at Jake Delhomme and another $3-4M for Seneca Wallace
    4) Holmgren’s head-coaching “search” was a complete joke (3 candidates, 1 of which was a token to cover the Rooney-Rule)
    5) Refusal to speak to the media “Ask Pat!”
    6) On the occassions where he did deign to speak to the media it was with derision, condesencion and disdain.
    7) Accusations of cronyism were not allayed at all by continuously hiring Bob Lamonte clients.
    8) Fan conduct policies became increasingly draconian under his stewardship.
    a. No standing policy
    b. Shortening of tailgating hours at the muni lot
    c. Random texting of “abuses” to stadium enforcement goons
    So put me in the category of not-happy with the hire from the beginning.

  • maxfnmloans

    Randy Lerner was the real problem? No way

  • porckchopexpress

    Great piece Craig, count me in the group that believed that a five year plan given the complete chaos of the situation prior to Holmgren’s arrival. To me he is deserving of whatever sendoff fans personally like giving him. To me its interesting that he seemed better at the things most people had questions about (day to day business operations) and seemed really bad at football related things (coaches, PR).

    So if you are grateful for somebody – anybody – stepping in and intilling some stability to organization. If you think he did a great job rebuilding the personel department from the scouts to Heckert, then by all means wish Holmgren a fond farewell. If you feel that this man wasted 3 years of your football life by making a bad decision on Mangini, and a worse one on Shurmur. If you feel he overlooked or insulted you by “breaking” news to Seattle, or the way his numerous PR gaffes, then by all means tweet disgust at him.

    I feel like he provided ample opportunities for both appreciation and disgust. I’m a fence sitter on the issue, since Craig has outlined a very rational case for why people shouldn’t be happy to see him go, I thought I’d at least give a go at why people should.

    Imagine you’re a Ford Motor Co. shareholder, and Mike Holmgren was put in charge of Ford after the bailout, for a total restructuring. Mike does a great job at changing the culture and philosphy in the marketing department, HR, etc. He puts great people in place for purchasing parts, and R&D are overhauled and have some great ideas for the future. Then Mike turns to the single most important part of his job which is choosing someone to oversee the actual building of cars. He doesn’t even look at any candidate, but instead chooses a mid-level manager who had been at best adequate in his job at Chrysler, and it turns out he made this decision based on friendship and favors rather than actual competency. Then when it appears that this person is in over his head, does Holmgren use his immense knowledge of car building to help the young man? No, there is no outward evidence that he does anything more than offer passive advice. What’s more he shows an alarming tendency to allow the young carmaker to be blindsided from all sides. Holmgren knows shareholders are angry and have serious questions about the product but he allows the young man to walk into meetings alone, and seemingly without any briefing. Furthermore, most information shareholders get comes from outside news sources as Holmgren prefers to talk of critical company matters to people other than his investors. Finally Holmgren acts as if the shareholders should be greatfull that he is hear at all, and tells them not to “Call him for keys to the new Mustang” when it becomes America’s #1 car.

    Well I’ve taken that way to far. The point is that he botched the single biggest thing he had to get right. Second, as we know from Lebron, the last thing you do is going to have the biggest impact on how people percieve you. So what did Holmgren do as time was winding down? Leaks a story that he would like to coach again for a team like – say the Cowboys, then makes his first on field appearance of the year at Dallas gladhanding players and chatting up Jerry Jones. Regardless of what he did in other areas for the Browns I don’t know how you can argue that this didn’t look like an opportunistic grifter, suitcases filled with cash looking for a new town to set up shop in.

    Thats not totally how I see it, but I think its a fair “other side” of Holmgren, and at least personally if someone wants to blow off a little steam with an “F* Holmgren” tweet I don’t have a problem with it.

  • mgbode

    the others all have varying degrees of personal opinion. i will respect you to have yours on them. however, #2 alarms me that you think this way.

    QB coach @ BYU for sole national championship in school history (helped nuture Steve Young in the process)

    QB coach & OC for 49ers (some great offenses/QBs under his stewardship. I would think that Walsh consulted him on acquiring Steve Young since he coached him in college as well)

    HC for Packers (they were terrible and sometimes mediocre before his arrival. 1 playoff win since 1967 before he got there. He and Ron Wolf ‘saved’ the Packers – along with Favre, etc.. 6 straight playoff seasons including a SB win and a SB loss.).

    HC for Seahawks – they had not won a playoff game since ’84 before Holmgren got there and he helped take them to the Superbowl. he gets no credit for that? they finished 2nd in the division for 3 straight years followed by a string of 4 consecutive division championships. weak division or not, you don’t do that without good coaching.

    Question his PR skills, his refusal to think outside the WCO-box, the questionable QB decisions, but to question his football pedigree is not acceptable to me. What more could he have on his resume?

  • mgbode

    i don’t know if holmgren helped/hurt on the business side of things and pretty much all NFL teams are profitable.

    but, profit margins matter. and, if he helped those get better, then he deserves some credit, no? do you know if he helped or hurt or if things on the business side are better or worse?

    i honestly haven’t seen anything as the NFL keeps these matters close to the shield, so to speak.

  • mgbode

    I would say that the single biggest thing he had to get right was GM. And, I think he did. Without the players, we are just bandaiding cruddy players even with Paul Brown resurrected as HC.

    Easier to replace the HC with good players for the next HC than to replace the players for the same HC.

    outside of that you have good points on why people are upset at Holmgren.

  • mike holmgren was not hired to get better parking contracts with the port of cleveland. just my opinion.

  • For some reason, we love to rewrite history in this town, especially when it comes to the Browns.

    Holmgren certainly made mistakes and the team didn’t win enough under him, but you have wonder how realistic it is to expect a 3-year turnaround when the franchise was floundering for the 11 years prior to his arrival. This franchise was a mess when he took over and, while it is not championship caliber, it is better than before Holmgren arrived. How much credit should he get for that? Time will tell.

    I never cared how much money he was being paid – it didn’t come out of my pocket and it didn’t stop the Browns from acquiring talent – nor did I care about his treatment of the media. I actually found it somewhat refreshing that he was antagonistic at times with the local media, too many of which have an inflated sense of entitlement and seem to think that Holmgren should perform for them whenever they snapped their fingers.

    Overall, it’s for the best that he is leaving as it takes one more distraction and one more reminder of the Lerner’s family’s ownership out of the picture.

  • mgbode

    if Randy truly wanted to sell, then he was hired to fix both sides. but yes, his acumen was on the football side.

  • All of this, plus the failure to land RG3. I’d also add that Mangini was promised 5 years as well, and his second year looked a lot better than Holmgren’s.

  • Harv 21

    you lost me at your #1 – team on track and Holmgren “canned him for it” – wah? Sounds like conspiracy nonsense. Holmgren could have canned him when he came in as most expected but is at heart an old coach in exec clothing. He couldn’t pull the necessary trigger because of his own biases. He didn’t need a fig leaf excuse to fire him, he ran the freakin organization.

    Mangini was putting together an old and slow if disciplined team destined to top out at .500. His brutal drafting killed the team for the near future. His in-game coaching was in some ways as bad as Shurmur’s. Just because Shurmur is bad doesn’t make Mangini good.

  • Harv 21

    I think I agree with your main point, Craig, but might have said it a different way.

    Lerner’s failure was his clinging to the Magic Man principle: Just hire the right Magic Man and then everyone will leave me alone. Personnel Guy (Savage) was the first, and Collins was gone when he tried to interfere with the power that new guy wanted. Mangini was next because he was temporarily the toast of NY so, you know, must be legit, toss the keys over to him and let him pick his boss and then fire his boss and also be a personnel guy.

    Next Magic Man with all the power was Holmgren, who was famous and popular and charismatic, so for sure Lerner could just write the check and not be bothered by this obnoxious angsty city. Of course, Holmgren is nothing but a coach and had zero experience as a football exec running a team. In retrospect, what right did anyone have to expect him to become a star at a different organizational position in his 60s? If you can’t expect a coach to necessarily be a competent GM, how do you expect a coach to be a competent president?

    Lerner needed to run the organization or hire someone who knew how to run an organization. He never did. Instead he lurched from one guy and philosophy to another whenever the public screamed loud enough for him to hear, forever looking for the Magic Man. The underlying philosophy seemed to be: “that sounds good, do what you want, just keep me out of it. Yeah, I guess that’s failure of leadership.

  • mgbode

    2nd year Mangini – blown out twice vs. Pitt, however, other than that very similar to this season in that we were close in every game. Bonus of a couple of surprise games vs. NO & NE where we blew good teams out of the water.

    However, much of the same close, but not quite good enough that we are seeing with this squad and a 1-5 division record following a 1-5 division record did not help his cause. Shurmur will equal that pathetic division record over his 2 year span if he loses the final game vs. Pitt due to 0-6 in his first season (though he goes 3-3 in division this year if he wins that game).

    The biggest difference to me between the 2nd year of Mangini v. 2nd year of Shurmur is that we have youth all over the field with promise of continual improvement. We need to see how it plays out and we might fall flat on our face, but the hope/promise is there.

    Now, all that being said, I don’t think record was the reason Mangini was fired at all. Holmgren/Heckert could have controlled the personnel as they saw fit and still made this team a young team built through the draft. I think that Mangini was fired because he didn’t see eye-to-eye with Holmgren and the rest on the direction and philosophy of the team. Everything from teaching methods, to practice routines, to gameplans, to which types of players to target, etc.

    Holmgren should have been able to discern this with meetings when he first got here. His biggest failure was not recognizing that they could not truly work together and having our organization flail about for that first year with obvious conflicts.

  • humboldt

    I think what is most galling to people isn’t Holmgren’s salary alone, but rather the vast riches relative to mediocre performance and the highly visible PR blunders mentioned throughout this thread. To accuse critics of Holmgren as being childish, lazy, and jealous is a bit of a strawman.

  • MrCleaveland

    “Angsty”! I like it, Harv. You showed good lexicality there.

    The rest of the post was pretty good too. Lerner never learned that you can delegate authority, but you can’t delegate responsibility.

  • markn95

    I’d rather have an elite pass rusher if we’re talking about our 1st round pick. Jarvis Jones is probably going top-3, and with KC and OAK on our schedule, I don;t see us drafting that high. Still, I’d take a shot at the “next best” DE or LB who can get to the passer (Mingo?). You really can’t get a decent pass rusher in FA. A CB#2, on the other hand, is definitely obtainable. Guys like Asante Samuel, Jonathon Joseph, and Antonio Cromartie change teams all the time, and any of them would look great opposite Haden.

  • mgbode

    you can get a pass rusher in FA but they are likely aging. perhaps a Jason Babin becomes available for instance 🙂

  • hopwin

    I guess I should add he stepped into the draft to force the McCoy pick (not huge) then stepped in and forced the Weeden pick and accepts no responsibility for either sucking.

  • Hopwin

    We were competitive with those old slow guys, imagine if we had given him Heckert’s guys. The first year of the Shurmur era was the most painful experience I have personally known as a football fan.
    However, everyone is entitled to their opinion and I know that Mangini rubbed a lot of people the wrong way especially if they relied on the PD for their coverage of the Browns 🙂

  • Hopwin

    I agree that 2nd year Mangini versus 2nd year Shurmur have been eerily similar in the W-L/Competitive columns. I would argue though that Mangini won games in spite of a lack of talent whereas today our talent allows us to win in spite of Shurmur’s terrible play-calling, game-management, undisciplined approach and abyssmal situational awareness. If Mangini had this current roster I believe we would be finishing this year over 8 wins.

  • Harv 21

    Mangini’s five or so wins/year was not any more “competitive” than Shurmur’s. I do read the PD and other sources, but wouldn’t trust whatever your source is for the “canned him for it.” It simply makes no sense. Sounds more like talk show ratings-seeking nonsense.

  • mgbode

    I don’t know about that. Mangini liked having “his” guys who were disciplined and always in the correct spot. It helped us “overachieve” and that was appreciated.

    However, with as much youth as there is on this team, would he have been able to handle it? I am not so sure. It’s an interesting question but one without any way of knowing the answer.

  • mgbode

    first, I liked the 2nd year of Mangini. he showed that tough, disciplined football could help a team with any talent level win games against good teams (NO, NE).

    however, the first 11 games of Mangini’s tenure were at least as painful as Shurmur’s first season if not moreso.

    they have actually had very similar Browns HC arcs thus far.

  • Hopwin

    Exactly, we will never know what could have been and that makes it all the more frustrating. What if Holmgren hadn’t thrown the bay out with the bathwater? What if he brought over Heckert to draft the players and let Mangini coach them?

  • Hopwin

    Sorry let me link to my source for you.

    “Five wins is not enough.” – Mike Holmgren January 2011.

  • mgbode

    and Mangini’s 5 wins in his 2nd year got him fired just like Shurmur’s 5 or 6 likely wins in his 2nd year end up getting him fired.

  • mgbode

    or if he would have thrown out Mangini from day1 and gone with a pure WCO-style that he obviously wanted.

    i don’t think the conflicts that were happening were getting resolved. they should have been recognized earlier.

  • ricktenny

    I always liked Mike Holmgren, But when a man is paid 8 million a year to do a job you have every right to expect his best effort. Like him or not, bringing in a new head coach with no prior experience in the role to such a dire situation as the Browns was far less than his best effort. When the coach performed as poorly as Shurmer did, to then bring in a failed and fired ex head coach to help his already floundering head coach was a terrible move. Considering both of these men were past asscociates reeks of croanieism. The mans tenure in the NFL should have resulted in the knowledge that would bring the best people to the team. That is a far cry from giving a couple of old buddies a shot.
    I don’t think he had the teams best interests at heart and I don’t think he should be applauded for the job he did. The fact that he leaves with $24,000,000.00 of someone elses money dictates a very quite departure.