The coaching itch never completely left Mike Holmgren, who will walk away from the Cleveland Browns feeling mostly dissatisfied and unfulfilled.
His three years as an NFL executive didn’t go as hoped. And for perhaps the first time in his football life, Holmgren came up short as a leader.
This loss was tough to swallow.
”We did not win enough games,” Holmgren said Tuesday at his farewell news conference. ”I’m hoping the table is set for the future.”
Holmgren won’t be part of it.
After being hired by Randy Lerner in December 2009 to fix a dysfunctional franchise, Holmgren won’t complete his five-year contract as team president of the Browns, who now belong to new owner Jimmy Haslam. Holmgren would not commit to staying for the remainder of this season in Cleveland, where his tenure will be remembered for more losing and more change.
Since Holmgren arrived, the Browns are just 10-29, a record that pains the 64-year-old former coach who twice went to the Super Bowl with Green Bay and once with Seattle. He came to Cleveland with the best intentions, and while he succeeded in rebuilding the front office, repairing broken business relationships and helping add roster talent, Holmgren failed to deliver a winner.
”The record speaks for itself and ultimately people are judged on how many games you win,” he said. ”But there’s a lot more that goes into an organization than that. Although that’s the thing people look at, there’s some things I feel very, very good about what we did here. We didn’t win enough games, though.”
Holmgren said he did not discuss a new ”credible” position with Haslam, whose $1.05 billion purchase of the Browns was approved by the league’s owners last week. Holmgren would like to stay on and assist Haslam as well as incoming CEO Joe Banner, the former Eagles president who will take over on Thursday, in the transition.
Holmgren isn’t sure that will be possible.
”I’ve talked to Jimmy a lot about this,” he said. ”He has my assurance. I’m not gonna rock the boat. I’m not gonna get in anybody’s way that way. I still have my office. I’ve got my lunch ticket and my parking space. I think I can help a little bit, but if it gets cumbersome or uncomfortable for anybody, then, heck, I don’t want that to happen.”
Last week in Chicago, Haslam announced Holmgren would retire after the season. However, Holmgren wanted to make it clear that he’s not ready to stop working. He’s just not sure in what capacity.
”I want to take one step at a time here, one day at a time,” he said. ”My first goal is, if I can, help this team and these coaches this season. Then I’m going to sit back and catch my breath and look around a little bit and see what happens.”
Holmgren was asked if he had one more coaching stint left in him.
”I don’t know,” he said. ”I know this: I learned a lot of things in the last three years. One of the things that I thought I knew and now I’m sure, I do miss the coaching part of it. I really do.”
When Lerner signed him to a five-year contract at roughly $8 million per season, Holmgren vowed to his wife, Kathy, that the Browns would be ”my last great adventure.” He never imagined his time with Cleveland would be cut short by the sale, and it would deprive him the chance to finish rebuilding a team that has made the playoffs just once since 1999.
”My time was shorter than I had hoped, but I understand what happened,” he said. ”I just wish the people who are going to be here well, and I’ll always care about this place and how we’ve been treated since we’ve been here. It’s been good.”
Just days after taking over, Holmgren hired general manager Tom Heckert, who has turned over Cleveland’s roster. Holmgren believes Heckert is ”tremendous” and has the Browns (1-6) poised to break free from years of losing. Holmgren is also responsible for bringing aboard coach Pat Shurmur, who is just 5-18 in two seasons.
Holmgren has spoken to Haslam about both Heckert and Shurmur, whose performances will be evaluated by new bosses at the end of the season. Holmgren knows there isn’t anything he can do to protect his ”guys” any longer, but that’s what they signed up for in a bottom-line profession.
”This is a business for adults and grown-ups,” Holmgren said. ”If you’re too sensitive about stuff that goes on, then you probably should be doing something else, because change does take place. When there is change, particularly in ownership, there’s a lot of things going through people’s minds on how to set up a team.”
One of Holmgren’s missions – maybe his main one – with the Browns was to find a franchise quarterback for the future. He believes rookie Brandon Weeden is just that.
The 29-year-old has improved each week, and although Cleveland lost at Indianapolis on Sunday, Weeden went toe to toe with Colts QB Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick.
”Brandon is off to a good start,” Holmgren said. ”He’s an excellent passer. I like how he leads. People don’t cut him quite as much slack because he’s 29, but he’s still a rookie and this is his first crack at playing against NFL teams and it’s different than college. He’s done very well and I think there’s a bright future because we’ve, the organization, has found its quarterback.”
In what may have been his final public speaking appearance in Cleveland, Holmgren did not want to look too far back or revisit many decisions. He doesn’t regret keeping coach Eric Mangini for a second season, and he apologized to the local media for his ”don’t call me for playoff tickets” rant last season. He said criticism that he didn’t work hard wasn’t ”fair.”
There’s nothing for Holmgren to do now but look to the future. The record may not show it, but the Browns are better because of his three years in Cleveland. He fixed what he could, and although he may not be around, he hopes his work will someday be rewarded.
”If and when the team does well, I’m going to be its biggest fan,” he said. ”I won a lot of games in this league as a coach. I feel good about those. Lost some that were tough. I’ll feel good and be happy for whoever’s here. I’ll be happy for the new ownership, the players, the coaches. I’ll feel good about that. Maybe we had something to do with that. I’ll feel good about that.”