Eric Mangini grew up around the corner from me and, at one point, was good friends with my younger brothers. I mention this right off the top for two reasons: To be clear that I have a natural bias when it comes to covering the Cleveland Browns coach and to assert that, although I don’t know him well on a personal level, I know where he comes from and believe I have a developed idea of his character.
A series of unfortunate events within and without his control have, in a span of months, cast Mangini as a paranoid autocrat who is ruining rather than resuscitating the Browns. I beg to differ.
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Has Mangini made mistakes? Yes. It was not a good idea to put the rookies on a 10-hour bus ride to his charity football camp in Hartford, Conn., only to fly himself. His handling of the quarterbacks, and his sometimes-caustic intercourse with other veterans, has injected unneeded intrigue. And so on.
Everyone understands that Mangini is more like his former mentor, Bill Belichick, than his good friend, Romeo Crennel — which is to say that Mangini has a definitive view of how to run things, believes that success is in the details and rarely compromises. For this reason, he is sometimes judged merely on details, which is shortsighted.
Case in point: Much has been made of the $1,701 fine Mangini levied on a player who neglected to account for a $3 bottle of water on a hotel bill. As the story circulated it has made more vivid the perception of Mangini as the worst of micromanagers. What hasn’t been as widely reported is that the fine was for a number of players who continually flouted team rules.
So it goes. As the anecdotes pile up, the caricature of the coach grows. But the overriding truth of the matter is, if the Browns were 4-0 rather than 0-4, the entire image would be softened. This is the National Football League. Mangini’s nitpicking over what he believes constitutes professionalism would be a nonissue, or less of an issue, if the Browns were winning. Then, he would be seen as a disciplinarian rather than a despot.
But the Browns are not winning. They lost their first three games by a combined score of 95-29. Browns fans have had just one season’s respite from bitter frustration since the team’s re-inception in 1999, and they cannot abide one more week of ineptitude. Already, some have called for Mangini’s head.
The Cincinnati Bengals beat the Browns 23-20 in overtime on a last-second field goal. The Browns were defeated but not destroyed. That is a critical point.
Mangini and new general manager George Kokinis inherited a porous roster. The Browns have half an offensive line, one wide receiver, no pass rush and a questionable secondary. If they win six games, it would be a miracle — and, to date, they have lost to four teams with a combined record of 13-2.
Kokinis’ job is to acquire more talent. Mangini’s job is to change the culture. Yesterday marked the first time this season that the culture might be changing on the field, rather than off. Yesterday provided the first faint glimmer of hope.
I chatted briefly with Mangini in the middle of the locker room. It has been 25 years since I’ve seen him face to face, four years since I’ve spoken with him on the telephone. He didn’t recognize me until I dropped my name on him. A second later, he was inquiring about my family. In no time, this was the kid from the neighborhood and not necessarily the coach of the Cleveland Browns. And his pain became plain.
I know where he comes from and I have a sense of his character. I believe in him. He is smart man with convictions. He has the fortitude to see his plan through to fruition. He understands criticism and, despite his image, he is not made of Teflon. He feels deeply for the fans and wants to do right by them. He has not lost the players.
They’re only just finding him.
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.