Cleveland's football circus

BY foxsports • November 7, 2009

Just hours after Cleveland's fired general manager walked down the front steps in disgrace carrying his belongings in travel bags, two disgruntled fans climbed the same steps inside the team's headquarters for a meeting with the team's camera-shy owner. One of them wore a plastic dog bone hat. He used to go to games dressed as a french fry. Welcome to the bizarre world of the Browns. Once a flagship NFL franchise, now seen as a farce. The Oakland Raiders of the Midwest. Halfway through coach Eric Mangini's first season, the Browns (1-7) are tumbling at an alarming rate. They reached the bye week in such disrepair - their offense is ranked 31st, their defense 32nd - it may take years from them to get fixed. Inept. Overmatched. Laughable. Embarrassing. All of those words have been used to describe this team, starting quarterback Derek Anderson, Mangini and owner Randy Lerner. On the field, the Browns are terrible. Off it, they are in turmoil. This week, Lerner fired GM George Kokinis, a dismissal that followed the resignation of Erin O'Brien, Mangini's personal assistant in New York who worked as a team operations director in Cleveland. Also, former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar has been brought in as a consultant and the team is searching for an experienced executive, "an overarching person" as someone in the organization put it, to run its football department and oversee a new GM. The Browns seemingly need an intervention. They need help, and the season is only half over. "We're just going with the flow," Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas said. Fired after last season by the New York Jets, Mangini came to Cleveland with a plan to restore the Browns, bring them back to respectability, make them winners again. He brought in 10 former Jets, overhauled the roster with 25 new players - so far. He traded offensive stars and headaches Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards, benched quarterback Brady Quinn for Anderson just 10 quarters into the season, and may make a switch again. Nothing has worked. "It takes time," Mangini said earlier this week. He may be running out of it. Although Lerner offered his support to Mangini this week, saying he could not envision any scenario in which he would make a coaching change in 2010, if the next eight games go as poorly as the first eight, he may have little choice but to replace his coach. Mangini may have reasons to be nervous. Lerner's firing of Kokinis seemed to strip the coach of power. Kokinis was Mangini's hand-picked choice, hired away from Baltimore and reuniting two friends who worked together in the 1990s in Cleveland as underlings to then-coach Bill Belichick. But from the start, the Kokinis-Mangini management marriage seemed destined for a divorce. The two were rarely seen together and when Kokinis addressed the media before April's draft, Mangini sat a few feet away on the dais shooting his GM a watch-what-you-say glare. Kokinis' stunning and strange ouster came less than 24 hours after Lerner said he wanted to bring in a "strong, credible leader" to oversee the club's football operations. That would mean filling an executive void the Browns have not addressed since their expansion return in 1999. Lerner, who has yet to address the media on the firing, had hoped Kokinis would evolve into that person. But did Mangini give his friend the freedom to grow? Kokinis was all but invisible during his nine months on the job. When the club traded Edwards to the Jets last month, it was Mangini who explained the rational to the media. Kokinis was never heard from, a strong sign he had already lost whatever authority and stature he had been given. Now, Lerner is looking for his third GM in less than a year - Phil Savage was fired in December - and Mangini believes he will have input into the next hiring. "Randy and I talk a lot," Mangini said, "so I'm sure we'll be very engaged in that (decision)." Ernie Accorsi, Cleveland's GM from 1985-92 and a close friend of Lerner's, has been mentioned as a possibility to serve as a vice president of football operations, a role similar to Bill Parcells' job with the Miami Dolphins. The problem for the Browns is that candidates of Parcells' caliber are few, and trying to hire one in the middle of a season is difficult. As for a GM, that may have to wait until after the season. Anyway, Mangini believes the Browns are equipped to function without one until January. "I do feel good about all the things that we have in place, in terms of the pro department, the college department, the structures, the systems there," he said. One thing Mangini may not have considered is it could be tough for Lerner to persuade any football mastermind to come to Cleveland with the current coaching system in place. Mangini has yet to show he can successfully build a team. He mismanaged the quarterback position, damaging Quinn's confidence with the early hook and diminishing any trade value for the former Notre Dame star or for Anderson. Beyond that, Mangini's tenure in Cleveland has included him being fined $25,000 by the NFL for lying about Brett Favre's injury last year in New York; players filing grievances against Mangini for fines; a locker room fight following a rookie being doused with water; an investigation into rookie James Davis' shoulder injury suffered in one of the coach's post-practice "opportunity periods;" and running back Jamal Lewis announcing this season will be his last. And one victory. The seven losses in eight games are lowlighted by an offense that has scored fewer touchdowns (5) than New Orleans' defense (6). Some fed-up Browns fans plan to display their disgust by staying out their seats for the opening kickoff of the Nov. 16 game against Baltimore. They're hoping to show Lerner, the league and a Monday night TV audience that they won't take anymore. Lerner reached out to the two organizers of the protest and met with them in his office this week for two hours. "Dawg Pound Mike" Randall said Cleveland's owner since 2002 was receptive to some of his ideas. He even joked to Lerner that he should hire him to help fix the Browns. Somebody needs to fix them.