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Football Notes

Browns look sickly, but Mangini will stay with patient approach

By Albert R. Breer
November 8, 2009

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Eric Mangini is making no predictions about what will happen two weeks from now, let alone two years from now.

But as he endures the wrath of a scorned Cleveland fan base - the Browns have relocated as many times as they’ve made the playoffs in the last 15 years - and turns over his front office just 10 months into the job, Mangini remains steadfast.

The coach isn’t wavering from his program, even at 1-7 and in the crosshairs of reports that he might not survive at year’s end. And there is one particular experience he’s drawing on.

“I just know when we first came into New England, they’d come off an 8-8 season, and there had to be a lot of transition,’’ Mangini said. “It was top-heavy financially, there were tough decisions that had to be made, and we didn’t have much success that first year. There are remarkable similarities between the situations.

“I don’t think we won any popularity contests there. You can look at the clips. The other thing is that with the staff we had, the approach we had, we kept getting better, but it took a while. At one point in that second year, we were 1-3, but we didn’t change the approach, and then we went on a streak.

“That wasn’t a function of getting hot. It was a function of two years of work. You don’t know when that moment will strike, but they’ve been rolling since.’’

That moment seems to be far from soon in Cleveland. On Monday, George Kokinis, Mangini’s hand-picked general manager, was fired “for cause.’’ A legal battle over the separation is sure to follow with four-plus years remaining on his contract, particularly since the Browns fired GM Phil Savage with four years left on his deal and coach Romeo Crennel with three years to go on his contract last winter.

The coaches started with Brady Quinn at quarterback, benched him midway through the third game, and now are considering the idea of going back to him after Derek Anderson has struggled in five starts. Four of the Browns’ seven losses have come by 20 or more points.

Yet Mangini sees progress. He’s not winning the way he did right away with the Jets in New York, where he went 10-6 in Year 1. In fact, the Browns are 31st in the NFL in total offense and 32d in total defense.

But he says he sees glimpses, with the primary problems now being a lack of consistency and a failure to play complementary ball among the three facets of the game.

“They’ve been great as a group,’’ Mangini said. “You show them times it did go right, and you show them the mistakes they made, and they see they’re correctable. Ball security, catching, the depth of receivers’ routes, communication defensively, tackling, those are the problems, and we can improve on that.

“Personally and collectively, we can’t do it one week and not the next. We need to understand how to approach it each week, physically, emotionally, and at times I’ve been really happy with it. Other times, we’re falling back into a pattern that’s not successful.’’

Mangini won’t say it, but the biggest problem is that the cupboard he inherited in January was nearly bare. There were a few very good front-line players - Kellen Winslow, Braylon Edwards, Joe Thomas, Shaun Rogers - but not nearly enough, and the bottom of the roster had rotted beyond recognition.

Only 11 picks from the Browns’ first 10 drafts since returning to the league in 1999 remain on the roster. Only four of those are starters, and left tackle Joe Thomas is the lone Pro Bowler in the group.

“We’re trying to create balance on the roster,’’ Mangini said.

That’s why, on opening day, Cleveland was one of seven teams in the NFL to carry a dozen first-year players.

It’s why Mangini kept dealing during the draft, moving down three times in the first round, and dealing Winslow beforehand, to turn four picks into eight. It’s why in deals involving the fifth pick (which became Mark Sanchez) then, and Edwards more recently, he’s wanted multiple picks and role players with whom he had familiarity.

Still, it’d be silly to imply things have gone to plan.

Ousting a GM 10 months in is never part of the plan.

“Nobody went into it with the intention of it not working out,’’ Mangini says, “but when that decision was made, it was made because it gave us the best chance going forward.’’

Mangini, for now, says he has confidence that college scouting director Pat Roberts and a slew of people in pro scouting can take on Kokinis’s responsibilities for the time being. Of course, that’s a Band-Aid on an open wound.

Owner Randy Lerner is said to be looking for a Bill Parcells-type football godfather, or a strong GM to run the personnel side long-term.

Asked if retaining “final say’’ authority was important to him when Lerner does bring in a new leader, Mangini replied, “No. What’s vital to me is getting the right answer.’’ He added that he would be OK with whatever Lerner decides.

“The thing that’s important to me is having as many people as possible that help us win,’’ Mangini said. “The distribution of power and responsibility, that’s not important. Trying to get the right answer is. Everyone here’s working towards that. It’s not about power.

“I’ll always want good people that share that vision and are driven by the same goal: Winning and winning in the long term. If someone comes here who helps us do that, I think that’s great. It doesn’t matter who does what, who gets credit.’’

Clearly, Lerner is desperate to quell an angry fan base, which is full of folks who want Mangini’s head on a stick.

But even in these tumultuous circumstances, Mangini didn’t hesitate when asked if he felt that Lerner remained on board with his plan, and whether his job was secure.

“Yes,’’ Mangini said. “Coming into this situation, everything’s been a function of moving forward each day. And we’re going to keep doing that here.’’

JETS NOT LOW ON GAS
Despite losses, confidence still sky-high
At 4-4, and after losing four of five games, is it time for Rex Ryan and the Jets to blunt the bluster?

The players, actually, don’t see it that way.

“What talk? You talking about during the week?’’ said defensive end Shaun Ellis, a 10-year veteran and the only remaining Jet from the Parcells days. “Me personally, I don’t really pay attention to that. The media comes, asks you questions about guys expressing their opinions, some people take it the wrong way.

“But pretty much, if you hear it from the defensive side, [last Sunday’s loss to Miami] was pretty much a get-back game for us, because they handed it to us the first time. It was one of those games where I felt like the defense came out, I think we backed our talk up. But we needed a complete team effort; we just didn’t put it together.’’

Last week, the Jets suffered their third one-score loss in four weeks. The Saints, really, are the only team to beat New York soundly. The good news in there for the Jets is that the problems seem to be easy to diagnose and address.

In Week 5, they lost to the Dolphins with six seconds left in Miami, after getting gashed all night by the Wildcat and uncharacteristically breaking down on third down defensively.

They fixed those problems last week, holding the Dolphins to 104 yards of total offense, but the obvious special teams breakdowns - plus a defensive touchdown allowed - led to their demise.

In between those losses, there was a field-goal defeat to Buffalo in which Sanchez threw five interceptions. You could say that, with a rookie quarterback, you have to build a day like that into the schedule.

“It’s finding a way to win instead of finding a way to lose,’’ linebacker Bart Scott said. “We found a way to win those games. We came down and we won those games early. It was tight, there was tough sledding in the games against Tennessee and against the Patriots, and we found a way to win. Now, we’re finding ways to lose.’’

Some elements to winning football remain, even in this rough patch.

The Jets are still in the top 10 in total defense. And even though they’re 22d in run defense in the wake of the loss of Kris Jenkins, last week’s shutdown of the vaunted Miami run game was a huge step in the right direction. On the other side, Sanchez has the aid of the league’s top-ranked run game.

Surely some things will need to change to put those things to better work. But demeanor, the Jets swear, isn’t one of them.

“This is a very confident team,’’ said tight end Dustin Keller.

UNCERTAINTY AHEAD
Players try to get answers on uncapped year
One of the major directives of NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has been getting players up to speed on the scenarios that could unfold with the uncapped year looming.

Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas was the Ravens’ player rep before leaving Baltimore, and is an alternate here, along with Tom Brady, under Matt Light. Thomas said Light is doing a good job of helping his teammates understand what’s to come, but ultimately, each player is responsible for himself.

“You’re always one phone call away from getting an answer,’’ Thomas said. “If you don’t know the answers, it’s really your fault. If something comes up where we don’t know the answer, or we’re unsure about, you make that phone call.’’

One looming issue is the state of free agency in 2010. Players will need six years of service, rather than four, to reach unrestricted free agency, and that means scores of players will have their upward financial mobility limited.

Some teams like Denver (Kyle Orton, Brandon Marshall, Elvis Dumervil, Tony Scheffler, Chris Kuper) and San Diego (Shawne Merriman, Vincent Jackson, Darren Sproles, Marcus McNeill) are loaded with players in the fourth- and fifth-year group who would’ve been unrestricted in the past, but will be restricted if a new CBA isn’t struck. Patriots guard Logan Mankins is another such player.

Mankins said his agent walked him through this possibility as soon as the owners opted out of the CBA in May 2008, and he hopes that other players “have agents that are looking out for their best interests.’’

One thing Thomas reiterated was that rumors of a strike were bogus. “The only way there won’t be any football is a lockout,’’ he said. “I promise you there won’t be a strike.’’

ETC.
Evaluating the returns on the wedge rule
Last week, Bill Belichick weighed in on the NFL’s new rule that prohibits three or more players from forming a wedge on kickoffs - a method used at all other levels of football. Belichick said he didn’t think it has had much of an effect because “the rule is so vague. It’s basically the same alignment, but a half of a yard makes one legal and makes another one illegal. If I were running that return, it wouldn’t keep me from running it, I would just back the guy up a yard, that’s all, and that’s what a lot of teams do. I don’t really understand how that rule is being called.’’ Belichick cited a 97-yard kick-return touchdown by Tampa’s Sammie Stroughter as an example of a wedge appearing without a penalty. The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective did a study that found there hasn’t been an appreciable change statistically: kick returns averaged 22.67 yards from 2006-08, and are averaging 23.21 yards this year.

A few hitches for Colts
There probably aren’t many undefeated teams in league history that had a worse week than the Colts. Cornerback Marlin Jackson (knee) and safety Bob Sanders (elbow) went on season-ending injured reserve. Receiver Anthony Gonzalez had follow-up arthroscopic surgery on the knee he injured in the season opener, and Jackson’s bookend, Kelvin Hayden, sprained a knee that will likely shelve him for a month. If there’s solace for Indianapolis, it’s that this spate of injuries pales in comparison to last year’s problems, and that team wound up 12-4. “Situations occur and sometimes you have to be called upon to do just a little bit more than you ordinarily do for a game,’’ coach Jim Caldwell said. “This one will be no different. I think we are well-equipped to handle it.’’ The Patriots go against two rookies starting at corner today against the Dolphins, and chances are the same scenario will play out in Indy next week, with Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey taking over for Jackson and Hayden.

In a rush to succeed
James Harrison has emerged as the next great edge-rushing Steeler outside linebacker, in the tradition of Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, and Joey Porter. And they might have already found another one. Third-year pro Lamarr Woodley announced his presence in last year’s playoffs, with six sacks in three games, and he hasn’t slowed down. He has only two sacks in 2009 but has become more complete, with 25 tackles, nine quarterback pressures, three passes defensed, and perhaps the biggest play of the Steelers’ season: a 77-yard return of a Brett Favre fumble in the win over Minnesota. He told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that being the sixth defensive end (his college position) taken in the 2007 draft motivates him: “Everybody that got drafted in front of me, I’m doing better than them.’’ He went 46th overall, and was the third player off his Michigan defense selected - behind Bengals corner Leon Hall and Cardinals tackle Alan Branch, and one spot above fellow Wolverine and current Jet David Harris.

Sign of the times
During the Chiefs’ bye week, first-year coach Todd Haley put signs around the team’s facility, one of which got plenty of attention. It read: “Losers assemble in small groups and complain about the coaches and other players. Winners assemble as a team and find ways to win.’’ From the outside, it looked like an indirect shot at Larry Johnson, who was critical of the coach via his Twitter account after the team was blown out at home against the Chargers in Week 7. Haley, who noted that the sign was up in the Jets and Cowboys facilities when he worked in those places, said that assistant Richie Anderson reminded him how much that quote meant to him when he was a player. “That sign was actually talked about in February,’’ Haley said. “I wanted that one in an area where the players would see it on their way to the field.’’

Who’s the boss?
Redskins legend John Riggins didn’t limit his criticism of Dan Snyder to the owner’s handling of the football team on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL’’ last week. Riggins repeatedly called Snyder a “bad guy’’ and said, “This person’s heart is dark.’’ Big-ticket newcomer Albert Haynesworth went to bat for Snyder on Sirius NFL Radio, saying, “I talk to him at least once a week. They’re usually 15-, 20-, even 30-minute conversations sometimes, depends on what the day is looking like. You know, he’s just a big fan. He’s a guy who will do anything to get the right players and to win.’’ But in a way, all Haynesworth did was give the public one more example of how the club has undermined the authority of its head coach. As if taking his play-calling authority away wasn’t enough.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com.

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