Over in my old haunts, in Cleveland, things are as they should be: The Indians are 19 games back and playing out the string, and the Browns...well, the somehow the Browns, nearly a decade removed from their forced NFL hiatus, are worse than they've ever been. They have no quarterback, they have no real plan, and they have a coach whose ineptitude was defined by his insistence upon fining a player $1,701 for lifting a $3 bottle of hotel water.*
Given that, I realize am probably the only literate human in America who would dare say this right now, but I still believe Eric Mangini could be a successful NFL coach. Maybe not this year (O.K., definitely not this year), and maybe not in Cleveland. But Mangini is still only 38 years old. Here is what can be said about him: He is smart, and he is disciplined. The problem seems to be that he has no idea of the proper ways to channel this intelligence, and this discipline, and make it work for his players without seeming like a crank and a blowhard. He is a micromanager, and nobody anywhere has ever liked a micromanager, unless they are wildly successful, a la Bill Belichick. And Eric Mangini is not Bill Belichick. And this is precisely the problem.
A few weeks ago, my friend Seth Wickersham at ESPN the Magazine wrote an in-depth piece about the Belichick coaching tree, and about lack of success of his "saplings." It's an excellent story, worth reading in its entirety, but here was the key line, at least in regards to Mangini:
As head coaches, his protégés have all been accused of acting like him, as Belichick was accused of mimicking Bill Parcells. The Mangini former Pats colleagues now see with a whistle -- so serious he's Belichick to an extreme -- isn't the self-effacing guy they used to know.
I covered a few Jets practices, back during Mangini's rookie season, when he still had that air of genius surrounding him. It's true, that he said absolutely nothing interesting, and he seemingly forced his players (i.e. Chad Pennington) to do the same, but I always felt there was a human being in there, yearning to make its way out. Every so often, he'd make a joke, and a couple of the jokes were so surprising and subtle that it seemed to freeze the entire room. You don't move up that fast in the Belichick World Order without having something that endears you to the players. My guess is that somewhere along the way, Mangini figured the only way to make it work as NFL coach was to embrace the Belichick persona, and to attempt to intimidate the hell out of everyone. And in doing so, he's completely forgotten who he was.
It's not too late. Honesty works in Cleveland. If Mangini loosened up a little, if he owned up to mistakes, if he caved in on the aloofness thing here and there, he might earn enough slack to stick around while the Browns figure out a way to clean up this latest mess. But he needs to do it soon, because he should have realized from the start that the last thing Cleveland wants is another Bill Belichick.
*$1,701 is actually the cost of the same bottle of water if ordered from room service.
(Photo: Mark Duncan/AP)