TONY DEJAK / AP Enlarge
CLEVELAND — At the end, they dunked a bucket of Gatorade over the head of Eric Mangini.
What were the odds?
How many of them would have imagined, while they were running those discipline laps in the oppressive heat of August, that their season would end with the traditional expression of support for their coach in minus-1 wind chill in January?
“That was sweet,” fullback Lawrence Vickers said.
With the defense on the field putting the finishing touches on a 23-17 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Vickers instigated the Mangini dousing with backup quarterback Brett Ratliff.
“He was like [saying], ‘Thank you, thank you.' He wasn't bothered by it,” Vickers said.
The postgame celebration was just the latest of unforeseen occurrences in one of the most eventful seasons in Browns history.
The fourth win a row after a 1-11 start duplicated a feat only done previously by the New England Patriots coached by Bill Parcells in 1993. Yes, they made the playoffs the next season. Mangini has reminded us of that.
There was a third consecutive 100-yard rushing game by multi-record holder Jerome Harrison and his fifth touchdown over that stretch.
There was a fabulous 14-yard touchdown run by Joshua Cribbs, who can keep on running right to the Pro Bowl in south Florida.
There was another victory hammered out on the icy-hard ground while the passing game failed to achieve 100 yards. That's happened in four of their five wins.
And there was the continual improvement of a defense loaded with rejects and fill-ins for injured starters. It held Pro Bowl back Maurice Jones-Drew to 82 rushing yards and kept the Jaguars out of the end zone until the fourth quarter — extending its streak at home to 12 quarters without allowing a touchdown.
But the story of this season has a final chapter to be written by incoming Browns' president Mike Holmgren. Does the Big Show cast aside his obvious philosophical differences and keep Mangini as his coach, or does he start fresh with his own choice?
“I respect Holmgren's professionalism and I have to accept his judgment, whatever it is,” said linebacker David Bowens, a Mangini guy. “No team's the same every year. Who knows? I just wish we can keep this thing going. Everybody's comfortable with coach and the way we prepare.”
Unburdened by another week of game preparations, Mangini finally talked plainly about the reality of the situation, of him possibly being fired for the second time in two years.
“I've been on both sides of the desk,” he said. “I've had to tell people, ‘We're going in a different direction.' That's never fun. I've been told that and I'm sure it wasn't fun or easy for the [Jets] people that told me. But you understand that and you respect everybody's right to do that.”
It was an emotional weekend for Mangini, Bowens said.
The night before, Mangini had players stand up and tell stories of their first encounters with him — guard Eric Steinbach in their off-season meeting about gaining weight, nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin in his first visit to the coach's office, at which the shy Rubin hardly said a word.
Mangini disputed that it was a nostalgic weekend, as if all involved knew it could be the last time they'd be together as a team.
“When you've been through a difficult season — a long season — it's easy to forget all those steps that took place as you went,” Mangini said.
Cribbs, who became a better all-around player under Mangini, said he would tell Holmgren to keep Mangini as coach.
“He turned it around,” Cribbs said. “We beat Pittsburgh for the first time since I've been here. It was a slow start [1-11] because it takes some time to get that group of guys he wanted that would fight hard.
“He's surrounding the football team with hungry players — players that want to fight no matter their contract, no matter their draft [status]. When you've got a team fighting for one goal, everybody else better watch out.”
Bowens said players were slow in buying into Mangini's methodical ways. But once they did, “We've become that tough, smart, competitive football team [that Mangini preaches]. I just want to keep it going.”
Holmgren is scheduled to arrive in Berea from Phoenix at some point today. He may not have his sit-down with Mangini until tomorrow.
“We'll see what happens,” Mangini said. He asserted that he wants to remain coach and believes his team has stated the strongest case of anybody that he deserves to continue the program longer than one year.
“I knew there were short-term sacrifices that had to be made for the good of both the long term and for us to be able to make progress as we went along,” he said. “The decisions that were made were made with that in mind, in building the strongest possible organization that is built for the long term.
“I'm not hiding from the mishaps that we had this year, or the things that we didn't do very well. There are some things I wish I could have done better and we could have done better..”