CLEVELAND — Someone has been following Eric Mangini around all summer.
As the second-year Cleveland coach walks from practice field to practice field at the team's training complex, there's a guy driving a golf cart — his right foot immobilized in a walking boot — trailing Mangini like some demented sideline stalker.
Mike Holmgren keeps his distance but is never far away.
He now watches over the beleaguered Browns.
Hired as team president in December by owner Randy Lerner to revive a once-proud franchise fallen on hard times, Holmgren's first act as Cleveland's big boss was to retain Mangini, whose fate seemed sealed when the Browns started 1-11 last season.
But a four-game winning streak to close the year saved Mangini, who insists he doesn't feel threatened by Holmgren's reputation.
“The only time you get intimidated is if you are insecure in the job that you are doing,” Mangini said. “I feel very comfortable and confident in how we approach things, and I also like the fact that Mike can add value and I can ask for his feedback and it's going to be meaningful. I'm a big feedback guy. I'm glad Mike is here.”
So are Cleveland fans, who have had to stomach mostly unwatchable football since the Browns' expansion rebirth in 1999. Holmgren, who orchestrated the Packers' resurgence in Green Bay and made the Seattle Seahawks relevant, believes he can bring the Browns back too.
“You can't fix everything in one year,” Holmgren said. “You never can, but I'm pleased that we've managed to execute a little of our plan already.”
Many Browns fans wondered whether Jake Delhomme was the right man to take over at quarterback, but the former Carolina Panther seems to be energized by the change of scenery.
Jim Prisching / AP Enlarge
Holmgren's plan — at least the one he's made public — for fixing the Browns is to leave the coaching to Mangini and his staff, which stayed intact from last season. But if Cleveland struggles early, there's speculation that Holmgren would retrieve his whistle and coach again.
Holmgren admits the coaching bug hasn't quite left his system.
“That's a work in progress,” the 62-year-old Holmgren said. “I watch the game, and I'm seeing things and wondering, ‘What would my next call be?' I'm looking at things as a coach. Maybe that will never change, I don't know.
“But I'm sticking to my promise that I made to Eric — that I am going to help him.”
While Mangini insists he doesn't feel added pressure with Holmgren around, it's impossible to ignore the influence the Super Bowl-winning coach has had on the organization since his arrival.
In January, Holmgren hired Tom Heckert, formerly with Philadelphia, as the Browns general manager and brought in good friend Gil Haskell as a senior adviser. He also named Keith Gilbertson, who was with him in Seattle, as the team's director of pro personnel.
Haskell and Gilbertson attend coaches' meetings, but Holmgren insists they are not spies but sounding boards with immense experience for Mangini to use.
Installing proven football executives was Holmgren's first objective, his second was to fix Cleveland's quarterback mess, which plummeted to new depths last season when both Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson took turns starting and failing miserably.
Holmgren released Anderson, traded Quinn to Denver, and signed 35-year-old free agent Jake Delhomme.
Cut after a horrible 2009 season in Carolina, Delhomme's career shows signs of reviving with the Browns, who have had eight different quarterbacks start their season opener since '99. Delhomme threw 18 interceptions last season before a hand injury put him on injured reserve. But he's healthy, and a change of scenery may have been all he needed.
“This has been perfect for me,” said Delhomme, who signed a two-year contract with Cleveland. “I really tried to take the world on my shoulders last year, and that didn't do any good. But starting over at a new place has really helped. I keep saying it over and over, but it's been fresh, it's been fun.”
A renowned quarterback guru, Holmgren, who has coached Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young as well as Brett Favre, believes Delhomme's addition will make a huge difference.
“He's a great leader,” said Holmgren, who also brought in Seahawks QB Seneca Wallace to back up Delhomme. “The guys love him because he includes everybody. He's just what I hoped he would be. He can still play a little bit too, but this team needed somebody at that position to kind of unite people.”
Delhomme can't do it alone, though. Cleveland's offense was ranked dead last in the league last season and still lacks playmakers. Running back Jerome Harrison (561 yards in his final three games) showed potential to be an every down back. Second-year receivers Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie need to develop, and Mangini must figure out a way to get Pro Bowl return specialist Joshua Cribbs more touches.
The Browns' defense should be improved by new linebackers Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong along with cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Joe Haden, the club's first-round draft pick.
“It's important for me to see us take the next step and get better, I have to see improvement,” Holmgren said. “That's what I'm going to be looking at. It's a series of steps, but if we can get over this first hump and get people around here feeling good about their football team, that's huge.”
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