TONY DEJAK / AP Enlarge
BEREA, Ohio — Randy Lerner's vision of the Browns, fuzzy, blurred, and almost indecipherable for most of the past eight seasons, is coming into focus.
Cleveland's oft-criticized owner finally sees brighter days ahead.
Energized by the hiring of team president Mike Holmgren to fix his fallen franchise, Lerner believes the Browns are in the early stages of a dramatic turnaround.
Lerner can feel it. He senses it by just having Holmgren next door in an impressive office overlooking the practice fields that's decorated with a photo of the former Green Bay coach being carried off the field in a blizzard of confetti on the Packers' shoulders after their Super Bowl win.
Lerner thinks the Browns are being reborn.
In his first public comments in nearly one year, Lerner discussed several topics during a 30-minute interview with the Associated Press, including Holmgren's impact, Hall of Famer Jim Brown's rift with the club, coach Eric Mangini's future, and rookie quarterback Colt McCoy's emergence.
The 48-year-old Lerner, who has owned Aston Villa of the English Premier League since 2006, was upbeat, confident, and optimistic two days after the Browns stunned the New Orleans Saints 30-17. The win was Cleveland's second this season, but it came against the defending Super Bowl champions.
Holmgren is spending the down time in Arizona, which is where he was last winter when Lerner lured him out of semiretirement by promising he could mold the Browns as he saw fit.
“It's been great,” Lerner said. “I feel very good about having Mike in the building. As it comes to my own profile, my sense was to lay low despite having probably too much of a reputation for laying low. Mike was coming in as the face and the voice of our organization, and I wanted that to really take hold.”
In Holmgren, Lerner found the “serious, credible” leader that both he and the Browns needed to grow.
“What we have now is leadership and what leadership means in this particular case is that there is one guy who sits in Berea who is responsible for the Cleveland Browns,” Lerner said. “What that means is that when I come, I am dealing with one person and being able to deal with one person makes it that we can dig in completely and effectively, certainly as compared to previous setups we had here.
“It's been great for me.”
But not for everyone.
In reorganizing Cleveland's front office, Holmgren had to make some tough decisions. One of the biggest, and as it turns out most debated, was to reduce Jim Brown's role as an adviser to Lerner, whose later father, Al, was close to the legendary back.
Angered by the perceived slight, Brown cut ties with the club and did not attend the unveiling ceremony of the team's Ring of Honor, a tribute initiated by Holmgren.
Lerner explained that while Brown had the title of “executive adviser” that he mostly worked with the team's players and coaches.
Lerner said he tried to repair the rift between Brown and Holmgren. He wrote to Brown in April, but got no response and has had no other communication with the 73-year-old since. He hopes the team and Brown can one day heal their relationship.
“My sense is he would have loved to have been at the Ring of Honor,” Lerner said. “I know that he is proud of the Browns. I know he understands that he is — more than anybody — the most visible symbol of what we're most proud of.”
Holmgren's first major decision with the Browns was to keep Mangini, whose first season in Cleveland included a 1-11 start, grumbling by players that he was too tough, and a year-ending, four-game winning streak that may have saved his job.
“Part of bringing Mike in and part of my explicit understanding with Mike is that the evaluation of coaches and evaluation of other people in our football business is his,” Lerner said.
Lerner has also been enthused by McCoy, the third-round pick from Texas thrust into starting by injuries to Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace. McCoy made his debut in Pittsburgh, and then got his first career win in the Superdome on Sunday.