Left tackle Joe Thomas preceded Mike Holmgren and he’ll outlast him. But don’t count Thomas in the growing number of people piling on the outgoing president.
Thomas remembers what life was like inside Browns headquarters before Holmgren arrived in December 2009. He remembers when general manager George Kokinis didn’t make it through his first season before being fired. When Eric Mangini seemed to run the whole organization from the coach’s office.
“It seemed like the dysfunction and the every-week drama that we had before he got here ended,” Thomas said of Holmgren. “And it’s been great. Obviously we haven’t won the way we wanted to, but being able to limit the distractions and move them out of the way was one of the biggest things Mike did when he got here.”
Holmgren has seen an increase in the vitriol headed in his direction from fans and many members of the media. He’s being kicked out the door by new owner Jimmy Haslam, who replaced him with CEO Joe Banner, so he’s an easy target.
Not inside the locker room.
“The day-to-day operation is much more functional,” veteran linebacker Scott Fujita said. “The coaches don’t seem as drained. They come in, they’re energetic, they’re ready to coach, they want to get better every day.
“We didn’t win enough games. That’s what’s clear. They say Believeland around here. I do honestly believe this team is headed in the right direction. Certainly we’re very young, much younger than we were two years ago. And I think much more talented.”
Today’s game against San Diego (3-3) marks the midpoint of the 16-game schedule as the Browns (1-6) try to win their second straight at home. It also would’ve been the halfway mark of Holmgren’s five-year rebuilding plan. But Randy Lerner’s billion-dollar sale to Haslam started the ultimate reorganization.
Holmgren’s legacy has been a hot topic of conversation, and the first item mentioned is the 10-29 record during his tenure. The Super Bowl appearances he brought to Green Bay and Seattle as coach were never close to materializing.
“The record speaks for itself and ultimately people are judged on how many games you win,” Holmgren said Tuesday in his farewell news conference. “But there’s a lot more that goes into an organization than that. Although that’s the thing people look at.
“There’s some things I feel very, very good about what we did here. We didn’t win enough games, though. But I think we’re close. I really do.”
Thomas credits Holmgren for not only ending the dysfunction, but establishing a defined organization structure that works. He was at the top, and hired general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur to build and run the team and report to him.
“We came from a period where Eric Mangini was kind of the GM, head coach, owner, president,” Thomas said. “When Mike came it seemed like everything streamlined, you got the right people in the right jobs. I think we’re definitely a lot better off right now than where we were then.”
When Thomas signed a seven-year, $84 million contract extension in training camp last season, one of the reasons was his faith in the regime of Holmgren and Heckert. So the sudden change this year was met with trepidation.
“Obviously there’s definite concern of the unknown,” Thomas said. “And I thought we were on really solid footing before the switch happened and obviously Coach Holmgren won’t be here next year and there’s a lot of things that are up in the air, so you just don’t know what’s going to happen.
“But I will say, knowing what Joe Banner did when he was in Philly, they had a good organization, good structure, successful franchise. So I’m hoping that’s the route we take.”
“I think we all want to be in control of our own situations,” Shurmur said. “I think it’s fair to say that most of us aren’t. To me, uncertainty in the world tells me that, ‘Hey, we’re moving along.’”
The Eagles were a model of stability during Banner’s 12 years as president. Heckert worked there nine years in the front office, and coach Andy Reid is in his 14th season.
Banner was supposed to start on the job Thursday, but the death of his father delayed his arrival. He preached continuity during his introductory news conference, but was quick to state he didn’t know when the clock would start on the continuity.
His most important decisions following the season will be whether to keep Heckert and/or Shurmur.
“I definitely want them to stay around,” Thomas said. “Certainly it’s not going to be my decision, but I like both those guys. I think they’re doing a really good job and I certainly hope we can continue on the path we’re going.”
Thomas has lived through the transition from Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel to Mangini, and then Mangini to Heckert and Shurmur. He thinks the current situation is different.
“If you asked any of the other 31 NFL teams where we are now as far as personnel, coaching, they’re going to say we’re a lot closer this year than we were three years ago, two years ago, last year even,” he said. “We just have better players, we’ve got a better organization, we’ve got more potential, younger players that are learning. We’re head and shoulders above where we were three, four years ago.”
The sentiment is shared throughout the locker room. The excitement around Haslam is real, but it’s mixed with fear of the unknown and a sense that something good is already right around the corner.
“It’s just bad timing,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said of the sale. “You would hope that it wouldn’t happen, but it has. If we can win some games, and I’m confident we can, we could squeeze out three, four in a row.”
Jackson thinks that would help Heckert and Shurmur survive the transition.
“Our record doesn’t show how close we are,” Jackson said.
For many of the Browns, that sums up Holmgren’s legacy.
The Browns promoted defensive lineman Brian Sanford from the practice squad Saturday and placed linebacker Scott Fujita (neck) on injured reserve.
Sanford was originally signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010 and has appeared in five games with the Browns. He had three tackles in five games last year.
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• WHO: Cleveland vs. San Diego
• TIME: 1 p.m.
• WHERE: Cleveland Browns Stadium
• TV/RADIO: Channel 19; WMMS 100.7-FM, WTAM 1100-AM
JUST THE FACTS
• RECORDS: Browns 1-6; Chargers 3-3
• LAST WEEK: Browns lost 17-13 at Colts; Chargers had bye, lost 35-24 to Denver on
• SERIES: Chargers lead 14-7-1
• SERIES IN CLEVELAND: Chargers lead 8-3-1
• LAST MEETING: Chargers won 30-23 on Dec. 6, 2009, in Cleveland
• COACHES: Pat Shurmur is 5-18 with Browns and overall; Norv Turner is 55-37 with Chargers, 114-120-1 overall
• TV/RADIO: Channel 19, with Spero Dedes and Rich Gannon; WMMS-FM 100.7, WTAM 1100-AM
• NFL RANKINGS: Browns — offense 25th (30th rushing, 15th passing), defense 27th
(24th rushing, 26th passing); Chargers — offense 27th (18th rushing, 19th passing), defense 13th (2nd rushing, 25th passing)
• QB Brandon Weeden leads NFL rookies with nine TD passes. In the past two weeks, he has passed for 495 yards with four TDs, an INT and a 94.6 passer rating. He’s had two touchdown passes in three straight games.
• RB Trent Richardson leads AFC rookies with 348 rushing yards. He has four rushing TDs in the past six games.
• WR Greg Little tied a career high with six catches last week.
• The Browns lead the AFC with 10 INTs, one more than they had all of last season.
• CB Joe Haden has two INTs in his three games played this season. Since being drafted in 2010, he leads the team with eight INTs and is tied for third in the NFL with 41 passes defensed.
• CB Sheldon Brown had a team-high 10 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery last week.
• WR Joshua Cribbs is third in the league with a 14.3-yard average on punt returns.
• The Browns have 16 rookies on the roster.
• Rookie WR Josh Cooper has six catches for 92 yards in two games. All six catches have gone for first downs.
• Cleveland hasn’t allowed a sack in two of the last three games and only three sacks in the last four. The 11 allowed on the season are the eighth-fewest in the league.
• San Diego seeks its fifth straight win vs. the Browns.
• The Chargers are tied for first in the AFC West with a 3-3 record.
• WR Malcom Floyd leads the team with 25 catches for 418 yards (16.7 average) and a TD.
He has two 100-yard games.
• QB Philip Rivers has started 102 straight games. It’s the second-longest active QB streak behind Eli Manning’s 126.
• WR Robert Meachem averages 23.2 yards per catch on the road this year.
• WR Eddie Royal had a career-high 164 yards with Denver against the Browns in 2008.
• Since 2011, S Eric Weddle leads the NFL with nine INTs.
• The team’s streak of 151 games with a TD ended in Week 3.
• San Diego has used the same starters on defense in every game.
• OL Rex Hadnot played with the Browns in 2008-09.
• OL coach Mike Sullivan was Cleveland’s assistant OL coach in 2001-04 and 2007-08.
• Director of pro scouting Dennis Abraham played football at Baldwin-Wallace College.
• Turner and Browns senior adviser to the president Gil Haskell coached together at USC in 1985-90.
• DT Antonio Garay was a sixth-round pick of the Browns in 2003.
• BROWNS INJURY REPORT: Out: LB Scott Fujita (shoulder/neck), CB Dimitri Patterson (ankle), DT Ahtyba Rubin (calf); Questionable: S Tashaun Gipson (knee), WR Mohamed Massaquoi (hamstring), RB Trent Richardson (chest/rib); Probable: CB Johnson Bademosi (hip), WR Travis Benjamin (hamstring), LB Tank Carder (foot), OL John Greco (ankle), RB Montario Hardesty (knee), DT John Hughes (knee), OL Ryan Miller (illness), RB Chris Ogbonnaya (chest/ribs), DE Juqua Parker (shoulder/illness), DE Frostee Rucker (shoulder), OL Jarrod Shaw (illness), CB Buster Skrine (hand), S Bubba Ventrone (hand/calf), S T.J. Ward (hand/shoulder), S Usama Young (hamstring), LS Christian Yount (shoulder)
• CHARGERS INJURY REPORT: Questionable: LB Jonas Mouton (hip), WR Eddie Royal (hamstring); Probable: T Jared Gaither (groin), C Nick Hardwick (abdomen), DE Vaughn Martin (neck), Shareece Wright (foot)
• SCOTT’S PICK: The Chargers used the bye to stop the bleeding from two straight collapses, will get back on track for second-half run. Chargers 24, Browns 20