Last year, many of Eric Mangini’s detractors used varying player opinions of him as weapons against him. There was the infamous bus trip that the rookies took to Mangini’s football camp on the east coast. In hindsight, that was certainly a public relations mistake on Mangini’s part, but nowhere near as big a deal as it was made out to be. Then complaints about excessive hitting came after James Davis injured his shoulder in an “opportunity session” after practice. There was a brief moment there when we were told that one player was wearing shoulder pads against players who were not. These “sessions” were thrust into our consciousness in a manner meant to cause debate as to whether or not these were a good idea or just another example of “crazy Mangini” who was hired by “lazy Lerner” in another attempt to ruin our football team. All this isn’t to even mention the hubbub over player fines, which I will get into later.
Meanwhile, in another part of town in an entirely different sport, LeBron James was unofficially calling the shots for the Cavaliers. We thought LeBron was the mature guy. He was the unquestioned team leader. He was wise beyond his years. He had a small army in his entourage and seemed to own a personal shooting coach in Chris Jent, but he was “doing all the right things.” Word had it that he respected Mike Brown, Danny Ferry and Dan Gilbert so it was actually OK to give some liberties to the superstar player.
Now we know that the lack of discipline and organizational control over LeBron James was a problem. At the end of the day, LeBron probably still would have left Cleveland high and dry to go play in Miami with his buddies. That being said, no matter who the players are on the roster, there is a proper way to run the organization. Ceding control to the players is almost never the right thing to do. I think LeBron had us all convinced (maybe brainwashed) into thinking that it was fine to give a player that much control. His public persona while playful seemed so wise and mature. He seemed like he was a true leader and an extension of the coaching staff and front office. At least that is the way it seemed to most of us.
That perception that LeBron gave us probably leaked into our attitudes concerning the Browns as well. We should have expected the complaints to come from players after playing for Romeo Crennel for a few years. Some of us did, and still didn’t deal well with hearing those complaints as they came out. Change is difficult, especially when that change involves more rules and more discipline. It was natural to get complaints. I attempted to think about it impartially and even I got sucked into a little bit of the Mangini hate by all the national media members. Of course these media members were being fed by player agents complaining about fines and bus trips. No free agents would ever come to the Browns ever again, proclaimed the voices.
In the end though, Mangini knew the culture had to change. Mangini wasn’t going to be able to change Kellen Winslow, so he was shipped out the door. The fact that he wanted to be the highest paid tight end in the league helped Mangini’s case selling that one. Still, some fans were miffed to be losing the talented TE. Mangini decided not to trade Braylon Edwards right away, instead attempting to change him. After a $1700+ fine and poor play on the field, Braylon added an off-field incident to his rap sheet. That, finally, spelled his end with the Cleveland Browns. In some circles, it seemed like Mangini was an ego-maniac blowing up the team at his whim. He was getting rid of some very very talented “bad apples.” These are professional athletes, though. Shouldn’t you be willing to put up with some bad attitudes in exchange for a certain minimum level of talent?
That is what the Cavaliers were doing with LeBron James and over there it resulted in deep playoff runs. Occasionally my line of thinking was that Romeo Crennel ran an easy camp, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem with Romeo Crennel was that he wasn’t a good coach. He couldn’t coach in-game and he couldn’t recognize when coordinators like Mo Carthon were in way over their heads. Bringing in a new coach with a new culture doesn’t mean cleaning house of every player with talent, right? That kind of thinking was doing a tug of war in my brain with opposing thoughts. How could I make sense of the balancing act between my distrust in the new guy, Eric Mangini and my distrust of players who were talented, but might not know best in running an organization?
Now that LeBron James is gone, and we started to hear that he wasn’t nearly as mature as we thought, it helps put Mangini’s culture change in perspective. Don’t think for a second that this is a 100% endorsement of Mangini as an organizational leader, either. Still, it is hard to ignore, in hindsight, exactly what he was attempting to change.
Braylon Edwards thought he was LeBron James. He thought he was a superstar and above discipline. Maybe he was born with that attribute. Maybe he developed it over time under the tutelage of Romeo Crennel. It was probably a combination of the two. Mangini attempted to teach him his place in the organization by fining him. The stories came out of back channels (probably from Braylon and his agent) that Mangini was a bad guy and he was ruining the Cleveland Browns. We know how that ended for Braylon.
Fast forward to this season. Eric Mangini fines Browns rookie T.J. Ward $1760 for letting his cell phone go off in a meeting. Instead of hearing from back channels about how Mangini is a bad guy, the reactions were much different. T.J. Ward tweeted about the incident proclaiming that it will never happen again. Even more importantly, the Browns’ first round draft choice Joe Haden also tweeted his observation that fines were “no joke!” He wasn’t criticizing Mangini, but actually respecting the severity of the discipline and realizing just how important it is to do the right things as a player for the Cleveland Browns. Instantaneously Joe Haden has shown more respect for the Cleveland Browns than Braylon Edwards ever did in his entire stay here.
Obviously Joe Haden and Braylon Edwards aren’t the same exact guy. Maybe Joe Haden was never wired in such a way that he could develop an attitude like Braylon Edwards. Still, Haden was drafted 7th in the first round and Edwards drafted 3rd in 2005. Every player at that skill level needs a certain amount of ego to be that good. If the organization has any influence over a player of that caliber it will be when they are wide-eyed rookies trying not to be busts. Braylon Edwards never had a chance of becoming a Cleveland Brown in Eric Mangini’s mold because of who he is and how he developed in the NFL under Romeo Crennel. Joe Haden now has that chance because Eric Mangini’s discipline is in place and holdovers from a less-disciplined time like Braylon are now gone.
If that same level of organizational discipline had been in place with the Cavaliers, who knows how much would have been different? Would LeBron have stayed with the Cavaliers? Nobody can say for sure. Probably not. But, maybe the Boston series would have gone differently. If that level of respect and deference to the organization had been instilled in LeBron James maybe Danny Ferry would still be here. He was reportedly one of the strongest voices in opposition to the constant coddling of James. Maybe LeBron still leaves Cleveland, but maybe he has the common decency to let the organization know what he is going to do. Maybe instead of ending up lost in a sea of delusion and vanity, LeBron would have handled his departure with class and humility.
I know the worlds of the NBA and the NFL are different. I know that it takes far more than one player to have success in the NFL. Still, I think there is something we can learn about Eric Mangini from our experiences with LeBron James. Mangini might never be the coach that takes us to a Super Bowl. A year later, though, and you have to admit that the detractors might have been wrong about his discipline and process.
One final thought that occurs to me. Isn’t this a strange world? After a tumultuous year in Cleveland sports who would have ever guessed that the city of Cleveland would love Eric Mangini far more than LeBron James?