The cool thing about being a fan of sports is that you really can learn over time. I feel like a smarter fan today having been through all the things the Browns have been through since 1999. Take free agency, for example?
The Browns have signed guys like LeCharles Bentley, Donte Stallworth, Dave Zastudil, Gary Baxter, Joe Jurevicius, and Eric Steinbach. There have been some others, but these are the names that stick out to me most. Eric Steinbach has been great. Jurevicius was solid for a season. The rest ended up being not worth the money or trouble mostly.
Today I was reading about the trade of Albert Haynesworth from the Redskins to the Patriots and Andrew Brandt at The National Football Post helped me really tie together something else I have learned over the last few years with Eric Mangini at the helm for the Cleveland Browns.
As I (Brandt) often say, free agency in football is different than other sports. Football – unlike a sport such as baseball — is about schemes: 4-3, 3-4, cover two, etc., making it difficult for players to fit seamlessly into new teams. Another added problem is that when there are coaching changes, systems change but the players – Haynesworth – may not fit. And in my experience, I always worried when the incumbent team does not try too hard to keep the player; the Titans appeared only too happy to let Haynesworth go.
Eric Mangini wasn’t the be-all, end-all of NFL coaches. I had a great many criticisms of him when he was here. I was especially critical of his draft picks. Then again, who wouldn’t be as David Veikune was ushered out the door? One thing that I grew to understand about Mangini though, was the effectiveness of bringing in former Jets to play for the Browns.
Eric Barton, Abe Elam, Chansi Stuckey , David Bowens and the rest weren’t the best players available in all the NFL. The problem is that too many of us get wrapped up in fantasy football where we think we can take a guy’s stats from one place and just plug them into the box score of another. In that scenario, of course you always want the very best and most talented players available.
That kind of works in baseball, where a hitter gets to match up one-on-one with a pitcher and vice versa. Yes, there is the batting order in front or behind a hitter determining the quality of the pitches he will see, but lineup protection isn’t nearly as much of a scheme or system as is played in the NFL on both sides of the ball.
For Mangini’s faults, he definitely understood this. He knew that the Browns needed massive culture change and that they had to bring in guys who knew how to play his system if they ever wanted their draft picks and younger players to develop into the kinds of players that the Browns would want to re-sign long-term.
Instead of following the logic of it all, it was just too easy to throw around punchlines about the Browns becoming the Jets-West. I am sure I did it on a number of occasions, myself. Don’t take this to mean that I think firing Mangini was the wrong move. I still think that decision was about 60-40 and I could make the argument on either side between keeping him and starting over.
Regardless, he is gone, so what does all this mean now that the Browns have ushered Eric Mangini out the door and are starting fresh once again? It means that we shouldn’t be clamoring for the Browns to go out and find a bunch of high priced free agents or high profile trade targets.
The Patriots are making a perfect gamble on Haynesworth now that that Redskins have paid him most of his money. When you have a team with Tom Brady as its leader, you are always only a few players away from contention in the playoffs. Belichick has been there so long now that the schemes and culture are fully mature. For them, Haynesworth is very little risk.
The Browns need to keep finding young guys who are still being molded. The Browns have signed Usama Young (FS – Saints.) Young is only 26, who hasn’t started a lot of games, is said to have great character and valuable ability for depth and in the nickel. Even if he just provides an upgrade to Nick Sorenson, there is no harm in that. In terms of free agency, that is what the Browns should be doing.
Look for scheme guys who have played in systems similar to what Pat Shurmur and Dick Jauron are looking to do. Look toward their former players. And when/if those players are signed, know that it is with good reason as the Browns look to truly become competitive long-term by developing through the draft, while importing younger culture and scheme guys during free agency.
Hopefully someday the Browns will be mature enough culturally to justify taking a chance on a Haynesworth, Randy Moss or Chad Ochocinco as the Patriots have been able to do over the past decade. Just don’t expect it now.
And don’t get too discouraged. This team was off the rails when Romeo Crennel left. Eric Mangini taught them how to practice and be professional on and off the field. The learning curve on the new schemes could prove difficult at first, but this isn’t the same starting point as when Eric Mangini showed up.