One-on-One With Mike Holmgren: Rebuilding the Browns
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Mike Holmgren emerged from his first presidential morning at the NFL's annual league meetings unscathed. No scars were visible, and Holmgren did not seem ruffled by the fact he was not in the annual photo of the league's coaches.
"I'm getting there," Holmgren said of his adjustment to his front-office role with the Cleveland Browns.
Holmgren is a rarity in the NFL: Ask a question and he'll answer. If he can't, he'll simply admit it. Monday, the new Browns president addressed many issues, among them his and the Browns' thinking about quarterbacks Jimmy Clausen (thumbs neither up nor down) and Sam Bradford (thumbs up) as the draft approaches.
He also discussed his thought process in keeping Eric Mangini as coach after a 5-11 season, his thinking in trading Brady Quinn and his approach to changing 11 years of losing in Cleveland. He even related a story about being challenged by a fan who was not thrilled the Browns had traded Quinn, and conceded season-ticket and suite sales are not what the team would want.
In an exclusive Q&A with FanHouse, Holmgren first specified his most important job: "Put a good product on the field. That and to do it with a certain degree of fiscal responsibility."
Mike Holmgren:. You have to present a plan, a philosophy. And you have to make sure people listen. And you ask them to buy in. Not everyone is going to buy in. It's, 'Show me, I've been through this. Show me.' Then what you have to do is you have to have a little success. A little victory here, a little victory here. You take those steps and it happens.
FH: When you say 'they' have to buy in, who do you mean?
MH: Everybody. We work in the building, but the Cleveland Browns are Cleveland's team. It's a storied franchise. Everybody ... players, coaches, people who work there, fans, media. It's everybody. Because everyone has a vested interest. All those people somehow have a vested interest in how the Browns do. I don't care what they say. When you can build something up, everybody feels good about their contribution ... I've seen it work. It can happen. I don't care how many years people felt it's not been good or people have been frustrated. It can happen.
FH: There has also been constant change with the Browns. Can any team succeed with that taking place?
MH: That's difficult. I was looking at a chart of all the first-round draft choices in the last 10 years. None of them are here, except for Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. That can't happen. So why does it happen? I suppose you can make mistakes, but all 10? No, what happens is the new guys come in and typically it's the coach or GM and right away every player that's not his he thinks can't play. That's one, and two, he wants to set his own mark. 'These are my guys. We won with my guys.' Well that's a very, very short-sighted way to look at things. It really is.
FH: Did this not just happen?
MH: It happened with the quarterback position.
FH: What about the trade of Kamerion Wimbley?
MH: Why we did that will clear up.
FH: Are you going to trade up to get a quarterback?
MH: Hang on. That one I have to slow play. The only real dramatic thing we did was the quarterback stuff. Derek Anderson, his salary didn't match with what he was doing. And we had the roster bonus so we had a decision to make. One of those guys was not going to be with us. We traded for [Seneca] Wallace. Brady, I think no one's quite sure yet about Brady. Some people are absolutely sure. I'm not ready to say that. When Jake became available, we signed him. I'm not saying it's necessarily a bridge. But he's not going to be here forever. At that point we did the other thing [and traded Quinn].
FH: Did you ever debate keeping Delhomme and Quinn on the roster together?
MH: No. My thing was if I could go out and sign a veteran quarterback who I thought could help us be better immediately, then I was going to do it. In which case Brady was going to be the odd man out. If that couldn't happen, I was prepared to keep Brady. The thing is that your head coach and your starting quarterback ... they have to like each other. That has to work. Otherwise it doesn't matter what I do. So what I'm trying to do is give Eric every chance to be successful with the people he deems [he needs]. So we did it.
FH: Did you fail to give Quinn the same patience you gave the coach?
MH: I think if you get the right coach he can coach for you for 25 years. Not for me, because I'm old. But he can be there for a long time. With players, it's different. You don't look at it the same way.
FH: Have you ruled out drafting a quarterback in the first or second round?
MH: I wouldn't say that.
FH: Would it be difficult to take one that high because you have so many other needs?
MH: I would say that's real, particularly if the one or two guys that I think are worthy of that choice aren't there. Then there's no question We're going to probably go another way. but I think the bigger question is do we package something to get up in there. Which is still a possibility. We haven't had that final strategy meeting yet.
FH: Are there a couple quarterbacks worth that effort?
MH: I think so. One for sure.
FH: He [Sam Bradford] might go No. 1 though?
MH: Yeah, he might. But who knows?
FH: The other guy?
MH: There's a difference of opinion as to the value of this young man.
FH: Is that [Texas' Colt] McCoy?
MH: No, I like McCoy.
FH: [Notre Dame's Jimmy] Clausen?
MH: I don't want to get too specific. But that's the debate. Clausen is a big debate in the room.
FH: You would have to have unanimity to take a quarterback that high, though, right?
MH: That's a good point. And you've seen it happen [in Cleveland] and it can't happen anymore. I will not allow it to happen in Cleveland anymore. When you get down the road and you go into a meeting and one guy says, 'I told you we shouldn't.' No, no. Here's our guy. Speak now or forever hold your peace. If we pick this guy or we sign a guy in free agency ... we collectively talked about it, argued about it. Once we pick him he's ours.
FH: What about [Florida's Tim] Tebow?
MH: I like him. A lot. We were all at his workout. I think he showed the ability to change his motion. The question still remains when you get playing hard and stuff, what does he do? But you really love the kid. He's a winner, clearly. He'll be one of the guys we'll discuss.
FH: Are there mid-round quarterbacks in this year's draft?
MH: There always are. Every year. You dig around in there ... you can find one that has the potential to maybe play. But if you pick them like we did [Matt] Hasselbeck in the sixth round or [Mark] Brunell in the fifth round, they're not expected to come in and be a savior. You have time to groom them, watch them. Then you say, 'no,' and you pick another one the next year. I always like to do that. And you find them. Sometimes by great scouting, sometimes by accident.
FH: You've talked about a system you believe in in bringing along a young quarterback. What are the tenets in your system?
MH: The guys that I had were fortunate to be with me a long time, so they played with one coordinator, one system. So they get to be very good at that. That's a huge thing. Then if they're talented, if they can throw the ball a little bit, if they're tough, smart, you've got a real chance. It's a very quarterback friendly thing. The problem with quarterbacks is often times a guy will have four coordinators in six years. Stuff like that. He's played there six years but he's never been the player you thought he could be because he's learning new systems. Look at Hasselbeck last year. They bring in a new system ... even for the veteran guy it's hard. The Eagles with Donovan McNabb ... if they were to trade him, he's been in a system for how may years? Look at [Brett] Favre. A good example. He goes with Eric [Mangini] (pictured) to New York. There's no way he knows the system, so he writes 15 plays that he likes. What plays are you going to call in a game? I don't care if you have the finest player, if you're going to change systems it's hard, particularly on a quarterback.
FH: But that's been one of the problems in Cleveland, and for Quinn. There have been different coordinators and systems. How do you show that your tenure will be different from the other ones before you? How do you get stability?
MH: Hopefully you make the decision on the right coach. Then you make a conscious effort to live through the bumps with the coach. Unless all of a sudden you go, 'Wow. I didn't know this guy.' You make that commitment. Then you make the same commitment [to the quarterback]. Say you draft a quarterback high. You make that commitment. You teach him, you stay with him, he believes in you. It's a confidence thing. And you kind of move on together. That's how it works. You look at the real successful teams over the years, the Patriots, Eagles, they have stability at that position and usually they have stability with the coach too.
FH: Then let me ask this directly, how do you answer the perception that remains that you want to coach the Browns and that Eric is on a one-year trial?
MH: (Hearty laugh). I'd just say no, that's not how I'm looking at it. Honestly. Nope. What I want to do right now is make him the best coach he can be. Help him be here a long time. Probably be here a long time after I'm gone. That's the idea.
FH: Whose offensive system is it?
MH: That's a better question. What we're trying to evaluate right now is last year's Browns offense. It wasn't very good. Why? Was it players, was it what they were doing? Once you have those answers, then you go about fixing those answers. If it is scheme, I'm not coaching the team but I absolutely can and feel the freedom to talk to [offensive coordinator] Brian [Daboll], talk to Eric. And [longtime Holmgren assistant] Gil Haskell is in the building. He's talking to Brian all the time. To try some of the stuff that worked for me forever and ever and ever. It just works. But unless I'm coaching the team, ultimately I'm not going to call the play. It's not my call. But I think I can help without stepping on anyone's toes, or to put it better without breaking my promises to those guys.
FH: Does that mean it's a combination system?
MH: I don't know. I see some similarities in what they do and what I've done. Plays are plays and you'll see a lot of different teams running the same plays. There might be a little subtle difference here. Maybe a better way to make a better mousetrap, if you will. But then it gets down to how you like to play offense. It's really three things. What do you like to do? What's your philosophy? Do you have the players to do that? If you don't have the players to do it, don't do it. If you keep trying to do it but you can't do it, try something else. It's not my system right or wrong, it's how you score points, how you move the ball. That's the second thing. The third thing -- it certainly was in Green Bay -- but our weather and all those things in Cleveland factor in to what will help you be successful in your system. You get feeling good about those three things then you have a chance.
FH: You have made it clear you are not the coach. But is it hard to sit next to the coach at a news conference and answer questions? Is that a tough balance?
MH: I don't think so. We talked about how we want to do that. I might be more talkative than he is, but if there's a question I think I can probably answer better I would answer it. If it's something referring to a player he coached and he understands it better, then he can answer it. As long as he and I understand that and nobody gets their feathers ruffled, it should be fine.
FH: You're the two that matter?
MH: I think so. In fact, at some point I'll send [general manager Tom] Heckert. Let those two answer. That's my ultimate goal.
FH: People want to hear from you though.
MH: I get that, and that's why I'm trying to be upfront. I want everyone in the media room to feel a little better about the whole thing. I've always said if the team plays lousy, write it. But don't write the team is playing lousy before they play the game. I know things build up, but we're going to try to be open and honest. You've got to know who you are, but it doesn't have to be in my opinion an adversarial situation. You have your job to do, [Mangini] has his job to do, I have my job to do. Some things we can't talk about. Most things we can. What's the big deal?
FH: But is it still challenging not to do too much in terms of the returning to your coaching roots?
MH: So far it hasn't been. I always try to tell [Mangini] where I'm coming from. So there are no curveballs thrown at him. I've been a coach for so long, I think I know how coaches think. How I would react.
FH: Did you watch a lot of tape before you made the decision to keep Mangini? Did you talk to players?
MH: I watched tape. I didn't talk to any players.
MH: If you were to talk to my old players, I thought they all loved me. They didn't all love me. You're going to get a couple who would say he was unfair, didn't do this. I hope not many, but you would get a couple. Players are players. I did talk to administrators who helped him. I did talk to people that I talk to about a lot of my football decisions. Two or three guys that I trust who are smart football guys who have no agenda.
FH: It almost seemed like your personality would not think it fair for a coach to have only one year.
MH: That wasn't the overriding thing, but it was part of it. Before we had discussions, that was already on the list. One year, not long enough. Little note. Had I come in even with that and didn't get the feeling that he and I could work together, it wouldn't have mattered.
FH: What are you hearing from fans about the team?
MH: It's very, very positive. Guys are moving me into my house, the movers. At the market. Everyone has an opinion and everyone will say it. It's an interesting thing.
I'm going to church last Sunday and I come out and get in my car and the guy across the street comes running out in his shorts and his T-shirt. It's Sunday morning.
He said, 'What are you doing Mike?'
I had met him before. nice fellow.
'What are you doing?'
I said, 'I'm going to church.'
He said, 'No. About Brady Quinn.'
I said, 'Calm down.'
He said, 'I'm a Brady Quinn fan and he didn't have enough time.'
I said, 'First of all whatever I do I'm going to think of the team first. Second, this is why I did it.' Went through two or three things.
He kind of said OK, then he said, 'What do I tell my friends?'
I said, 'Just tell them to trust me a little bit. Watch what happens.'
He said OK and ran back into his house.
FH: What do you expect from the fans?
MH: To go from where the team was last year or were the last couple years, to go to 11-5 from 5-11, that usually doesn't happen. But, I do expect improvement. And the fans do too.
I would ask them to watch how we play. See the effort. See if we're better. Look at what we've done. They're knowledgeable fans. Not unlike the fans in Green Bay.
My hope is that when the fans see us play next year they'll see a team they can feel good about. Ease some of the frustration.
FH: Are season tickets and suite sales good?
MH: No, no. We can do better there. But I'm hopeful that people get back on board if they've decided not to. I understand the economy. That's a real thing. It's quite an investment. But we want to create a situation at the stadium where it's really the place to be on Sunday. We were able to do that in Seattle through a lot of hard work over a couple years. It became the happening place. It was fun. That's what I'm hoping for right now.
FH: Do you want fans to be patient or is that not realistic?
MH: They've been pretty patient for a long time. I'm just saying to look for improvement. How that equates to wins and losses, we'll have to see. My hope is that you'll see a change, a dramatic change. Now its a little far-reaching, I think, to think you can flip it tremendously. Miami did it, but then they fell back a little bit this year. It doesn't usually happen that way.