BEREA: Browns President Mike Holmgren sat behind his desk and tapped his fingers on a thick binder. It contained coach Pat Shurmur’s game plan for the regular-season opener today against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“The fact is, I know what’s in here,” Holmgren said. “In fact, I used to install it most of the time, and I taught a lot of guys what’s in here.”
Holmgren couldn’t say the same last year about coach Eric Mangini’s playbook. The philosophies and strategies Mangini learned from Bill Belichick are largely foreign to Holmgren, a disciple of Bill Walsh and a noted practitioner of the West Coast offense.
But after the Browns finished the 2010 season with a record of 5-11, Holmgren fired the defensive-minded Mangini and replaced him with the offensive-minded Shurmur. As Holmgren enters his second season with the Browns, the front office and the coaching staff share a vision.
“The health of any organization comes from the top, I think, in terms of having a clear vision on where the program should be headed,” linebacker Scott Fujita said. “I get the sense that they are on the same page, and that’s important because it trickles down, and the locker room feels that. It’s important for them to be on the same page and for us to follow suit and follow that mission.”
Critics lament Holmgren’s one-year trial run with Mangini because they consider it a waste of time. Holmgren, though, said he didn’t feel comfortable ditching Mangini after the latter guided the Browns to a four-game winning streak to end the 2009 season.
“I know usually when someone comes in, every one gets killed,” said Holmgren, who signed a five-year contract to become the team’s president Jan. 5, 2010. “Well, I wanted to do it for the right reasons, and I really didn’t have enough reasons. They finished the season strong, if you remember two years ago. There had been a lot of turmoil that went on that wasn’t [Mangini’s] fault necessarily. It just happened and caused some of the problems. The thing is, I just didn’t think one year was enough to evaluate the coach.”
Despite their different approaches, Holmgren vowed not to interfere with Mangini’s methods. Holmgren believes that he kept his promise before eventually turning to Shurmur.
Now there’s a much different atmosphere in the Browns’ headquarters. Holmgren, Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert are unified.
“In terms of working together, I think it’s been terrific,” Shurmur said. … “If I have something that we need to discuss, we bring it up, we discuss it, we execute it and I move on. I feel as though it’s been natural. In fact, I’ve kind of enjoyed the process so far.”
The players are buying in.
“If you’re in a dance contest or you and a girl are out there dancing, ya’ll better be on the same beat or both ya’ll are gonna look like idiots,” cornerback Sheldon Brown said. “So everybody has to be on the same accord, and it has to be that way for you to go to the top of the ladder. If someone’s holding you down with dead weight, then you’re not gonna get there.”
Finding the coach
After formally interviewing two other candidates, Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, Holmgren said he chose Shurmur, 46, in part because of his pedigree.
Shurmur’s late uncle, Fritz, served as Holmgren’s defensive coordinator when the two guided the Green Bay Packers to victory in Super Bowl XXXI. Holmgren also was attracted to Shurmur’s two years of experience as the St. Louis Rams’ offensive coordinator, his extensive knowledge of the West Coast scheme and his 10-year apprenticeship under Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, a protege of Holmgren.
Shurmur’s connection to Heckert helped, too. The two had previously worked together for the Eagles.
“It’s really important that the coach and the general manager are able to come together and decide on things together,” Holmgren said. “That’s always a little difficult to find that kind of thinking from those two people because they’re both intelligent and strong. But so far I’ve seen it. They work well together. They really do. So I’m not having to break ties all the time.”
The chemistry of Shurmur and Heckert was tested Sept. 3, when all NFL teams were required to trim their rosters from 80 players to 53. It was another first for Shurmur, who’s never been a head coach before at any level. Heckert, 44, said reaching agreements throughout the process wasn’t difficult.
“That was never an issue,” Heckert said. “We’re all striving for the same thing. We’re trying to get the best possible players in there for these guys to coach, and I think our coaching staff knows that.”
Holmgren said he also gets along with Shurmur and has taken a more active role this year in consulting the coaching staff. It’s not uncommon for Holmgren, 63, to patrol the practice field with a call sheet in hand.
“I told the coaches and Pat this in a meeting I had with them earlier,” Holmgren said. “I said, ‘I’m gonna be a little more involved this year. But I’m not gonna call the plays. I’m not gonna do that. When you see me talking to a player or I’m talking to you, no one get their feathers ruffled. Just allow me to do this if you would.’ And they’ve been great about it.”
Surrounding Shurmur with other experienced football minds was one of Holmgren’s top priorities. He accomplished the goal by hiring two former NFL head coaches, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron and senior defensive assistant Ray Rhodes. Gil Haskell, Holmgren’s senior adviser and former offensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks, also became more interactive with the coaching staff. Keith Gilbertson, another former assistant of Holmgren, left his role as the Browns’ director of pro personnel to become a senior offensive assistant.
“The head coach needs a guy or two that has been through it,” Holmgren said. “Not that he’s in your ear all the time, but if you have a question or you get stuck, you can go to him and feel you can trust him.”
Guiding the quarterback
Shurmur’s ability to develop quarterback Colt McCoy also appealed to Holmgren. Shurmur served as the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach from 2002-08, and last year, he tutored Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, the first overall pick in the 2010 draft.
Holmgren said the Browns are going all in with McCoy this season. Holmgren and Shurmur think McCoy, who had eight starts as a rookie last season, can thrive in the West Coast scheme. Still, they’re waiting to see whether he confirms their beliefs.
“If you decide, ‘I think this is the guy,’ then he’s gotta know you’re thinking that,” Holmgren said. “If he plays and proves he’s not the guy, then you can’t be stubborn about that, either. Then you’ve gotta do something else. But I think Colt showed enough last year in big games to think he can handle this and do a pretty good job with it.
“If he had not played last year, which was my original plan and hope that we could go with Jake [Delhomme] and Seneca [Wallace] and let Colt just watch, I wouldn’t be nearly as confident this year. I just wouldn’t. But he played, and he played pretty well against really good teams. He also took his lumps and learned from it. He’s a bright guy. He wants to be good. He wants to be great, so it should work. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
McCoy, a third-round pick, is one of eight players drafted in the past two years who are expected to start today. Holmgren and Heckert believe that franchises should be constructed through the draft.
The Browns were not very active in free agency this year in part because they put a priority on extending the contracts of young, core players such as left tackle Joe Thomas and tight end Evan Moore. Holmgren said the team is also working on extensions with running back Peyton Hillis and defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin.
“There are certain teams that get into a position where maybe that one player does get you over the hump or get you to where you want to get to, and it’s all about how you allocate your money,” Holmgren said. “For us, we knew we had to keep funds for Joe Thomas. … This year, we concentrated on our own free agents more than the outside guys. So there’s not a hard and fast rule. Each year is gonna bring its own challenges. That’s what we thought we had to do this year.”
Whether the organization’s decisions are popular or not doesn’t concern Holmgren. The ability to reach them with a common philosophy in mind is the important part of the equation in his eyes.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://browns.ohio.com. Follow the Browns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ABJ_Browns and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/browns.abj.