The NFL is unlike other professional sports leagues in the way coaches are given so much free reign over the formation of their teams. That is to say, there is an incredible value placed on a coach’s ability to choose who and how his team will play. Imagine, for example Larry Brown going to coach the Cavs and then reducing Lebron James’s role on the team because he didn’t fit Brown’s “vision for the team.” The notion is ridiculous; Brown would be expected to find a way for his vision to accommodate the considerable talents of a player like James. In other words, vision and reality would be forced to meet and create some new, unforeseen reality for the team, one different from the way things were but also not entirely dependent on the way the coach wants it to be.
This is what makes the stories coming out of Cleveland, such as Eric Mangini being lukewarm on Brady Quinn or the team trading away elite pass catching tight end Kellen Winslow for undisclosed draft picks (anything less than a second and fourth and they got ripped off) so disheartening for me as a fan of so much of the talent the Browns have stockpiled. Anyone who watched Mangini make the awkward switch form a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense understands the kind of frustration that results from a man forcing his identity onto a team and assuming that we, as fans, should embrace that change for the simple fact that he’s making it. While it’s no secret that I’m a proponent of football teams tailoring their systems to their personnel, and that forcing incredible talents into less than ideal schemes is frustrating, there’s something worse about what Mangini is doing here and has done in the past. Jettisoning talent in order to establish the identity you crave is worse than just poor management; it’s dishonest.
Winslow and Quinn are excellent examples of what’s going on here. If Mangini stooped to meet his players, he would be responsible for the progress they had already made. Excuses would be forced to address the fact that Mangini arrived to find several wonderful toys already in the closet, and any lack of resulting fun would be made that much less acceptable. Instead, Mangini now gets to lower expectations under the cover of creating a new identity. It’s rebuilding over a house that’s already there, and regardless of the flaws in the structure, removing everything to buy more time for a vision that may never even get 10 wins (which Mangini did once in New York…with a team that wasn’t “his people”…).
I suppose the real problem I have with this is that it sacrifices the potential of players who have proven that the can succeed for a vision that has done no such thing. Worse still, these players then float off into a league filled with coaches looking to establish their own visions, and unless their talents, however considerable, fit, they likely continue to float for a long time (Culpepper is a good, if flawed example). Sending Kellen Winslow does a lot of things, but it certainly does not make the Browns more talented than they were with one of the leagues best pass catchers on their team. Whatever Mangini’s hopes for the team are, are they so rigid that they can’t accommodate a player with a rare skill set at his position. If they are, can anyone be comfortable with a path for the future that is becoming narrower with every passing day? That kind of relentless pursuit of a singular vision can be admirable, but only when the vision is one that is worth pursuing. Going biblical, if the tree is already bearing bad fruits, doesn't that tell us all we need to know about the tree?