One of the most incredible lines you’ll hear from Eric Mangini’s critics is the one that tries to minimize Mangini’s nine years of experience working under NFL coaching legend Bill Belichick, including Mangini’s promotion by Belichick to defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots in 2005.
Of course, one might reasonably conclude that a coach as successful as Belichick would have surrounded himself with competent help, and that a promotion by the likes of Belichick to a coordinator position should speak especially highly of a coach’s ability. For those who’ve been impressed with what Mangini accomplished in his short time with the New York Jets* and with the rebuilding project he appears to have effectively under way here in Cleveland with the Browns, it’s easy enough to see why Belichick would have held Mangini in such high esteem.
To get around this fact, Mangini’s critics have incredibly taken to arguing that a coordinator position under Belichick is a do-nothing job, as though Belichick would have filled such a position with a bum off the street. Along these lines, they’ve taken to comparing Mangini to former Belichick coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, ignoring obvious differences, including that neither of these men was known as Belichick’s protege like Mangini was.
Perhaps recognizing that the argument needed fortification here, one of its most enthusiastic participants, former NFL player personnel exec Michael Lombardi who now writes at the National Football Post, recently tossed a new stone in Mangini’s direction. In attempting to dismiss Mangini’s ability to consecutively land a defensive coordinator position and two NFL head coaching jobs as “luck,” in what was otherwise a cookie-cutter Mangini hit-piece, Lombardi claims that:
[Mangini] sold the Jets and his good friend, general manager Mike Tannenbaum, on the fact he was a bright young coordinator and a budding star when the reality was, at the time, Mangini was removed from his defensive coordinator responsibilities while he was in New England.
So the truth is, according to Lombardi, that Mangini was not in fact a bright young coordinator, but actually just a con who told lies about his resume in order to land jobs with the Jets and then the Browns. Note the contrast here with Josh Cribbs’ recent comments about a “family oriented” guy whose values are rubbing off on the team, and also note both that Belichick didn’t promote anyone to the offensive coordinator position that same year on Crennel’s and Weis’ departure, and that Mangini turned down the defensive coordinator positions in Cleveland, Miami, and Oakland before taking the Patriots job in 2005. So on Lombardi’s view, these franchises were all duped, along with Randy Lerner, Mike Tannenbaum and the Jets, and Belichick, the NFL coaching legend who had worked with Mangini for eight years before elevating him to the coordinator position.
Lombardi’s report of Mangini’s trickery seemed incredible and potentially damning enough for us to look into it further, starting with research that revealed absolutely no evidence of this claim anywhere else. As far as we know, Lombardi is the only source for it.
So where did Lombardi get this information?
He’s not telling.
Emails from Lombardi confirmed that his source is anonymous, and that he won’t reveal it, other than to say that it’s “someone who knows very well.” (The emails I got back from Lombardi are really something else. “Where did you learn football,” he repeatedly asks.)
Lombardi then went on to point out, as he did in his Mangini hit piece, that:
The Patriots [defense] under Mangini in 2005 gave up too many big plays down the field and were so poorly synchronized that head coach Bill Belichick was forced to take over the defense in mid-stream. Every time Mangini was given more responsibility in New England, he was not successful.
One might wonder especially about that last sentence, and why anyone who was so repeatedly unsuccessful would have so repeatedly been entrusted with more responsibility. No word from Lombardi on that.
But even worse, Lombardi fails to say a word about the personnel losses that decimated the Patriots defense in 2005. It seems to be at least worth mentioning in criticizing the coach of a defense that “gave up too many big plays down the field,” that that same defense lost its best player to injury, safety Rodney Harrison, in the season’s third week. Those Pats also lost Pro Bowl CB Ty Law in a cost-cutting move, LB Tedi Bruschi to a pre-season stroke, LB Ted Johnson to surprise retirement on the eve of training camp, as well as perennial starters Roman Pfifer (LB) and Keith Traylor (NT).
Also notable, “unlike past Patriots offseasons, the 2005 offseason did not bring the arrival of any would-be full-time starters.” And that even despite this personnel shakeup, these Patriots won their division with a 10-6 record, finishing with a five game winning streak before resting their starters in the season’s final game. The Pats’ defense even remained stout in the team’s playoff loss that season, giving up only 286 total yards to a Broncos team that was the beneficiary of five turnovers by the Patriots offense.
Are we supposed to believe that Mangini had no fingerprints on the defense by that point in the season? Even with Belichick coaching without an offensive coordinator? It makes one wonder what Lombardi’s vague phrase “removed from responsibility” means, as Belichick might simply have decided to turn more attention to the defense in view of the hefty personnel losses. How much more attention, who knows? But when you run an NFL rumor mill based on anonymous sources, there’s apparently very little need to ask the hard questions.
But the fact remains that not only does Lombardi’s report come with nobody else willing to stand behind it, but the claim itself is undermined by highly relevant facts that Lombardi chooses to ignore. And given that there’s no love lost between the Belichick and Mangini camps, and that the source remains anonymous, we’re not inclined to view the rumor as any more credible just because it might have come from Belichick’s corner (if not Belichick himself).
It’s all enough to make one question the motives of a reporter who held a player-personnel job in the NFL as recently as 2007, and probably wants back in the League. Given the deal that Mangini’s gotten from the press, nationally and in Cleveland, it looks more than anything else like Lombardi smells blood, and might even still be sore about Mangini turning him down when Lombardi was sent by the Raiders to woo Mangini for their defensive coordinator position. Anyway, it’s impossible to read Lombardi’s criticism of Mangini without thinking it’s based in something personal.
The truth is that he was a damn good football coach just into his fourth year of high level coaching experience (coordinator and up). He’s going to make mistakes, but this is not Rich Kotite who doesn’t learn from his mistakes. Mangini was a smart man, as evidence by the fact that he was 10-6 in his first year with a 5-11 team. Truth be told, his only under-.500 year was due to front office mismanagement and a lack of players to fit the 3-4 defense he so desperately needed to make this team a constant contender.
Did he need to air out the garbage? Yes. But that should have been done with a 2-year extension (in name only; in reality just a year to see if he could right the ship) and the removal of both coordinators or at least Bob Sutton. Oh, and the firing of one of the true culprits of the Jets’ late season collapse: Brett Favre. Look, if Favre plays a SMIDGE better in those final four weeks, Mangini finishes at the magic 10-6 and he’s got his extension and can continue to build this team towards a better future. Instead, they’re now out chasing the next big thing.
The truth is that this was a coach who was beloved by most of his players — even the cantankerous Laveranues Coles. All you had to do was read, listen to and watch the exit interviews with the media to see that this team wanted Mangini back, not Favre. Not only that, he had winning seasons in two of his three seasons and a team on the uptick in the grand scheme. He and Tannenbaum had begun to build the franchise into something more than the butt of a bad Giants Stadium joke. But, alas, it’s not good enough, because someone’s head had to roll — but it shouldn’t have been Mangini’s.
* * *
Here we had a coach who wasn’t winning with smoke and mirrors, who wasn’t winning with someone else’s players (Hey, Herm, here’s looking at you). Here was a coach who had instilled his system, his way of doing things and had shown an abiltity to adapt at times (Shortening of practices and altering of camp). Don’t tell me he wasn’t enough of a players coach. Then why were so many players clamoring after he was fired, “He was the reason I came here.”
And from a commenter at the same post:
“100% agree. I dont believe he lost his players. All I have heard and read was how Jenkins, Faneca, Rhodes, Cotchery, TJ. Leon etc.. were behind him. You have actually heard more negative comments towards Favre and how he was handled wih kid gloves (Woody’s policy) Something would have come out already if he lost his locker room. He was saddled with Favre and the last 5 games Favre was a out of control train wreck.”
In this light, it’s easy to see that Lerner might have had a good reason to end his head coaching search as abruptly as he did.