Mike Holmgren, the most successful coach in Seattle Seahawks history, won’t finish a Cleveland Browns rebuilding project that never really got off the ground. Holmgren, according to multiple reports, is an early casualty of the Browns’ ownership change approved Tuesday.
As recently as a few months ago, the news of Holmgren’s divorce from the Browns would have dominated the news cycle in Seattle, where The Big Show left a shadow that daunted both his immediate successor, Jim L. Mora, and then Pete Carroll. But two days after the Seahawks’ thrilling comeback victory over New England – and two days before their Thursday night showdown against the 49ers in San Francisco – Holmgren is recalled in more ambivalent terms.
Oh, right, that guy. Wears a mustache. Rides a motorcycle. Developed some quarterbacks, no?
If Cleveland turns out to be the last NFL stop for the 64-year old Holmgren, his legacy will be as the coach who took a pair of franchises to the Super Bowl, winning with the Packers and losing with the Seahawks. Election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is not a cinch, but a regular-season record of 161-111, with eight division titles and three conference championships, makes him a worthy candidate.
If voters are charitable, they’ll disregard his less-than-stellar contributions to pro football as an executive. Holmgren’s work in the talent-evaluation department of the Seahawks was checkered, and it’s accurate to describe his tenure as Browns president as an unmitigated flop. After 21/2 seasons, through 38 games, his teams are 10-28.
A former history teacher, Holmgren recognized the opportunity that awaited him with the Browns, a middling expansion team which in a previous version was beloved by a fan base that made Cleveland second to none as winter-weather hotbed for football. The chance to sculpt the Browns into something relevant again appealed to a man who craved challenges.
Also appealing, I suspect, was a five-year contract, paying him $8 million a season.
For reasons that surely can be traced to the contract, Holmgren never was embraced by Browns fans. He owned the press-conference dais in Seattle, where questions were answered with the polish of a figurehead confident in his ability to charm a room. In Cleveland, Holmgren often appeared defensive, even evasive.
Late last season, he chided reporters for their reluctance to buy into his rebuilding plan.
“When we get this thing turned around,” he said in a tone best described as a growl, “don’t come to me for extra tickets to a playoff game, OK?”
Mentioning playoff tickets during the throes of an 11th straight losing season – representing a team under the direction of its fifth head coach in 13 years – could be called poor salesmanship.
It’s easy to explain Holmgren’s combativeness. Fans saw him as an import whose heart (and home) remained in Seattle. If there’s a lesson to be learned, maybe it’s this: When accepting $8-million-a-year offers to preside over a football team in Cleveland, you probably should consider relocating to Cleveland.
Holmgren turned down a similar chance to preside over the Seahawks. In December of 2009, during his first season of pseudo-retirement, the former coach, while negotiating with the Browns, got an offer from then-CEO Tod Leiweke. The offer included total control of football operations – Holmgren’s dream job – but presumably for less than the $8 million a year he figured to make in Cleveland.
“After a series of respectful discussions,” Leiweke announced in a prepared statement, “Mike has declined our offer to retool the team given the structure we proposed.”
As I consider Holmgren’s uninspired record as football-ops director in Cleveland – beginning with his decision to hire Rams quarterback coach Pat Shurmur, who’d never coached a team at any level, as Browns head coach – it’s fair to wonder what the Seahawks might look like in Year 3 of a Holmgren regime.
The team’s roster-building philosophy would be different, for one. Carroll and general manager John Schneider began their retooling project by emphasizing defense – specifically, a defense with speed and swagger, anchored by a secondary that thrives on physical intimidation. On both sides of the ball, meanwhile, Carroll and Schneider pieced together a team of ax-grinders determined to prove the draft wonks wrong.
Holmgren, a superior game-day coach with a knack for scripting offensive plays that demanded defenses to adjust, never used that same sort of vision as a talent scout.
Yes, he was well ahead of the curve in his assessment that quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, a sixth-round draft choice of the Packers, had the chops to survive, and potentially thrive, in the NFL. Holmgren, the ex-USC backup quarterback, knows as much about the quarterback position as any man who has stood along a sideline.
But the task of overseeing football operations in the NFL is less about 16 game days a year than the other 349 days on the calendar. The task is about grasping an identity, any identity – it’s football, there are many from which to choose – and remaining true to that identity.
Holmgren should be remembered in Seattle as the coach whose teams dominated the NFC West between 2004 and 2007. If Hall-of-Fame enshrinement awaits him, he deserves a traveling party of fans representing the Seahawks.
When Holmgren declined an offer to take over the Hawks’ football operations almost three years ago, it produced consequences in two cities. In Cleveland, the Browns have sputtered and stalled and generally alienated the most loyal football fans in the land.
In Seattle? By just saying no, the only coach ever to lead the Hawks to the Super Bowl provided them with a jump start on their quest to go to another Super Bowl.
But your point stands, Big Show. Come January, I promise not to hit you for extra tickets to the playoff game.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com