Owner believes tide turning for Browns
BEREA, Ohio -- Randy Lerner's vision of the Cleveland Browns, fuzzy, blurred and almost indecipherable for most of the past eight seasons, is coming into focus.
Cleveland's oft-criticized owner finally sees brighter days ahead.
Energized by the hiring of team president Mike Holmgren to fix his fallen franchise, Lerner believes the Browns are in the early stages of a dramatic turnaround.
Lerner can feel it. He senses it by just having Holmgren next door in an impressive office overlooking the practice fields that's decorated with a photo of the former Green Bay coach being carried off the field in a blizzard of confetti on the Packers' shoulders after their Super Bowl win.
Lerner, whose redesigned office includes photos of his children, paintings and other artworks that define one of his other passions, thinks the Browns are being reborn.
In his first public comments in nearly one year, Lerner discussed several topics during a 30-minute interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, including Holmgren's impact, Hall of Famer Jim Brown's rift with the club, coach Eric Mangini's future and rookie quarterback Colt McCoy's emergence.
The 48-year-old Lerner, who has owned Aston Villa of the English Premier League since 2006, was upbeat, confident and optimistic two days after the Browns stunned the New Orleans Saints 30-17. The win was Cleveland's second this season, but it came against the defending Super Bowl champions and it came as the Browns hit their bye week.
Holmgren is spending the downtime in Arizona, which is where he was last winter when Lerner lured him out of semi-retirement by promising he could mold the Browns as he saw fit.
Lerner couldn't be more pleased with what Holmgren has already done.
"It's been great," Lerner said. "I feel very good about having Mike in the building. As it comes to my own profile, my sense was to lay low despite having probably too much of a reputation for laying low. Mike was coming in as the face and the voice of our organization, and I wanted that to really take hold.
"While I know I do have this reputation for being media shy or what have you, I think I can deal with that and improve on that. We spent a lot of time talking about the way things would play out if we were going to get this thing turned around, and so far it has gone pretty much according to those conversations," he said.
Holmgren's presence has allowed Lerner to delve deeper into other team- and NFL-related matters. He has immersed himself into league affairs as well as the team's business side, which has needed extra attention with sagging ticket sales.
In Holmgren, Lerner found the "serious, credible" leader that both he and the Browns needed to grow.
"What we have now is leadership and what leadership means in this particular case is that there is one guy who sits in Berea who is responsible for the Cleveland Browns," Lerner said. "What that means is that when I come, I am dealing with one person and being able to deal with one person makes it that we can dig in completely and effectively, certainly as compared to previous setups we had here.
"It's been great for me," he said.
But not for everyone.
In reorganizing Cleveland's front office, Holmgren had to make some tough decisions. One of the biggest, and as it turns out most debated, was to reduce Brown's role as an adviser to Lerner, whose late father, Al, was extremely close to the legendary back.
Angered by the perceived slight, Brown cut ties with the club and did not attend the unveiling ceremony of the team's Ring of Honor, a tribute initiated by Holmgren.
Lerner explained that while Brown had the title of "executive adviser," he mostly worked with the team's players and coaches. He also said he didn't see or speak to Brown for months.
Lerner said he tried to repair the rift between Brown and Holmgren. He wrote to Brown in April but got no response and has had no other communication with the 73-year-old since. He hopes the team and Brown can one day heal their relationship.
"My sense is he would have loved to have been at the Ring of Honor," Lerner said. "I know that he is proud of the Browns. I know he understands that he is -- more than anybody -- the most visible symbol of what we're most proud of. And so, with that, I hold out some sense that these relationships and these periods have a way of healing and time has a way of taking care of these things."
Holmgren's first major decision with the Browns was to keep Mangini, whose first season in Cleveland included a 1-11 start, grumbling by players that he was too tough and a year-ending four-game winning streak that may have saved his job.
When Holmgren took over in Cleveland, there was speculation the 62-year-old would eventually fire Mangini and coach again. Lerner said he and Holmgren have not talked about that possibility, and as far as assessing Mangini, he's leaving that up to his top football executive.
"Part of bringing Mike in and part of my explicit understanding with Mike is that the evaluation of coaches and evaluation of other people in our football business is his," Lerner said. "Having said that, I know Eric and I am naturally pulling for Eric for all the obvious reasons. I'm seeing a guy who is open to ideas, open to change, wants to enjoy being coach of the Browns and I would say he has acted in a way consistent in wanting change and being open to ideas."
Lerner has also been enthused by McCoy, the third-round pick from Texas thrust into starting by injuries to Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace. McCoy made his debut in Pittsburgh and then got his first career win in the Superdome on Sunday. McCoy didn't post flashy stats but managed the game with a confidence beyond his years.
Lerner likes what McCoy brings and what Holmgren can do to help.
"I'm excited," Lerner said. "The game doesn't seem too big for him. He is clearly very, very hard on himself, which obviously too much is not a good thing. He's got an amazing relationship with Jake Delhomme right now, which is very meaningful. In Mike Holmgren, you've got one of the real, proven quarterback evaluators of modern football. I have a good feeling."
Lerner has the feeling the Browns can win again, win big again. He found comfort in recently reading how it took the Boston Red Sox 86 years to win their second World Series.
Patience -- even generations of it in Cleveland, which hasn't celebrated a championship since the Browns won it all in 1964 -- can be rewarded.
"Sometimes things take time," he said. "But if you keep planning on winning and believing you'll win, then that's what it takes. It takes believing. If you work hard enough and you stay focused and get the right people it will happen rather than allowing yourself to feel somehow jinxed.
"It's part of what leadership is about," he said. "It's part of what Mike Holmgren's leadership is about. Mike went to two organizations that were struggling and he turned them around. Simple as that. So, we have a chance that maybe this will be his third one. He wouldn't have come here if he didn't think it could be."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press