BEREA, Ohio — As the Cleveland Browns, his all-consuming pet rebuilding project, went through drills earlier this week, team president Mike Holmgren ventured onto the rock-hard practice field and called over kicker Phil Dawson for a chat.
With coach Eric Mangini standing yards away, Holmgren, bundled in a heavy jacket to combat December’s biting cold, talked to other players then with Gil Haskell, his longtime friend and one of the trusted advisers he brought to Cleveland.
Last year, Holmgren traded his whistle for an executive’s tie.
He might be about swap them again.
With the Browns perhaps on the verge of a coaching change, quarterback Seneca Wallace believes Holmgren is angling for a return to the sideline.
“I kind of do just because things probably haven’t turned out the way he wanted on offense and being an offensive guy, I think he still has that itch to come back to coach,” said Wallace, who played seven seasons for Holmgren in Seattle. “But at the end of the day, he’s going to make the right decision for the rest of the team.”
Yep, the Browns (5-10) could be getting a makeover. This one, though, might not be quite as extreme.
Mangini, given one reprieve by Holmgren last January, may not get a second as the Browns stagger to the finish of another disappointing season — their ninth with double-digit losses in 12 years. Cleveland has gone 2-5 since a midseason upset of New England, and unless the Browns can stun Pittsburgh on Sunday, Mangini will close his second year with a four-game losing streak.
That may be enough for Holmgren to make a coaching change, assuming he hasn’t already made up his mind to replace Mangini, who will carry a 10-21 overall record — 2-9 vs. the AFC North — into Sunday’s regular-season finale.
When Holmgren last met with reporters on Nov. 2, he said he would wait until after the season before making a decision on Mangini. He also left open the possibility of a return to coaching.
“I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say I get fired up watching the games,” he said. “I mean I did that (coach) for too long not to react sometimes the way I do, but I also recognize what I was hired to do and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Browns owner Randy Lerner brought in Holmgren to fix his franchise, which has undergone nearly constant change in the past decade.
If Mangini gets fired, the 62-year-old Holmgren, who won a Super Bowl with Green Bay and an NFC championship with Seattle, will quickly jump to the top of a list of possible replacements. There could be several other big-name candidates available, including Jon Gruden, John Fox, Bill Cowher and others.
But Holmgren simply packing up his belongings and moving down the hall to a new office would cause the least uproar for organization craving calm. Unlike previous years, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much concern about the possibility — and potential likelihood — of change.
Maybe that’s because Holmgren is overseeing it.
“He brings credibility to the whole organization,” said Dawson, who has seen his share of turnover in 11-plus seasons with Cleveland. “I think if you ask anyone, they would say the same thing. Guys are confident that he knows what he wants to do, and we’ll all have to wait and see what happens. But no one seems to be panicking or anything like that.”
Many Browns fans can’t bear the thought of another coaching change, but Wallace believes they should be comforted by Holmgren’s presence.
“He’s a person who is going to build a foundation,” said Wallace, who started four games this season. “I don’t think over the last couple of years there’s been a foundation. There has been a lot of turnover. And I think once you build that foundation and that type of mentality, it’s going to build for the future.”
Has he seen any part of the foundation formed?
“I saw a couple of bricks slide in place,” he said, “but there’s still a lot of building that needs to be done.”
Holmgren has spent the year evaluating Cleveland’s roster, which has been upgraded by general manager Tom Heckert — Holmgren’s first hire. Holmgren knows what’s needed and what’s not, a fact that would make his potential takeover as coach that much more seamless.
Cornerback Sheldon Brown, acquired in an offseason trade with Philadelphia, has faith that the Browns’ front office is getting things done.
“If they came back here and said, ’Sheldon, we need you to play safety, nickel, dime,’ I believe that they know what they’re doing to get us to where we need to go,” he said. “I just believe in the plan.”
When Holmgren accepted Lerner’s offer to restore the Browns, he did so knowing it would be hard to shake the coaching bug. It’s all the former high school history teacher has known since becoming an assistant at his alma mater in San Francisco 40 years ago.
Holmgren has enjoyed his executive role, immersing himself into the daily business of the Browns with the same verve as he did as a coach. But shaking hands with season-ticket holders and charming suite holders doesn’t provide the same excitement as preparing a game plan to beat the Ravens.
He knew turning the Browns into consistent winners would take time, but patience has never been a strong suit.
“The problem is that I’m old, and the clock is ticking a little bit for me in this business,” Holmgren joked during an interview with The Associated Press in October.
He misses the game.
It might be time to get back in it.