The 2009 season is now over, and it didn't end in the shipwreck that it looked as if it would be two months ago. Somewhere between the managerial castration of coach Eric Mangini and a string of four victories hope sprung up for those people who call themselves Browns fans.
All the dysfunction that had bogged the season down righted itself as Mangini sorted out the mess he had inherited. Now, he didn't sort it all out; in fact, he created a few headaches of his own. One of them is the quarterback controversy he's carrying over into the 2010 season, if he's around for it.
That's the biggest issue. For unlike the '09 season, Mangini won't rule the Browns with an iron-fist. His intractable ways were softened in the shake-up that cost his handpicked GM a job. When George Kokanis got booted out of the Browns front office midway through the season, he took a heaping helping of Mangini's power out the door with him.
It was, in retrospect, a departure that might also cost Mangini his job.
For in Kokanis' place, owner Randy Lerner went out and hired an experienced, creditable leader with bona fide credentials. The reclusive Lerner put a new front-office structure in place, starting with team president Mike Holmgren. Unlike the impotent Kokanis, Holmgren will reign over every aspect of the organization; he will decide if Mangini keeps his job.
Holmgren, an NFL veteran with a Super Bowl ring, will not coach the Browns, not in '09 anyway. He will not scout the elite college players for the 2010 draft either. He will, however, have the final word on all things Cleveland Brown, which includes Mangini's fate.
It might not be an easy thing to decide, though. Because if any coach in recent history has made the second half of a lousy season work for him, Mangini is that coach. While it might be a stretch to say the once-arrogant Mangini turned Lake Erie water into Dom Perignon, he did turn a bumbling football team into a competitive one. He deserves applauds for that alone.
Yet the carnage he left in his wake might make it impossible for Holmgren to not go out and find someone else -- somebody else with no branches on the Parcell-Belichick tree.
For in three tries, that tree has produced only chaos in Cleveland. From Butch Davis to Romeo Crennell and Phil Savage to Kokanis and Mangini, the franchise has made zero progress since the NFL resurrected it in 1998. The Browns had no reliable quarterback then; they have no reliable quarterback now.
They had plenty of questions that first season; they have plenty of questions after their last season.
Holmgren is here to get those questions answered. He is here to build what he helped build in Green Bay and what he built, one player after another, in Seattle.
He might first have to do some demolition, which could lead to Mangini's losing his job. For Holmgren's strategy might be to just jettison any remains of the past failures, to instill fresh, vibrant voices throughout the organization. Holmgren might see no place in his management structure for any reminders of this 5-11 season.
Then again, what he might see is a team with more discipline than any 5-11 team is supposed to have. If he sees that, he will also see that Mangini's firm hands are responsibility for it.
Should it play out that way, Holmgren would be smart to keep Mangini and allow him to continue the construction project that looked about to collapse in a heap in late October and now has the makings of something grand.
Super Bowl grand, perhaps not in the season ahead. But what Mangini has done in the last month of the season is worth continuing instead of throwing out him and starting afresh with someone else.