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DMN: Can Holmgren rebuild Browns?

If he’s hired, transition from coach to guru won’t be easy. Michael Lombardi

Print This December 16, 2009, 10:30 AM EST

QUOTE: “To show power truly, you not only have to show how it is used but also its effect on those on whom it is used. You have to show the effect of power on the powerless.” -- Robert A. Caro

A very long time ago, I was summoned to the office of 49ers head coach Bill Walsh. Coach Walsh had specific orders for me: He wanted me to find the top five college passing games and paste their information and coaches’ bios on a white sheet of paper for his review. So naturally, I sprinted back downstairs to the media room, found the top five and began to cut.

BYU had the best passing game in college football, and their quarterbacks coach/coordinator was a man named Mike Holmgren. Holmgren was a San Francisco native and was being pushed hard for one of the jobs we had open on the offensive side of the ball by legendary San Francisco State head coach Vic Rowen. Holmgren had worked for Rowen before his stint at BYU and came with his highest recommendation.

After my cutting and pasting session was over, I placed the five pieces of paper on his desk and went back to my other duties. About a week later, there was another request to see Coach Walsh. So back up the stairs I went. He handed me the paper with the Mike Holmgren bio information and said, “Michael, pick this guy up at 11 a.m. today.” And off to the airport I went.

The year was 1986, and Holmgren was coming in to interview for the quarterbacks coach job that was vacant when Paul Hackett left for the Dallas Cowboys. Holmgren was (and still is) very likeable, and from the moment I met him, I was instantly impressed. He was a genuinely nice person. Holmgren became the quarterbacks coach and went on to do wonderful things in San Francisco, Green Bay and Seattle. Now, as the NFL turns, he’s in Cleveland looking to become the football guru of the Browns.

Holmgren not coaching seems strange, but Holmgren doing the shopping for another coach seems even stranger. The hardest element of being in the front office, with or without all the power, is understanding that the game must run through the head coach’s chair. No matter how much power Holmgren might gain from his meeting with Browns owner Randy Lerner, the head coach must have substantial authority over the roster or the players won’t respond. Players must think they work for the head coach, and as we’ve seen in Dallas, Washington and Oakland, when they think they work for solely for the owner, there’s a disconnect. Being in the front office can be a powerless feeling, no matter how much power you have written in your contract.

But what Holmgren can give the Browns -- something that Carmen Policy, Butch Davis or even Eric Mangini could not -- is an infrastructure for a harmonious organization that can function smoothly and, most important, correctly. Holmgren can be the master builder, creating the template for what it will take to win a Super Bowl. Now, that template will have more Green Bay Packers/Ron Wolf influence than 49ers influence. The 49ers were a tremendous organization under Coach Walsh, but their success, in large part, was tied to Walsh’s brilliance, not necessarily the infrastructure. As the head coach, Walsh had a unique eye for being able to evaluate, being able to build his team and being able to react to the changes in the league.

Holmgren will have to rely more on his experience with Wolf than with Walsh as he learns to adapt to not being in control of everything. He will need to make sure he hires a head coach who can evaluate talent and can lay down the offensive system that Holmgren know so well. Working with the Browns while they run an offensive system that’s foreign to him won’t work. He must understand how all the pieces fit before he can find the players that fit. The most critical aspect of the job for Holmgren will be to lay down the foundation of procurement, then making sure the systems for both offense and defense are in unison. Independent sections will cause the program to break.

Lerner wants Holmgren to be a Bill Parcells kind of guru, which will require Holmgren to build an organization from the scouting room to the weight room in his vision. Parcells allows head coach Tony Sparano to have the freedom to run the program, but it’s Parcells’ program that Sparano is running. Sparano believes in the program, and whether Parcells was in the building or not, he would run his team in the exact same manner. Holmgren must find his Sparano, or else this football guru stuff won’t work.

Follow me on Twitter: michaelombardi

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