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Monday, March 1, 2010
Holmgren adds competition to AFC North

By James Walker
ESPN.com

Mike Holmgren
Holmgren has a history of turning teams around. He won the Super Bowl with Green Bay in 1997 and took Seattle there in 2006.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Cleveland Browns have made the playoffs only once in the past 15 years. Yet new team president Mike Holmgren is confident those dreary days in northeast Ohio are coming to an end.

"I've been involved in turning [teams] around a little bit, I think," Holmgren said. "So I'm kind of approaching it the same way in my mind that, yeah, we can do this. We will do this.

"I'm not going to give a timetable, but it can be done. There's no reason to think [otherwise]."

If Holmgren is correct, the AFC North has a potential problem on its hands.

Three teams in the division finished with winning records in 2009. The Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers also have made the playoffs at some point in the past two seasons.

Is there enough room in the division for four competitive teams?

Previously that wasn't a concern. For the most part, the Browns have been bottom feeders in the AFC North since returning to the NFL in 1999. They were the one team that rarely got it right.

The Steelers and Ravens are consistent playoff contenders, and even the Bengals, under coach Marvin Lewis, have the ability to jump up and bite the rest of the AFC North with a solid season. Most recently Cincinnati swept the division in 2009.

But the Browns are an abysmal 10-32 (.238 winning percentage) against the AFC North since 2003. Cleveland has no chance of turning its organization around for the long term until it builds a team that can compete with the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals twice a year.

Holmgren gives the Browns a chance to do so, because of his football knowledge and experience.

"Adding anybody of Coach Holmgren's caliber to your competition in your own division is only going to make it stronger," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "The AFC North, in my eyes, is very competitive naturally, and has naturally based rivals and really brings out, hopefully, the best in all of us. When you bring anybody of that caliber into the mix it certainly enhances this division."

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was once an intern under Holmgren when the two were with the San Francisco 49ers. Lewis also believes the Browns made a good hire.

"Mike is someone I've known for a long time and have respect as a football coach," Lewis said. "He's in a little different position right now. Through his leadership and guidance, he'll be effective."

Holmgren has seen it all before. He's in a very small class of men who have lead multiple teams to Super Bowls.

When Holmgren arrived in Green Bay in 1992, he faced a situation similar to the one he faces in Cleveland. The Packers were a struggling franchise with a rich football history, and Holmgren reinvigorated a rabid fan base by winning the Super Bowl after the 1996 season.

Holmgren also took over the Seattle Seahawks as coach and general manager in 1999. Although he was later stripped of his GM duties, Holmgren still coached the Seahawks to a Super Bowl appearance following the 2005 season. Seattle was a runner-up to Pittsburgh that year.

Mike Holmgren
Holmgren will have 11 draft picks he can use to help rebuild the Browns.
The difference in Cleveland is that Holmgren is no longer coaching on the sideline. There are persistent rumors that could change, but currently Holmgren's focus is squarely on finding the best available talent for the Browns to compete in 2010.

"How I view it is really setting the table for [Cleveland coach] Eric [Mangini]," Holmgren said. "I want my job to make him the best coach he can, help him as best I can -- getting players, being a sounding board, whatever it is."

Also, the hire of new Browns general manager Tom Heckert should not be overlooked. Heckert is well respected throughout the NFL for helping build the Philadelphia Eagles.

"That’s pretty impressive," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Cleveland's front-office pairing. "Tom Heckert, I've worked with him for a bunch of years in Philadelphia and he's one of the best in the business. And Mike Holmgren speaks for himself. So if you look at our division and the quality of general managers and coaches and quarterbacks in this division, it's just very competitive."

The job Holmgren is taking on is not an easy one. Cleveland has questions at most key positions, including quarterback, receiver and tight end on offense, and cornerback, safety and linebacker on defense.

The good news is the Browns have 11 draft picks and money to spend in free agency. That will provide a golden opportunity for Cleveland to close the gap with its AFC North rivals this year, depending on the choices Holmgren and his staff make.

But this much is clear: Holmgren wants to win now, and his track record of doing so has caught the attention of the rest of the division.

"I don't think I'm any more patient in trying to provide a winning atmosphere. I think there has to be an urgency in developing that," Holmgren said. "How I present that to the people around me, that'll be a little bit of a trick. But understand this, I want to do this and I don't want to wait forever."