CLEVELAND -- Just as last season's December surge played a major role in Browns head coach Eric Mangini retaining his job, this year's December swoon could lead to his downfall.
With Mangini on the hot seat, the Browns (5-10) lost 20-10 Sunday to the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland's third straight loss. Mangini is 10-21 in two seasons in Cleveland and 2-9 against AFC North foes, a mark this struggling franchise must turn around if it's ever to be a contender.
But as I watched Cleveland closely against the Ravens, the big question that kept running through my head was: "What was Mike Holmgren thinking?" The Browns' president is getting paid a lot of money to bring a winner to Cleveland. He put his trust in this Browns coaching staff this season despite many philosophical differences. More specifically:
What was Holmgren thinking as the coaching staff cost the team crucial points for the second straight week with poor clock management at the end of the first half?
What was Holmgren thinking after a poorly executed onside kick failed at the start the third quarter led to a quick touchdown by Baltimore?
What was Holmgren thinking as the Browns continued to play ultraconservatively to try to keep the game close instead of playing to win?
What was Holmgren thinking as he watched rookie Colt McCoy -- Holmgren's personal choice at quarterback -- run a porous offense with questionable play calling?
These are all things to ponder over the next few weeks as Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert evaluate Mangini and his coaching staff. To avoid back-to-back 11-loss seasons, the Browns must beat the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4) next Sunday in Cleveland.
With the 2010 season virtually over, expect a lot of speculation about Cleveland's direction in 2011 heading into the regular-season finale.
"The coaches, their job is on the line but so is the players'," said Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, who could be in for his third regime change in five seasons. "Whenever you have a losing season, everybody gets evaluated from the top down. So players are playing for their jobs, they're playing for their pride, they're playing for the name on the back of their jersey and they're playing for that helmet."
Mangini had to demonstrate progress after last season's 5-11 record. But despite wins against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints on the road and the heavily favored New England Patriots at home, the Browns have not shown enough improvement in 2010.
"You're judged in this league by how many wins you produce," Browns linebacker and team captain David Bowens said. "That's how people hold you accountable. We just haven't been able to win the close games. Not to say all of our losses have been close."
Cleveland's performance against Baltimore was a comedy of errors.
In addition to four turnovers, the Browns clumsily alternated between gimmicky and conservative play, never finding the right formula. As a result, the Browns were beating and tricking themselves while the Ravens took advantage and clinched a playoff berth.
The blunders started late in the second quarter. Down 13-7, the Browns took their time on offense during the final two minutes when a touchdown would have given them a halftime lead. Instead, Cleveland looked dazed, didn't use its timeouts and ran too much time off the clock. The mismanagement forced the Browns to kick a field goal on third down.
"I thought we would have three shots at the end zone. The plays ended up ... taking longer," Mangini explained.
Cleveland began the second half with a feeble onside kick attempt that rolled out of bounds. The Saints used the strategy successfully in Super Bowl XVIV against the Colts, but the Browns merely gave Baltimore great field position. Taking advantage of the short field, the Ravens took a 10-point lead they never relinquished three plays later.
"To go get that touchdown was big," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
McCoy had his worst day (149 yards, three interceptions) as a pro. But keep in mind, Holmgren drafted him to run a West Coast offense, not the conservative scheme Mangini is using. It's a scheme that has produced 14 points or fewer seven times this season.
But McCoy made enough plays this season to show Holmgren that the rookie quarterback has enough talent to cultivate. Will Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll be the right people to get the most out of McCoy, Cleveland's offense and the team as a whole?
The Browns -- who have lost to the Bills, Bengals and Ravens in the past three weeks -- went backward as the season went on. That probably gives you plenty of insight into what Holmgren is thinking.