The ranks of pro football ayatollahs took another casualty this week when the new owner of the Cleveland Browns tossed down the basement stairs the club’s president, Mike Holmgren.
Harsh, but the team’s 10-28 record since Holmgren became the Browns’ Big Show gave the team’s new owner, truck-stop magnate Jimmy Haslam, all he needed to say whatever Holmgren was doing wasn’t working. Since he paid $1 billion to buy the team from owner Randy Lerner, who hired Holmgren, the outcome was no shocker, particularly after Holmgren took the risk this season of making the Browns the NFL’s youngest team.
Still, the unceremonious departure of the best coach in Seattle’s franchise history, on the eve of the Seahawks’ nationally televised Thursday night tiff with the 49ers in San Francisco, is a cold, ironic reminder of the NFL’s volatility, as well as the vulnerability of everyone in it.
Who would have imagined that Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill would have stuck in the league longer than Holmgren?
They were part of the Seahawks’ 2005 team that went to the Super Bowl. The franchise crested, and has not been the same since. Until, perhaps, Thursday.
If the Seahawks were to beat on the road the 49ers, a preseason favorite of many to make the Super Bowl, Seattle would vault to an NFL eminence unseen since 2005, and nearly as rich with storylines as talent.
A Seattle win means Seahawks Pete Carroll would no longer have to ask his arch-rival and nemesis, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, “What’s your deal?” Carroll would have shown him that his deal was bigger.
A triumph would also continue the validation of the larger narrative of owner Paul Allen’s then-controversial decision to spurn re-engagement with Holmgren when Allen abruptly fired Holmgren’s coaching successor, Jim Mora, after a single season.
Allen’s surprise hire of Carroll on Jan. 8, 2010 capped a month of in-house tumult unseen since owner Ken Behring’s nine-year reign of error ended in 1997 with the sale of the franchise to Allen. The ripples from that month will spread for years.
The churn began with the Dec. 3, 2009 of resignation under pressure of general manager Tim Ruskell, whose first year as GM ended in the Super Bowl but who finished in Seattle 8-19.
“I work for a man, Mr. Paul Allen, who has exacting standards,” said then-team president Tod Leiweke, obviously distressed over canning his friend. “It’s also his opinion that this is a unique and special franchise, and with it comes the expectations. So, bottom line, we didn’t win enough games.”
Speculation began immediately that Holmgren, who took a year off from football after his last Seahawks-coached team finished 4-12, would replace Ruskell, with whom he clashed often, no time more notoriously than when Ruskell failed to keep under contract all-pro guard Steve Hutchinson after the 2005 season.
Then on Jan. 8, 2010, Mora, hired by Ruskell to replace Holmgren and with three years remaining on his four-year contract, was fired after a 5-11 season — a month after receiving a vote of confidence by Leiweke. But in that month, the Seahawks lost their last four games by an average of 21.5 points a game.
Unbeknownst to Mora, Leiweke — who seven months later would himself leave the franchise, city, and NFL to join ownership of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning — had flown to Los Angeles to pry loose Carroll from USC with a huge contract and complete control of football operations, the latter the same stipulation Holmgren wanted for him to return to the Seahawks, although not to coach.
Carroll brought with him much baggage. His success and unconventional style at USC irritated Huskies fans in the region. NFL fans were skeptical of his modest resume from head coaching jobs with the New York Jets and New England Patriots. And the NCAA was hot on his trail, sanctioning the Trojans program shortly after his departure to Seattle.
For Allen and his advisers, it was a high-risk, high-reward gig. Eleven days after hiring Carroll, his first significant act was to approve the hire of John Schneider, a little-known but well-regarded assistant in Green Bay, to be the general manager who reported to him. Another oddball move.
The franchise has been on an entertaining tightrope since, flushing the roster two and three times over while making outlier picks that sprained eyebrows throughout the NFL.
Going from Leiweke, Holmgren, Ruskell and Mora to Carroll, Carroll, Schneider and Peter McLaughlin (a new CEO with a much lower sports-job profile)c was a remarkable transformation, particularly because Holmgren had so many people in the market pulling for his return.
But Allen had already been through Holmgren’s Big Show phase, taking away in 2002 most of his responsibilities aside from coaching. It helped lead to his greatest Seattle successes, because it played to his strength.
Holmgren may well have had success upon his return. Carroll’s tenure has had two losing seasons and has yet to prove his methods. He could still trip over of some of the same things that undercut Holmgren.
But at the moment, the Seahawks are 4-2, have a splendid defense, a freaky kid quarterback and a chance to rock the NFL world again Thursday.
Of course, Carroll could lose, too. Then he’d still be subject to a fire-Pete campaign by Friday morning.
That’s how mysterious and fragile success can be in the NFL. Asking the retiring Big Show, who in 2008 after his final game as a Seahawks coach following a 4-12 season, took a victory lap around CenturyLink Field. And had to dodge iceballs thrown from the stands.
Talk about mixed messages.