Distancing himself before Sunday's forgettable win over Seattle, Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren may be easing himself out before getting eased out -- a possible victim of his own media relations and the NFL quality gap that's getting wider due to declining team revenue and the global recession.
"I would like to see improvement here and lay the foundation here so they can feel good about their team again before I make any changes at all," Holmgren said, in a somewhat oblique interview featured by NBC Sports, some of which even appeared on the official NFL website.
Less than two years into a five year contract with "their team," Holmgren's version of the Bill Parcells "football czar" role that Browns absentee owner Randy Lerner hired him for has been at best problematic.
Holmgren's tenure has been dominated by doublespeak and command and control issues running quietly in the background with his hand picked choices, general manager Tom Heckert Jr., and rookie head coach Pat Shurmur. Both men are legacies from second generation NFL families, part of the league's old boy network. Ironically, the trio are represented by NFL superagent Bob LaMonte whose client list features many top front office names.
As "football czar" for the Cowboys and the Dolphins, Bill Parcells developed an aggressive leadership style, even throwing a suitcase at analysts in a humorous ESPN ad. In contrast, Holmgren suffers from chronic back pain and projects an image that is less mobile, less passionate and relaxed.
In one breath Holmgren tells the Associated Press he's "all in" with the Browns and then hints to other national sports media about retiring to Seattle, where he has a home and a hero's image after rebuilding the Seahawks and taking them to Super Bowl XL working for his first absentee owner, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Holmgren's motivation then was the seven year $32 million contract LaMonte negotiated for him. Financial terms of his deal with the Browns have not been publicly disclosed.
Sports bloggers, however, estimate Holmgren is being paid a minimum of $25 million over five years to add value to the Browns franchise. A big part of his reputation stems from coaching the likes of Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre and Matt Hasselbeck. His current quarterback project, Colt McCoy, told media after Sunday's 6-3 baseball score win and a 59 quarterback rating "we did a lot of nice things today."
While Holmgren's earnings remain secret his off the cuff remarks about player salary issues have complicated contract negotiations between his more circumspect general manager, Tom Heckert, and popular running back Peyton Hillis. The Conway, Arkansas native is still earning around $600,000 this season on the final year of a rookie contract.
Hillis, who brought chronic hamstring problems with him from Denver in the trade that sent quarterback Brady Quinn to the Broncos, is seeking feature back money after a breakout year that put him on the cover of the Madden football game. Holmgren has assured Browns fans that the team will reach an agreement with Hillis and his agent on a new contract. But in light of Holmgren's recent flip-flopping with the media it is unclear whether Hillis will be the victim of the fabled Madden curse, or if it will be both or just Holmgren himself.
After over a decade of revolvoing door coaches and front office bureaucrats, the Browns salary profile is upside down. Offensive tackle Joe Thomas is earning $8 million and guard Eric Steinbach (now on IR) was set to get $6.8 million this season to open holes and protect passers in a bargain basement backfield where the quarterback and the feature back earn just 10 percent of what interior lineman do. Quarterback Colt McCoy and starting halfback Montario Hardesty are both pulling down less than the rookie pay Hillis makes.
But Randy Lerner's pockets are not as deep as Seahawks owner Allen and he has been been burned on running back deals in the past.
One year wonder Reuben Droughns pulled down a salary of $4.9 million in 2005 before being moved to the Giants where he earned less and picked up a Super Bowl ring. William Green got $4.5 million in 2002, but the halfback who then coach Butch Davis said he "couldn't pass up" was dogged by substance abuse problems and other issues and, like Davis, parted ways with the team.
All that came down before the global financial crisis. And nobody knows that better that Randy Lerner, who also owns soccer club Aston Villa in the English Premiere League. Forbes magazine's latest annual survey of the NFL indicates that under Holmgren the Browns franchise value declined 4 percent last year.
The value of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, owned by the Glazer family, lost 5 percent during the same period. But the Glazers also rake in considerable income as owners of Manchester United, the world's most valuable sports team. Another NFL owner whose team lost value is Stan Kroenke of the St. Louis Rams. He too owns a majority share in a Premiere League soccer team, Arsenal.
It's no wonder that on the eve of the 2012 Olympic Games, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been talking about playing more NFL games in London, where people legally bet on anything. With the Forbes survey indicating that 44 percent of NFL teams either lost value or didn't add value to their business last season it might be time for the London Browns.