The Mike Holmgren era in Cleveland will officially end Friday, less than three years after former Browns owner Randy Lerner gave him the keys to the operation with orders to do whatever is necessary.
Considering the criticism Holmgren has taken for adding three more losing seasons to the woeful record of the last 14 seasons, it's doubtful there will be a parade route set up for him on his drive to the airport. To many, he's a carpetbagger who collected a king's ransom while doing little to improve the franchise's image throughout the NFL.
This is a case where you better be careful what you say. In a few years those critical words might return in a haunting way.
There's no way Holmgren's legacy can be judged at this time. He was in the third year of a five-year plan to reconstruct the Browns from the ruins of four failed head coaches, two unsuccessful general managers (four if you include coaches Butch Davis and Eric Mangini) and an out-of-place owner who was awkwardly put in charge after the death of his father, Al Lerner, in 2002.
The challenge Holmgren faced was enormous on so many levels. First of all, he had to use his reputation as a highly successful coach to lend instant credibility. That seemed to be accomplished simply by his commanding presence, which created a calming sense among the fan base.
Beyond that was the task of rebuilding a team that had regressed during Mangini's two seasons as coach and one as pseudo-general manager. The one draft he conducted gave us center Alex Mack in the first round (solid choice) and second-rounders Brian Robiskie, Mohamed Massaquoi and David Veikune. Two busts (Robiskie and Veikune) and an underachieving, injury-prone receiver in Massaquoi.
That also was the time when Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn were dueling to play quarterback, which turned out to be a double dose of pain for everyone.
Holmgren may have been thinking that religious intervention was the only way out of the mess when he assumed control. Instead, he relied on two major decisions that will ultimately define his legacy - the hirings of Tom Heckert as general manager and Pat Shurmur as coach. It's doubtful that Shurmur is part of new owner James Haslam's plan. Heckert, however, could return, but at this time no one knows what president Joe Banner and Haslam think of him.
Heckert directed the last three drafts, which collectively look good on paper. Twenty-four players from those drafts are currently on the roster in some capacity. Not included in that group is receiver Josh Gordon, who was acquired in a supplemental draft this year for a 2013 second-round draft pick.
Among those 24 are nine current starters - Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, Shaun Lauvao, Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard, Greg Little, Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden and Mitchell Schwartz. Another 10 are key contributors or will be when healthy - Montario Hardesty, Jordan Cameron, Buster Skrine, Jason Pinkston, Eric Hagg, John Hughes, Travis Benjamin, James-Michael Johnson, Billy Winn and Trevin Wade.
If the Browns are in the playoffs within the next couple of years, it will be because of the aforementioned 20 players, including Gordon. In addition to them, the Browns are getting contributions from rookie free agents like Tashaun Gipson, Josh Cooper, Johnson Bademosi and L.J. Fort, along with street free agent Craig Robertson.
There is a foundation in place, especially on defense. Heckert addressed that side of the ball quickly, adding six defensive linemen in the last two years (four draft choices and two free agents), with Haden and Ward arriving in 2010 to strengthen the secondary. Heckert turned his sights to the offense last year with the selections of Richardson, Weeden, Schwartz and Gordon.
Much of whatever success the Browns have in coming seasons will depend on Weeden and Richardson. Weeden is obviously the key at quarterback. If he develops into a quality player, the long nightmare might finally end.
Then you will have to thank Holmgren.