An unexpected winning streak prevented Browns coach Eric Mangini from being fired after last season. It may take another one to save him again.
Mangini's future could hinge on the outcome of Cleveland's final three games, an intra-division stretch beginning Sunday at Cincinnati (2-11) and ending with home dates against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. This stretch against AFC North teams will be Mangini's last opportunity to convince team president Mike Holmgren that he has the up-and-down Browns (5-8) on the rise.
However, even a three-game sweep may not prevent Mangini from being swept out. He knows that in the NFL's brutal, bottom-line business, change can be unavoidable despite progress.
"Sometimes," he said, "that happens."
He would know. Mangini was fired by the New York Jets after going 9-7 in 2008, a promising season that fell apart as quarterback Brett Favre's right arm failed.
Mangini dodged Holmgren's axe last January following a 5-11 first season that concluded with a four-game winning streak. The flourish was enough to persuade Holmgren, a former coach who appreciated the difficulty of installing a new system in just one year, to give Mangini a second try.
A third isn't assured.
It's not debatable that the Browns are better than they were a year ago. Despite a freakish rash of injuries to three quarterbacks, they've been in every game and have already matched last season's win total. They've upset New Orleans and New England, two of the NFL's elite teams who haven't lost since being shocked by Cleveland.
But what could damage Mangini's case for a third year is a 3-6 record in games decided by less than seven points, and that the Browns have seemingly regressed in recent weeks, falling to a low point last Sunday with an ugly 13-6 loss at Buffalo.
The next three weeks could dictate Cleveland's future, but Mangini doesn't believe Holmgren will place any more emphasis on them.
"I think what's going to carry a lot of weight is the whole season, the progress the team's made, the performance in all three phases," Mangini said. "I'd imagine it's not a short snap shot, it's a comprehensive look at where we are and what we've done and the areas that there's been progress in, the areas that there needs to be more progress in. That would be my anticipation."
Holmgren is waiting until after the season before assessing Mangini and his staff. He may have already made up his mind, and if so, Cleveland's last three games may be nothing more than a chance to further evaluate rookie quarterback Colt McCoy and the roster.
Holmgren will look deeper than wins and losses. His focus will be on significant improvement, and whether Cleveland's players believe in their leader.
Mangini, who named McCoy his starter for the last three games, was asked if the Browns have advanced enough to warrant his return.
"I haven't done that kind of math, because to me, I feel good about the things we've done and the direction of the team," he said. "There are steps that you go through in any growth process and we've taken a lot of those steps. We need to continue to take that next step, which is winning consistently.
"You'd love to be able to accelerate that as quickly as possible, but when you are trying to do it and build it for the long term, you have to do it the right way. It has to grow and be strong on all levels in order for it to be sustainable over time. I think we've made a lot of good strides there."
Mangini said he and his staff have not been given any mandate about how many wins it will take for them to stay. For now, it's prepare to play.
"It's win this game, deal with the next game, deal with the next game and then deal with whatever the situation is when the time comes," he said.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has grown accustomed to the uncertainty that comes with the end of any season that doesn't include a postseason. But the way the outspoken and animated Ryan sees it, there's no denying that Mangini has improved the Browns.
"C'mon, man," Ryan said. "When we first got here there weren't many believers. It's obvious, our football team is a good football team. I believe what we do here and I know our players do — and that's all that matters."
Last year, several players said they would play hard down the stretch for Mangini. That may not be the case this time around.
"I ain't thinking about it," return specialist Joshua Cribbs snapped when asked about Mangini's future. "I can't think about that. I'm thinking about my own future and getting healthy."
Mangini's job isn't the only one on the line over the next three weeks.
For players, it's a time to put more quality plays on film to use in contract negotiations or to impress coaches.
"We'll all be judged, from Eric all the way down to the last player on the roster," said linebacker David Bowens, who also played for Mangini in New York. "People say I'm an Eric supporter, but I'm a loyal player to whomever I play for. For the last four years, I've gotten to know Eric very well, but we'll all be judged on how we perform, how we play and how we finish up in the face of not making the playoffs.
"That's going to show a lot of character for a lot of people."
And for Mangini, it may show his destiny.