CLEVELAND – Before stepping away from the podium and into deeper uncertainty, Eric Mangini thanked the media on hand for perhaps his last news conference as Cleveland's coach.
"Thanks for being patient with me," he said. "I tried to be better this year."
Mangini improved some, and so did his Browns. But probably not enough to save his job.
After his second straight 5-11 season, Mangini is expected to be fired by team president Mike Holmgren, who may choose to return to coaching and take over a Cleveland team that showed signs of development but collapsed down the stretch, ending the season with an embarrassing 41-9 home loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Mangini is scheduled to meet with Holmgren early Monday, a day that could see several NFL coaches get the ax. The Browns sent out a tentative planner stating that Mangini will be available at 1 p.m. for his usual day-after-a-game news briefing. That might be a little optimistic.
If Holmgren hadn't already made up his mind about Mangini's future, the lopsided loss to the rival Steelers may have pushed him over the edge. It was the Browns' worst performance this season — by far — and in its aftermath it was almost impossible to recall Cleveland's gains in Mangini's second year.
"No one wants to finish a season that way," offensive guard Eric Steinbach said.
In the locker room afterward, Mangini somberly thanked his players for their effort.
"He told everybody he loved them," said wide receiver Joshua Cribbs. "He said just what a head coach is supposed to say. We went out there and played for him throughout the year. We tried to do what he asked us to do. He was appreciative of the opportunity that we gave him."
Although the Browns made some statistical improvements across the board, they failed to build on the momentum created by mid-season upsets of New Orleans and New England. Cleveland staggered to a 2-6 finish, losing at Buffalo and Cincinnati in that stretch — when the Bills and Bengals had just two wins.
The Browns closed with four straight losses, one year after a season-ending four-game winning streak helped Mangini get another year.
Cleveland was much more competitive this season than last. The Browns had 12 games decided by 10 points or less, but they went just 3-9 in those. And, in a bottom-line business where record means everything, the bottom line isn't good for Mangini.
Cribbs feels Mangini did all he could, and that Cleveland's players should be accountable.
"One man can only do so much," he said. "You're asking one man in two years to turn around a football team that hasn't been winning. It takes some time. We want to win now. We're trying to win now. But it's just impossible to put all the weight and give one guy all that responsibility and call him the fall guy for the way we've been playing."
Mangini believes he has the Browns headed in the right direction, and feels with more time he could make them consistent winners.
Holmgren may not give him the chance.
If Mangini is fired, Holmgren could hire someone or appoint himself as coach.
The 62-year-old, who won a Super Bowl title with Green Bay and guided Seattle to its only title game appearance, has left open the possibility of a return to the sideline. He was hired in December 2009 by owner Randy Lerner to restore Cleveland's franchise, but Holmgren has admitted it has been tough to watch games from the press box.
He's a coach, plain and simple.
Holmgren went 161-111 in 17 seasons as an NFL head coach, making the playoffs 12 times and winning eight division titles.
If Holmgren doesn't take over, he'll have a stellar list of potential candidates to pursue, including Jon Gruden, John Fox and Marty Mornhinweg. All three have ties to Holmgren, who could be enticed back into coaching after seeing rookie quarterback Colt McCoy grow into a possible star.