Mike Holmgren hasn't officially assumed control of the Cleveland Browns. However, his grip is already being felt.
When the Browns host the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, it will be Cleveland's first game since Holmgren agreed to become team president, an all-powerful position of authority that will give him free reign to do as he deems necessary to repair a broken organization.
The Big Show, as Holmgren is known, may wield a big sword.
Heads and helmets could roll along the shores of Lake Erie, which is why the Browns are viewing this week's game as a chance to impress their new boss.
“I think it's an audition for everybody,” said quarterback Derek Anderson, propelled back into the starting lineup with Brady Quinn sustaining a season-ending foot injury last week. “We've all got to continue to do good things and make plays and just play and do the things we've been doing the last few weeks.”
Riding a modest two-game winning streak, the Browns (3-11) haven't won three straight since 2007. This season's unexpected late surge has given coach Eric Mangini a much-needed boost to potentially save his job. It's widely believed Holmgren, who will be introduced as Cleveland's football headmaster next week, will fire Mangini and hire his own coach, one who shares his philosophies on a West Coast offense and 4-3 defense.
Holmgren's imminent arrival has seemingly put more pressure on Mangini to finish strong. But beyond a win or two to close his first season in Cleveland, Mangini could benefit from the Browns showing more signs of progress. They've improved in several areas over the past month and perhaps another step forward would give Holmgren pause, assuming he hasn't made up his mind on Mangini already.
Mangini has balked at the idea he's facing a win-or-else scenario.
“I believe in the things that we've done,” said Mangini, who has had to withstand several rounds of questions about Holmgren in recent days. “I believe in the progress we've made. I know what kind of staff we have. I know the different situations that we've faced, and I feel comfortable with where we're headed and the progress we've made.”
If Mangini is looking for empathy, he can find it on the opposite sideline. Raiders coach Tom Cable feels his pain.
Cable's first season as Oakland's full-time coach has been rocky and not all the ups and downs have been limited to on-field issues. Cable has had to deal with allegations he broke defensive assistant Randy Hanson's jaw last summer, a disturbing story that was followed by equally shocking charges he has a history of violence toward women.
Those assertions brought more scrutiny of Cable, and coupled with Oakland's 2-7 start, pointed toward Raiders owner Al Davis considering a change. But despite some lopsided losses, the Raiders (5-9) have sprinkled in several stunning wins, most notably road victories at Pittsburgh on Dec. 6 and at Denver last week.
Like Mangini, Cable is trying to block out distractions and stay focused on coaching and making sure he gets the most out of his players.
“You can't worry about that stuff,” he said “Anybody who has walked a day in our shoes knows what it's like to put a team together and try and win a game in this league. It's getting there. You've got to learn to enjoy it and stay the course. I believe that's what we are doing and I believe out teams are reflecting that.”
The Raiders have been stuck in a troubling pattern all season. Confidence-building wins have been followed by soul-crushing losses — four times. After stunning the Steelers, the Raiders were beaten 34-13 the next week by the Washington Redskins.
Before that loss, Cable had plastered signs around the locker room, encouraging his players to string two wins together. They posters read: “Back-to-back wins set Raiders on path to future success! If you believe it, it will happen.”
It hasn't yet.
“There's a pattern in there, there's a reason why,” Cable said. “And it's for us now to overcome that. Because when you win a game you get people's attention. So you're going to get more out of it. Cleveland's got our attention.”
Raiders quarterback Charlie Frye has recovered from a concussion sustained in last week's win and has been cleared to start what will be a homecoming game. Frye was drafted by the Browns in 2005, started 19 games over three seasons, and was unceremoniously traded after Week 1 in 2007 — one day Cleveland was routed 34-7 by Pittsburgh.
“It's exciting,” Frye said of his return. “It's where my journey started, it's a chance for my family to come up to the game. My sister's getting married Saturday, so there's big things going on.”
And Holmgren may be watching.
Frye knows what the Browns are getting in the Super Bowl-winning coach. He spent two seasons playing for Holmgren in Seattle, a time that shaped him immensely.
“I learned more under Mike Holmgren in two years than I have my whole football career, college, high school, everything,” Frye said. “He's meant everything to my career getting rejuvenated. He's the best teacher. He just doesn't tell you what you're supposed to do. He tells you why you're supposed to do it and how you're gonna do it.
“He's also a great person. He shoots it to you straight, whether you like it or not. You're always going to know where you stand with him.”
Mangini and the Browns will find out soon enough.