BEREA, Ohio -- His destiny's unknown and in team president Mike Holmgren's hands. Eric Mangini could be down to his final days with the Browns.
He hopes his time in Cleveland isn't over.
But if this is indeed the end, and only Holmgren knows for sure, Mangini's last week began with two players stepping forward to say they hope he returns for a third season.
"I have the utmost respect for him," cornerback Sheldon Brown said. "I can't say anything negative about him. You may find someone else, but I can't. He's treated me like a man from day one."
Fullback Lawrence Vickers, one of the NFL's most devastating blockers, cleared a path for his coach.
"I love Mangini," Vickers said. "He's a good guy, so I want him back. If not, I can't do nothing about it. Like he tells us: Life goes on."
The comments were the most positive and public spoken by any Cleveland players this season in support of Mangini, whose record dropped to 10-21 with the Browns (5-10) following Sunday's home loss to Baltimore. To this point, many of the Browns had either sidestepped questions about Mangini by saying, "It isn't my decision," or they were focused on the game ahead.
Not Brown and Vickers. They have Mangini's back.
Cleveland's season, which peaked with a Nov. 7 upset of New England, has been in steady decline. The Browns are just 2-5 since then, with losses at Buffalo and Cincinnati -- both two-win teams at the time -- providing the necessary ammo for Holmgren or any Mangini bashers to pass judgment.
Holmgren hasn't spoken to the media since Nov. 2, when he said he would wait until after the season before making a decision on Mangini.
"He has all the intangibles," he said. "He learned from one of the best (Bill Belichick). Obviously, he knows the plan. For us, it's just going out and executing the plan. It's not his fault when we give up touchdown passes. It's not his fault when we throw interceptions. It's not his fault when we fumble. The players control that."
Mangini was grateful to learn that two of his players spoke highly of him.
One of the goals he believes he has met since taking over the Browns has been filling his roster with high-character people who value team success over individual triumph.
"There's a sense of community in this team and sense of purpose that doesn't happen by accident," he said. "We all want to win every week. There's tremendous respect for each other. That's going to continue to be here, and it's going to continue to propel us forward."
For at least one more week.
The Browns will end the season at home Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4), who will come to Cleveland looking to win the AFC North. It's one more chance for Mangini to show Holmgren how much his team has improved in year two. And although the record -- the Browns finished 5-11 last year -- has barely budged, Mangini is confident significant strides have been made.
"We are seeing it on Sunday at 4 o'clock," he said. "It's not showing up in the ultimate category, which is to win games. That needs to continue to improve. But I think the progress is showing up every single week in the way we play, the style we play, the consistency -- all those things are apparent."
Mangini's supporters -- it's a surprisingly sizable group -- point to the Browns' competitiveness all season. They've been in every game. They've pulled off shocking wins over the Patriots and New Orleans. And they've had to withstand a rash of injuries, including high-ankle sprains to all three quarterbacks.
Mangini's detractors argue the Browns should have pulled out a few more games. They also question Mangini's decision-making, clock management and ultraconservative tendencies on game day. In Sunday's loss, the Browns wasted valuable time before settling for a field goal to end the first half, and then botched an onside kick to open the second.
Holmgren, who celebrated his one-year anniversary in Cleveland last week, has hinted at a possible return to the sideline. It's not known if the 62-year-old has exterminated the coaching bug or if he'll make a switch if one of his former assistants, such as Jon Gruden or Marty Mornhinweg, is available.
Holmgren might decide to keep Mangini and change his staff.
Mangini said he has not discussed anything with Holmgren outside of "team-related stuff," and that he isn't curious about what his boss is thinking.
"I remember somebody telling me one time don't worry about the future, it comes soon enough," Mangini said.
By next Monday, things ought to be much clearer.
"We want to keep fighting for our coach," he said. "That's the type of coach that he is. Hey, he coached us to finish, and that's what we're trying to do."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press