- Associated Press - Thursday, November 11, 2010

CLEVELAND (AP) - When Browns coach Eric Mangini, with a generous dip of chewing tobacco ballooning his lower lip, looks across the field at the New York Jets‘ sideline this Sunday, he’ll see his past _ what was, and what might have been.

Mangini will see players, and friends, who meant a lot to him and still do.

The Jets are no longer Mangini’s team, but they were for three seasons and if not for a late-season collapse in 2008, when quarterback Brett Favre lost his touch, the coach once dubbed “Mangenius” by tabloid headline writers, might still be Gang Green’s boss.

“That was two years ago,” said Browns linebacker David Bowens, who followed his coach to Cleveland. “He’s here now. We’re having a ball.”

Meet the new Mangini.

Criticized for being aloof, controlling and rigid with the Jets (6-2), Mangini has loosened up with the Browns (3-5), who are coming off back-to-back shocking upsets over New Orleans and New England. After coming close to losing his job last season in Cleveland, he had little choice. He changed but not by being anyone other than himself.

During a conference call with New York media members this week, Mangini explained his transformation.

“I know this may sound crazy, but some people actually think I have a good personality and a little funny,” he said. “It’s just letting more of that out. It’s just being who I am. It’s less scripted for me. It’s more that I know what I want to say. I know the points I want to get across, not reading it as much as just feeling it and getting the same point across, but from the heart.”

Part of the change in Mangini can be traced to the influence of Browns president Mike Holmgren, the Super Bowl-winning coach who felt Mangini deserved another year so his system could take deeper root in Cleveland. Just a few weeks ago, that decision seemed to have backfired.

But wins over the Saints and Patriots, has renewed faith in Mangini.

Last week, the focus was on his relationship with his mentor, Patriots coach Bill Belichick. They shared their latest frigid postgame handshake and went their ways with Mangini carrying the satisfaction of a 20-point win over his alienated friend.

Mangini joked afterward that this two-week span of games against his former teams was like his own version of the movie, “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.”

He’s not looking for lost love or revenge, but the Jets present another chance at vindication.

“It’s going to be special and last week was special too,” he said. “With New York, I had my first opportunity to be a head coach. It was a great time for us professionally and personally to have that, but in Rex (Ryan) coming there, things are obviously different.”

The Jets are indeed Rex Ryan’s team, but Mangini’s handprints are all over the squad.

Two dozen players remain from Mangini’s last New York team, but while many of the names are the same, the way those players play has changed.

“You see a lot of players that Eric brought, but their philosophy and their style of play is all Rex,” Bowens said. “You look at a lot of their players (Darrelle) Revis, (Nick) Mangold, D’Brickashaw (Ferguson), those are Eric’s guys but they are who they are. But conceptually, they’re playing Rex Ryan ball.”

Run the ball. Stop the run. Get the quarterback. Rex Ryan ball.

The Jets are ranked fourth in the league in rushing offense, fourth in rushing defense. New York’s biggest defensive challenge this week will be to stop Browns running back Peyton Hillis, who rumbled for a career-high 184 yards last week against the Patriots.

He’s on the other team, but the bruising Hillis is Ryan’s kind of player.

“Without question, it is going to be a great matchup,” Ryan said. “We’re one of the great teams in the league in stopping the run and we clearly have our work cut out going against that young man. He’s going to have his work cut out as well.”

Mangini’s homecoming with the Jets is just one several juicy, intertwining subplots in this week’s game.

There’s also Rex Ryan’s matchup with his twin brother, Rob, Cleveland’s defensive coordinator; the return of wide receiver Braylon Edwards, whom Mangini traded to the Jets last season and remains wildly unpopular with Browns fans; and Cleveland rookie quarterback Colt McCoy making his fourth straight start against New York’s Mark Sanchez, who was drafted by the Jets after they pulled off a deal with Mangini last year.

But because of his fall from grace in New York, Mangini’s ties to the Jets trump all.

His firing by owner Woody Johnson and general manager Mike Tannenbaum came after a 1-4 close in ‘08 led to a third-place finish as New York missed the playoffs after a promising 8-3 start. Favre’s bad biceps muscle didn’t help Mangini, who took the Jets to the postseason in his first season.

At one time, Mangini may have held a grudge or bitterness. He doesn’t harbor any of those feelings. The Jets, after all, gave him his head coaching start.

“I’ve sat across that desk enough times and told guys that they couldn’t be part of the team anymore. You know in this business, at some point, someone is going to sit across the desk and tell you the same thing. Even though you may not agree with the decision, you respect it.

“They gave me my first chance at a very young age to be a head coach. Mike and Woody were always really supportive when I was there and tried to do everything they could to help me be successful. I got a chance to grow tremendously as a professional, as a person and it’s made this experience that much better.

“I think I’m a better person for it and a better coach for it.”

New York was good to him. And, as it turns out, he helped build the Jets into the team they are today.

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