Jets owe Eric Mangini debt of gratitude

He started out as a young Man-genius, but he went from Boy Wonder to Whipping Boy in a New York minute. Eric Mangini brought out the best and worst in Gotham football fans -- the smiles and the fangs.

No, the former New York Jets coach isn't fondly remembered in these parts, but with the first Mangini Bowl coming Sunday in Cleveland, this is a good time for Jets Nation to thank the man for his legacy. Yeah, you read that correctly -- thank him.

For some of your best players, including Mark Sanchez.

As the Jets' head coach from 2006 to 2008, Mangini had significant input into the draft, and his first two produced the Jets' version of the "core four" -- D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, Darrelle Revis and David Harris.

All told, there are 24 holdovers from the Mangini era, so his fingerprints are on almost half the Jets' roster. And that doesn't count Braylon Edwards, whom he shipped to the Jets last October in what the Browns felt was an addition-by-subtraction trade.

This isn't a revisionist love letter to Mangini -- after all, the man went only 23-25 in three seasons -- but he did leave behind some positives.

"We drafted good, solid foundation players in those three drafts," GM Mike Tannenbaum said Monday in a phone interview, naming them all.

Tannenbaum had the final say on those drafts -- still does -- but Mangini's opinion carried tremendous weight. For instance: He was a former secondary coach, spent a lot of time studying Revis and fell in love with him. Tannenbaum was able to execute the trade that allowed the Jets to move up for the player who is now one of the best cornerbacks in football.

Mangini also liked Vernon Gholston, chosen sixth overall in 2008. Can't win 'em all.

His greatest gift to the Jets, albeit an unwitting gift, was Sanchez. He arrived in a draft-day trade that was so, um, unusual that it left other teams' executives shaking their heads.

The Mangini-led Browns -- this was pre-Mike Holmgren -- owned the fifth pick in the 2009 draft. The Jets (17th) and the Washington Redskins (13th) both coveted the former USC quarterback, and they were vying for the Browns' spot.

The Browns refused to swap places with Washington because the Redskins didn't want to surrender their first-round pick in 2010, but they took the Jets' offer even though it included no future picks. The Jets surrendered their '09 second-round pick and three marginal players -- defensive end Kenyon Coleman, safety Abe Elam and quarterback Brett Ratliff, all Mangini favorites during his time with the Jets.

"We tried to move up, but Mangini wanted all those guys from the Jets," former Redskins executive Vinny Cerrato recalled. "The Jets gave away nothing to move up."

One team's nothing is another team's something. All three players remain with the improving Browns (3-5), with Coleman and Elam both in the starting lineup. In fact, Elam forced a key fumble Sunday in the Browns' 34-14 upset of the New England Patriots.

If the trade had never happened, the Redskins would've picked Sanchez at 13, according to Cerrato. The Jets probably would've settled for quarterback Josh Freeman at 17.

"It was definitely a unique situation," said Tannenbaum, describing how Mangini's affinity for the trio of players made a seemingly impossible trade possible.

Tannenbaum and Mangini remain friends and still talk periodically even though Tannenbaum fired him with a late-night phone call a few hours after the 2008 season ended bitterly with a loss to the Miami Dolphins. The Jets finished 9-7, out of the playoffs, after a December collapse. Mangini was hurt by Brett Favre's late-season arm troubles, but he didn't endear himself to ownership with his secretive, paranoid ways.

Woody Johnson grew tired of Mangini, and wanted a dynamic coach who could lead the Jets into their new stadium -- and sell a few PSLs. It led him to Rex Ryan, a winner who has increased the profile of the franchise. Johnson got what he wanted, a coach with a personality and wins.

"The right decisions aren't always the easy ones, and that wasn't easy from a personal standpoint," said Tannenbaum, reflecting on what it was like to fire one of his best friends. "I have a long and deep relationship with Eric, but my charge is to make the best decisions with Woody for this organization."

Inside the locker room, Mangini is remembered as a bright, always-prepared coach who instilled discipline in the team. Did the players love him? No. Many of them say he took the fun out of football -- the anti-Ryan -- but they respect his mind.

"I learned a lot of football from him, situational football," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "I learned that to a tee. Anyone with aspirations of being a coach when they're done playing football should pick his brain."

The brain didn't win enough games for the Jets, but it did help in other ways.

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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