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Now that he's in, Mike Lombardi's actions -- not his smooth talking -- will dictate the Browns' fortunes

Jan 18, 2013 -- 3:52pm

Photo/AP


By Tony Grossi

Extra Points …

Lazarus rises: Somebody told me a long time ago never to underestimate Mike Lombardi. I never have. It’s good advice for newcomers in the Browns’ new organization to follow.

Lombardi’s amazing ascension from banished, peripatetic NFL personnel assistant to NFL Network analyst to Browns vice president of player personnel culminates a cunning plan executed to perfection. Absolutely brilliantly done.

It starts with Joe Banner – Lombardi’s biggest champion -- leaving the Philadelphia Eagles and joining Jimmy Haslam in running the Browns.

Haslam admitted he was introduced to Lombardi “through some mutual friends several months ago,” but said that serious consideration of hiring Lombardi did not occur until 7-10 days ago. Lombardi, in fact, was singled out nationally as a GM-type favorite in Cleveland in August – the same time Banner was reported as Haslam’s running mate.

The key element was Banner structuring the organization – and selling that structure to Haslam – in such a way that few personnel executives with higher qualifications than Lombardi would accept. Banner and Haslam both have said they were impressed with the other candidates for the job. But other than Ray Farmer, a former Philadelphia Eagles player and current Kansas City pro personnel director, no other interviewed candidate for the Browns’ job has been identified.

There is evidence that Lombardi assisted in the Browns’ coaching search in some way, as an unofficial consultant to Banner, but all parties deny it. Yet he had associations with several candidates. Lombardi might not have a strong tie to Rob Chudzinski, but he certainly has one with offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who may have been the key to Chudzinski zooming to the top of the coaching search.

At Lombardi’s introduction on Friday, Haslam praised him for being “extremely smart … having phenomenal passion … great work drive … and tremendous knowledge of football.” Haslam said Lombardi’s name was passed on by “the most respected people in the NFL business.”

“Without exception every one said, ‘If you can get Mike Lombardi to be your GM, you should hire him immediately,’” Haslam reported.

And yet, Lombardi was not interviewed for any of the six open GM jobs in the NFL this year except this one. In the past five years, the only interview he received was with the San Francisco 49ers two years ago. The job went to Trent Baalke, who had been with the 49ers for seven years prior.

Burying the past: My criticism of this hire was rooted not only in Lombardi’s nine previous years in Cleveland in the 1980s-90s but also in his prior time in San Francisco in a lesser capacity and then in Oakland afterwards.

A key person with one of his former teams said, “He was one of those phone guys. He didn’t have the talent. He was good at talking to people and working off what they tell him.”

Lombardi’s record with Bill Belichick in the 1990s as a draft evaluator was unquestionably bad. But Banner praised Lombardi for their two years together in Philadelphia in 1997-98, saying, “There’s no question he’s near or at the top of quality talent evaluators.” In Oakland, where the late Al Davis ruled, Lombardi was mostly associated with one pick – offensive lineman Robert Gallery – who proved an incredible bust at No. 2 overall and wound up playing guard.

With NFL Network, Lombardi bashed Tom Heckert's latest draft and categorized it as "panicked disaster." On Friday, Lombadi brushed off that criticism as "media commentary" and said, "Now it's a different set of circumstances."

Lombardi’s time in Cleveland and elsewhere also was marked by incidents of undermining, backstabbing and leaking to media -- mostly the result of Lombardi’s unbridled ambition. Former Raiders coach Art Shell once accused Lombardi of speaking badly of him to others and dividing that dysfunctional organization.

All of this history makes Lombardi a questionable hire at least and a tremendous gamble on the part of Banner.

“I understand that I’m going out on the limb myself by hiring Mike,” Banner conceded in sidebar interviews after the introduction. “So I didn’t do this casually.”

Can a leopard change its spots?: Banner and Haslam have been prepared for some time for the negative reaction of Lombardi’s hire, and much of the talk was about how Lombardi has changed over the years.

“To be honest, I think he learned from some hard experiences he had with people he worked with,” Banner said. “That there are different ways to go about things that contribute to your self-awareness. I think he has grown a lot from that.”

In his introduction, Lombardi volunteered that he has changed “professionally and personally” since his time here 25 years ago.

“If I was the same guy that was here 20 years ago, I would say that Jimmy and Joe shouldn’t have hired me,” he said.

Later, in a sit-down with a group of media, Lombardi singled out me in addressing the criticism his imminent hiring received.

“I’ve done your job. Been in the media. I understand criticism. I have no problem with it,” he said. “I understand the sense of where you’re coming from. But I just ask we start clear. If I make mistakes, or you think I’m making mistakes, I have no problem with it. I’d like it not to be as personal as perhaps sometimes it is. I’m just asking for a fair and honest chance to move forward.”

He elaborated on the theme of change in response to a question.

“I’m going to be 54,” Lombardi said. “You get older, get more comfortable in your own skin. You end up deciding perhaps your principles are more important than your ambition. You find your way.”

I agree that Lombardi deserves a clean slate as he and Banner plot the course of their team moving forward. I agree that people are capable of change.

But he, Banner, Haslam and everyone else must realize that given Lombardi’s history and his circuitous route back to the Browns’ inner sanctum, he will be heavily scrutinized.

Lombardi has tremendous interpersonal skills, able to recall facts and figures with an encyclopedic memory that has, frankly, mesmerized others. Those qualities have taken Lombardi far, but now his actions will determine the Browns’ future – and those of Lombardi and Banner, as well.

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

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