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The more things change, the more fixated on Bill Belichick the Browns become

Jan 01, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

 

The Morning Kickoff …

Same ole, same ole: The 2013 Browns season was one of the worst for a variety of reasons.

There were the usual highs and lows on the field. The highs were the emergence of Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron and a return of exciting football, albeit very briefly, when Brian Hoyer lit a spark for two games before it was blown out by cruel fate. The lows were numerous, flattening out in seven losses in a row.

What made this Browns season historically bad, however, was not so much the 4-12 record. Sadly, we’ve seen worse.

What qualified this Browns season near the bottom was the realization that things really are no different. And they aren’t going to change in the foreseeable future.

The Browns franchise under Randy Lerner was fixated on Bill Belichick and somehow replicating his football genius with the Patriots. Lerner hired every Belichick disciple he could round up, believing each one would turn things around – Romeo Crennel, Phil Savage, Eric Mangini, George Kokinis. They all failed.

If Lerner had had his way, Scott Pioli would have been another one hired. He lost his genius-by-association label, too, when he flopped as GM in Kansas City.

Now the Browns franchise under Jimmy Haslam is fixated on Belichick again.

It began with the out-of-left field hiring of Belichick confidante Mike Lombardi as GM on Jan. 18. (Sources have told me that Lombardi and eventual CEO Joe Banner were collaborating with Haslam as early as August, when Haslam’s purchase agreement with the Lerner family was finalized.) The Belichick fixation would continue with the hiring – some have reported it as imminent -- of Josh McDaniels as the next coach.

Why is this happening? How is this happening?

I have a theory and have bounced it off a couple NFL sources I respect. And they are not telling me that I am crazy.

The QB in the middle: Hoyer, in my opinion, is a major figure in this tangled web.

Everyone knows that Lombardi was a famously enthusiastic advocate of Hoyer while biding his NFL purgatory with the NFL Network.

When Lombardi successfully acquired Hoyer in May, Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner already had pretty much committed the entire offseason to readying Brandon Weeden as the starter for the season and Jason Campbell as the fallback option.

In training camp, Hoyer was cast aside by the coaches as the third quarterback. On occasion, Hoyer was banished to a faraway field to throw to the rookie free agents. In my opinion, that cavalier attitude toward Hoyer – not taking him seriously as a viable starting option, ostensibly because he was Lombardi’s “boy” -- was a crucial error in judgment by Chudzinski and Turner.

From that point on, the only thing that would save them was a good year, meaning a good enough record to avoid any sane reasoning for dismissal.

As it happened, circumstances put Hoyer in the lineup in Game 3 – first game after the locker room-deflating trade of Trent Richardson. When Hoyer sparked the team and beat the Vikings, and then followed with a victory over Cincinnati the next week, the stakes rose immensely for the coaches.

Hoyer’s resurgence – as brief as it was – affected many things.

First, it saved face for Banner and Lombardi on the Richardson trade. The spark lit by Hoyer focused attention away from the trade and on winning. Had the team not won immediately, players would have fallen victim to the obvious feeling outside the locker room that the front office had tanked the season to set up 2014. Hoyer played a monumental role in keeping together the room.

Second, Hoyer’s stellar play legitimized Lombardi’s “genius” with Banner, and more importantly, with Haslam, who had his doubts.

Third, Hoyer’s spark hurt the credibility of Chudzinski and Turner with their bosses. A couple weeks after Hoyer’s season ended with an ACL tear, Turner reflected, “Brian’s production really surprised us.”

What I would give to be a fly in the owner’s box when Lombardi discussed that comment with Banner and Haslam as the coaches kept trotting Weeden and then Campbell out there, game after miserable game.

One question always baffled me: Why did it take so long for the Browns to bring in another quarterback after Hoyer went down? My conclusion: Banner and Lombardi must have looked at the coaches and shrugged: “You guys had Hoyer No. 3. Now go ahead and win with your No. 1 and No. 2.”

When I asked about the coaches’ handling of the quarterbacks, Haslam chuckled and turned to Banner. Banner’s response strained credibility. “I don’t have any second guessing of their utilization and teaching of the quarterbacks and the order that they played them in,” he said.

Now, does anybody believe that Haslam and Banner would trust the coaches further on franchise-changing quarterback decisions after whiffing on Hoyer? Not with Lombardi reminding them of it.

Another Belichick limb: The end result is that Lombardi has been empowered as the loudest voice in the newest coaching search. Truth is, he was intricately involved in last year’s search – even though he had not been introduced yet as the GM.

All the leading candidates had ties to Lombardi. When they all passed on Haslam’s millions, Chudzinski became the Browns’ fourth option – fifth if you count Nick Saban as No. 1. Chud got the nod, partly because his agent, Jimmy Sexton, is a long-time friend/associate of Lombardi.

So now it is looking as if Lombardi will pull off another coup – bringing in McDaniels, Belichick’s present offensive coordinator, as coach. McDaniels happens to be another Sexton client.

I suppose the selling point on McDaniels’ 11-17 record as Denver Broncos head coach in 2009-10 will be that he has learned many things from his first experience and will, like Belichick, benefit immensely from them.

We’ve heard that before. We very well could be looking at another Belichick-spawned GM and another Belichick-spawned head coach.

Yes, these are the same old Browns.

Happy New Year.

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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