By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The Morning Kickoff …
Hello, friends: When CBS Sports lead NFL announcer Jim Nantz rushed to the defense of friend Mike Lombardi amid torrential criticism 16 months ago, his famous out-of-character diatribe was aimed at me. We have since developed a cordial relationship.
We agree to disagree about Lombardi, the one-and-done Browns GM who lost a tug of war with CEO Joe Banner when owner Jimmy Haslam shockingly fired both on February 11. The blow-up left new GM Ray Farmer in charge of the most important Browns draft in, oh, a generation.
Lombardi has gone on to reunite with New England coach Bill Belichick as a special assistant and Banner is out of football. In a conversation with ESPN Cleveland, Nantz shed light on the dysfunction that led to Haslam’s twin firing.
Nantz indicated it was Lombardi who made a last-ditch stab for power by back-channelling the discussions between the Browns and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh in January.
The bombshell story of the Browns negotiating a trade with the 49ers for Harbaugh was broken at the NFL Combine by Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com. Haslam has said there was “an opportunity” to acquire Harbaugh; the 49ers have denied it.
“I’ve never had this discussion with Mike, but you know, this whole thing about Jim Harbaugh being entertained by the Browns … you know that was Mike being the one trying to execute that,” Nantz told me. “That’s one of his closest friends, Jim and John Harbaugh. (Jim was) first brought into the NFL by Mike Lombardi. That was a real out-of-the-box move, just like the (Brian) Hoyer thing. That actually had a pulse. I think that was closer than we ever … can you imagine had they pulled that one off?”
Nantz said he would not “confirm” Lombardi was the catalyst of the deal that fell through, but noted, “Jim Harbaugh’s personal assistant was Mike’s son Micky. Jim Harbaugh was hired as a quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders by Mike Lombardi.
“I don’t think it was Joe Banner who picked up the phone and called Jim Harbaugh and said, ‘Hey I’ve got an idea. How ‘bout if we make a trade for you to become the next Cleveland Browns coach?’”
Goodbye, friends: Nantz left little doubt that he held Banner accountable for the dysfunction in Haslam’s first front office set-up. He admits he is biased.
Nantz extolled the headline moves made by the Banner-Lombardi partnership – the signing of Hoyer, the trade of Trent Richardson, the stockpiling of future 2014 draft choices – and said, “Not that anybody down the road is ever going to give (Lombardi) credit for it.”
“This is where it got a little murky, and I think this is one of the reasons why ultimately the change was made,” Nantz continued. “I think internally there had to be some significant dysfunction between some of the guys in the front office as to where the power interest really belonged. I guess Jimmy viewed it as an unworkable situation. He just decided he wanted to clear things out.
“One of the things I thought was a mistake early when they went with Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi was the fact they made it very public that everything they were going to do was going to be by consensus. In my lifetime, I’ve seen a lot of times when you try to do things by committee, it’s not the best way to go. You need one strong powerful voice. Otherwise it creates absolute bedlam. I don’t think everything was running smoothly with that consensus approach.”
Nantz also said that Lombardi was kept “behind the curtain” – presumably by Banner, though he won’t name him – “because it was such a contentious hire in the media.” Nantz thought keeping Lombardi out of the media limelight was unfair to him.
He also said the Browns’ coaching search was affected by the evident dysfunction between Banner and Lombardi.
“I think the coaching candidates viewed it as confusion as to what was going on in Cleveland because who was really in control,” Nantz said. “I think there were a lot of people who didn’t want to take the job because they weren’t exactly happy with who they may have to answer to.”
Draft talk: For the record, Nantz thinks the world of Hoyer and believes the Browns are a playoff team with him playing quarterback. But he thinks the team will select either Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins or “a quarterback” with the No. 4 pick in the draft on May 8.
And if the quarterback is Johnny Manziel, well, look out, America. He will put the Browns back on the NFL map, in Nantz’s opinion.
“No one knows what they’re gonna get with him,” Nantz said. “There is no slam dunk. It is all over the place. Honestly, no one knows.
“I can say this, he’s going to be the guy everyone wants to see. I’ve heard this rumor for a month -- the Cowboys will figure out a way to get Manziel. Wherever Manziel goes, there is going to be more clamoring about Johnny Manziel than there would be about Blake Bortles going No. 1 or (Jadeveon) Clowney going No. 1, or anyone else. This is a guy that there’s just a tremendous interest in everything he does.
“If the Browns take him, the interest in the Cleveland Browns nationally -- and that’s true for any team – is going be just off the charts. The Cleveland opener in Pittsburgh is going to be the most talked about game Week 1 if Johnny Manziel is the quarterback.”
(Listen to the Jim Nantz interview on the Hey Tony Show Tuesday, 6-7 p.m., on ESPN 850 WKNR.)
|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. Use the hashtage #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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