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Sources: No Saban in Cleveland, but a Banner-Lombardi-McDaniels team is a realistic possibility

Dec 18, 2012 -- 6:00am


By Tony Grossi

The Morning Kickoff …

The lowdown: These are the latest rumblings I’ve heard from NFL – and college – sources concerning the inevitable shake-up in Browns football operations being considered by CEO Joe Banner.

For the record, owner Jimmy Haslam and Banner recently have declined all meaningful interviews regarding the future configuration of their organization. They have pledged to not make any decisions until after the season.

But it is commonly believed that GM Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur will not be back. Heckert, my sources say, knew it the day Banner reported to work in October as Haslam’s CEO. Shurmur surely knows it now, after that coaching debacle against Washington on Sunday.

The Lombardi Factor: Banner has diagramed an organization chart that calls for football operations to report to him. That means Heckert’s position will be replaced by a glorified player personnel director who will work closely with Banner. He may win some battles but ultimately he will have no real authority to establish a vision, pick players or make trades. Banner will set the agenda.

So who would accept these restrictions? Someone who has been out of the league for five years – Mike Lombardi.

The smooth-talking NFL Network analyst has fostered a relationship with Banner since working for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1997-98. Lombardi, who was Bill Belichick’s first lieutenant in Cleveland after GM Ernie Accorsi left in 1992, was not invited by Art Modell to join the Ravens organization in Baltimore.

Former Eagles coach Ray Rhodes rescued Lombardi with a job in 1997. This was a dream opportunity for Lombardi, who was from the Philadelphia area, but it was lost when the Eagles named Tom Modrak director of football operations. There is a story that on Modrak’s first day on the job, he marched into Lombardi’s office still wearing his overcoat and told Lombardi to pack his belongings. That was the third of Lombardi’s four firings from NFL clubs.

Nevertheless, Lombardi maintained a relationship with Banner, who has risen to positions of enormous power with the Eagles and now the Browns.

According to one source in the loop, the only other name associated in NFL circles with the soon-to-be-vacant position with the Browns is Tom Gamble. Gamble is director of player personnel with the San Francisco 49ers and is considered a viable candidate for several general manager positions expected to open in the NFL.

But because the position Banner has created is on a same plane with the job Gamble currently holds in San Francisco, Gamble would not give the Browns’ job a second thought.

Banner effectively has created a position that only Lombardi would accept.

The coaching candidates: Over the years, Lombardi has forged relationships in the agent business. One that Lombardi has maintained is with Jimmy Sexton. Sexton happens to be Alabama coach Nick Saban’s agent. This relationship partially explains the Saban-to-Cleveland rumors.

Independently, Saban, who has built a national powerhouse at Alabama, is believed to be Haslam’s first choice to coach the Browns. Lombardi is well aware of that, of course. According to a source, Lombardi has gained traction with Haslam by attaching himself to Saban’s coattails.

I have now have had three credible sources – two in the NFL and one in the college ranks – swear to me that Saban has no attraction whatsoever to Lombardi. One insisted Saban wouldn’t work with Lombardi “in a thousand years.” Another on Monday said there is “zero chance” Saban would leave Alabama to work alongside Lombardi in Cleveland.

There is one rumor that Haslam is prepared to offer Saban a $100 million deal over 10 years to coach the Browns.

Two sources who know Saban have told me that Saban is leaning toward staying at Alabama and if he ever sought to scratch that NFL itch again, it would not be in Cleveland. Once Saban left Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., said one source, he has never traveled north of Tennessee.

Sexton and Lombardi could be scratching each other’s backs on the Saban rumors, said one source. The theory is that Lombardi gains stature with the Browns by forwarding this tall tale, and Saban inevitably will gain a new deal with Alabama. The Crimson Tide could and would re-up whatever it takes to keep him, said a source.

If not Saban, then who?: In his many media platforms, Lombardi frequently talks up Oregon’s Chip Kelly as a quality NFL coaching candidate. In fact, Lombardi formed a relationship with Kelly several years ago. Lombardi may have introduced Kelly to Belichick, who has incorporated some of Kelly’s fast-paced offensive concepts into the Patriots’ scheme.

Kelly, however, would not be a candidate in Cleveland, said a source, because he has the ego and stature at this time to demand total control of football operatios. And that is something only Saban could wrestle from Banner in Cleveland.

Kelly will get full control somewhere in the NFL. One source predicts it will be Kelly’s demise as an NFL coach, given his total unfamiliarity of the league.

So what does that leave the Browns as head coach? Lombardi’s third choice is Canton-native Josh McDaniels, who failed as Denver Broncos coach but has risen from the ashes in his second stint as Tom Brady’s personal coach with the Patriots.

McDaniels, 36, was 11-17 as Denver Broncos coach in 2009-10 after a 6-0 start. His hiring would likely enable the Browns to retain Dick Jauron as defensive coordinator and much of the current defensive staff.

There are other possibilities on how the Browns’ new direction will unfold, but a Banner-Lombardi-McDaniels triumvirate is currently seen as the most realistic.

One source remarked of the Cleveland situation, “From a distance, I’m fascinated with how it turns out.”

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi


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