By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
The root of it all: If you could go back and change anything about the Browns since 1999, what would it be?
That’s a question I’ve often been asked. Now, 14 years later, the answer is fairly obvious.
If I could change anything it would be to name Ozzie Newsome the head of football operations of the Browns in 1999.
That’s so easy to say now. Newsome, the original Browns’ Hall of Fame tight end, is in New Orleans this week to enjoy his second Super Bowl appearance as the Baltimore Ravens’ general manager and executive vice president.
Since 2000, only Scott Pioli with New England (four) and Kevin Colbert with Pittsburgh (three) have built teams that appeared in more Super Bowls.
The seminal event that changed the course of history for the old Browns and the new Browns occurred in 1996, when Art Modell asked Newsome to join him in Baltimore and head his football operations. It was a stroke of genius or luck.
“He said, ‘I’m moving the team and I want you to go with me,’” Newsome recalled in May. “You know what, I’d been (in Cleveland) for 18 years and I don’t think there’s a street in this city that I don’t know, that I could get lost on. I was so much a part of this city and the fabric of the fans. But that became a unique opportunity. An opportunity that I was able to parlay to become the first African-American general manger. So out of something that was somber and disappointing, something good happened. I think that’s the way you have to look at everything in life.”
In the first three years of the Ravens’ existence in Baltimore, Newsome was responsible for drafting the following noteworthy players: offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden, who is a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame; linebacker Ray Lewis, who is playing his last career game Sunday and will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible in five years; linebacker Peter Boulware, a four-time Pro Bowler before retiring; cornerback Duane Starks, a starter on the Ravens’ Super Bowl-winning team in 2000; and cornerback Chris McAlister, another starter on the 2000 team and a three-time Pro Bowler.
When the new Browns’ first management regime of owner Al Lerner and President Carmen Policy assembled its first organization in the fall of 1998, the choice to head football operations was Dwight Clark, Policy’s friend and a San Francisco 49ers player legend.
Newsome was already indebted to Modell, but the fact is Lerner and Policy never considered Newsome for the job.
“It was a San Francisco crew that came in and I don’t know if I’d have had a chance to be a part of that,” Newsome said. “When Carmen came in, he had the keys to the car. He wanted to build the front office and I don’t know if I’d have been a part of it. Now you look at it 15 years later and Carmen would probably say, ‘Yeah, we wanted you to be a part of it.’”
A loyal man: Randy Lerner took over Browns ownership when his father died in 2002. When the Butch Davis regime flamed out in 2004, Lerner faced a crossroads. Policy was a generational misfit and was on his way out.
Lerner made an overture to Newsome to leave the Ravens to be president of the Browns. Newsome wasn’t interested in leaving a stable organization for one that seemed unsteady at best. Steve Bisciotti, who rescued Modell from another bankruptcy by buying him out as Ravens owner, gave Newsome a promotion. It was then that Newsome decided he would never take another job in the NFL.
The NFL provided Lerner with league marketer John Collins to replace Policy as president. Unable to pry away Newsome, Lerner hired Phil Savage, Newsome’s top talent evaluator, as general manager. That didn’t work out.
And since then, the Browns have had Eric Mangini and George Kokinis and then Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert to try to turn around their football fortunes. And when Jimmy Haslam bought out Lerner, the NFL provided him with CEO Joe Banner, who shocked many in the NFL by resuscitating Mike Lombardi from a five-year NFL exile and naming him Browns vice president of player personnel.
So while the Browns embark on their sixth regime since 1999, Newsome remains at the top of one of the best football organizations in the NFL.
Reflections: These truly are exciting times for Newsome. Earlier this month, his beloved University of Alabama captured its second BCS National Championship in a row and third in four years under coach Nick Saban. A second Super Bowl triumph for Newsome would trump even that.
The Ravens have anointed Eric DeCosta, assistant general manager, as Newsome’s successor. But Newsome, 56, doesn’t have a timetable to retire.
“As soon as (the Super Bowl’s) over with, I’m going to get ready to prepare for another Super Bowl,” he said last week in a phone conversation. “I just try to take it one year at a time. I think Nick is doing the same thing. He’s had a back to back. Can you go back to back to back? People ask what drives you. Well, back to back to back drives you.
“The challenge is to close the book on that one and start preparing for the next one. That’s why you’re in the game. That’s why I retired from playing. I didn’t think we could get there again in my time left as a player. I walked away as a player. I know there will be a time when I walk away as a GM. I already know what I’m going to do – play golf and tailgate.”
I asked Newsome if he ever wished he could have achieved in Cleveland what he has achieved as a GM in Baltimore.
“Would the ride have been as enjoyable in Cleveland as it has been in Baltimore?” he said. “I would have to say it probably would be more enjoyable. I was there for a lot of those big-time defeats, so I felt those fans’ pain. To be able to be on the other side of the ledger, it probably would have meant more to me, yes.”
No Browns player experienced the franchise’s “big-time defeats” like Newsome. He was the intended receiver on Brian Sipe’s intercepted pass in the end zone in the 1980 season playoff loss to Oakland, and then anguished in the three classic AFC Championship Game losses to Denver’s John Elway after the 1986, ’87 and ’89 seasons.
As a team executive, Newsome avenged that Denver trilogy of terror when his Ravens upset the Broncos – whose president is now Elway – in an overtime thriller in the divisional playoff round.
“I got a lot of text messages from former Browns teammates after the game saying ‘thank you,’” Newsome said.
Newsome and Elway did not have the chance to exchange words after the Ravens’ 38-35 win in Denver.
“We saw each other while he was getting on the elevator,” Newsome said. “He gave me a thumbs up. That was enough. It was two competitors seeing each other and acknowledging each other. That was enough.”
Maybe for him. Not for the rest of us.
|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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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