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Joe Banner's refusal to dispel rumors of Mike Lombardi replacing Tom Heckert is troubling

Dec 04, 2012 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi


The Morning Kickoff …

Say it ain’t so, Joe: Hub Arkush, publisher and editor of Pro Football Weekly, is the latest to report that Mike Lombardi, the smooth-talking NFL Network analyst, is the top choice of Joe Banner to replace Tom Heckert as Browns general manager.

Arkush first reported his information on a syndicated radio show over the weekend. Arkush isn’t one to throw rumors against a wall and see which ones stick, so his report was particularly troubling to me.

I contacted him via email to ascertain exactly what he reported.

He responded: “We have it confidentially from very good sources close to the story that Mike is a strong front-runner for the job. If you work (your) way backwards you'll find a Banner/Lombardi connection in Philly. Problem is Tom Heckert still has the job and if he's fired then there's the Rooney rule . . . But we believe once the dust settles it'll be Mike.”

Arkush is the third national reporter or analyst to link Lombardi to Cleveland. The first, I believe, was Clark Judge of CBSSports.com, who casually threw out Lombardi’s name as a possibility to replace Heckert back in August when it was commonly believed that Banner would join owner Jimmy Haslam as Browns CEO.

Jason LaCanfora, also of CBSSports.com, has since reported and spoken on a few occasions of a Lombardi-Banner reunion in Cleveland.

Banner hired Lombardi in Philadelphia in 1997 as a personnel consultant to owner Jeff Lurie. At the time of the fledgling Banner-built Eagles organization, Lombardi was the perfect draftnik to join the personnel department. He had a gift for memorizing heights, weights, 40 times and scouting reports written by others.

Lombardi departed the Eagles when Andy Reid replaced Ray Rhodes as coach. Lombardi has maintained a friendly relationship with Banner.

Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

Banner has conspicuously refused to dispel this rumor.

Woe is us: I requested an interview with Banner on Monday to discuss Lombardi. Neal Gulkis, Browns spokesman, responded via text message that Banner stands by previous statements to reporters on this matter.

Banner said to Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal on Lombardi: “Since I haven’t even decided whether the people that are here are staying or going, I think speculation that I’m actually deciding or have decided who I’d bring in if we made a change is not right.”

Banner said to Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer: “Since I haven't even decided whether I'm keeping the people that are here, at best it's wild speculation and in this case it's unfounded. Somebody's taking a shot in the dark. They could be right or they could be wrong."

They could be right or they could be wrong?

If Banner replaces Heckert with Lombardi – and if Haslam approves it – the Browns should move their family-produced reality series from the Travel Channel to an episode on Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

Because it would be a regrettable decision that would kill the credibility of Haslam and Banner as a formidable management team in the NFL. It would sap the positive energy of the ownership change.

It would remind us in Cleveland that as bad as it’s been, it could always get worse.

What the heck are they thinking?

No relation to Vince, by the way: Lombardi arrived in Cleveland in 1987 as an energetic personnel wannabe after being fired by Bill Walsh in San Francisco.

After the Marty Schottenheimer and then Bud Carson eras crumbled, Lombardi latched on to Bill Belichick’s coattails and effectively undermined and marginalized Ernie Accorsi, the GM who built the Browns’ five playoff teams of the late 1980s.

Accorsi saw what was happening and departed in Belichick’s second season in 1992, leaving the young coach little choice but to rely on Lombardi for personnel decisions. Their five drafts together were some of the worst in Browns’ history.

Belichick cultivated much better talent off the field. While so many of his proteges went on to bigger and better things – Ozzie Newsome, Scott Pioli, Mike Tannenbaum, Phil Savage, Jim Schwartz, to name a few – Lombardi bounced around to mid-level personnel positions before settling in on his true calling as an “insider” on NFL Network.

Lombardi is known in NFL circles for soliciting job interviews with clubs, only to be repeatedly denied. Why wouldn’t Belichick hire him with the Patriots?

In his role as NFL Network analyst, Lombardi has assailed Heckert's Trent Richardson-Brandon Weeden draft -- perhaps Heckert's greatest work -- as a "panic disaster." He also lambasted the supplemental draft pick of Josh Gordon as a "wasted draft pick." Lombardi recently changed his tune when Banner assumed a position of power under Haslam.

Banner might not be totally honest when he says he hasn’t decided on Heckert’s future.

He has structured the Browns’ organization so that football operations reports directly to him, and not to Haslam. In his contract with former President Mike Holmgren, the de facto owner, Heckert held total football authority in the organization. He had final say on the draft and the final roster.

Banner has indicated he will take over that authority. If so, that would change Heckert’s job description. I can see Banner positioning Heckert’s exit by saying it was Heckert’s decision to move on.

Heckert declined to discuss his future. He said, “If they want to make a change, then that’s what they’re going to do. I honestly can’t and don’t worry about it.”

I don’t like the sound of this at all.

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 44 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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