Michael Lombardi hasn’t worked for an NFL team since the Oakland Raiders fired him in May 2007, but he insisted this afternoon during his introductory news conference that he’s a changed man who’s prepared to make the most of his second chance with the Browns.
“I’m really ready,” said Lombardi, who worked in the Browns’ front office from 1987-95 and served as an analyst for NFL Network for the past five years. “I’ve got a long way to go. I’ve got a learning curve, but I’m ready to work. I’ve been resting for five years. I’ve had enough makeup on. I’m ready to go. I love NFL Network, but I see myself as a football guy.”
Owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner view Lombardi the same way. They named him their vice president of player personnel this morning. Although he will not hold the title of general manager, Lombardi will head the Browns’ personnel department.
The Browns fired General Manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur on Dec. 31. They hired coach Rob Chudzinski on Jan. 10 to succeed Shurmur, and now Lombardi replaces Heckert as the organization’s top personnel chief.
“Listen, I understand that I'm going out on the limb myself by hiring Mike,” said Banner, the former president of the Philadelphia Eagles who worked with Lombardi from 1997-98. “So I didn't do this casually. … Time will tell if it's right or wrong, but I made [the choice] confidently and with my eyes open about the perceptions, about the realities, about my own time I spent with him. I feel comfortable with it.”
Banner will wield significant power in personnel decisions. Neither he nor Lombardi would reveal who has final say on the drafting, signing and trading of players. Still, Banner is expected to act as the ultimate authority, considering Haslam announced on Oct. 16 that football operations would report to Banner.
“We’re going to have a group that’s now rounded out that’s going to collaborate on these decisions, and we’re going to try to drive to consensus,” Banner said. “We probably won’t do things about which we don’t have consensus, so we really won’t get into a [question about] who has final say. My experience is that when you have a group of people that are spending a lot of time studying something, they’re smart and they’re in an environment where it’s fair to state your opinion or disagree, that when everybody can get to the same consensus, your chances of being right are extremely high. So that’s what we’re trying to get to.”
Banner said Lombardi interviewed with the Browns twice. The first time was last week, he said.
“We kind of loosely joked with each other about possibly working together some day over the years,” Banner said. “We’re friends. Occasionally we’d both agree about a player that everybody else didn’t like and he turned out to be good, so we patted ourselves on the back and told each other how brilliant we were and thought we should work together some day. … In my mind, he was always a candidate. But I think it was in the last week when the other people here had a chance to meet him as well as meet the other potential candidates that it became very, very real.
“I feel like I have as [good of] first-hand knowledge on his ability to evaluate players, which is the most important thing he’s going to do, as I could possibly have on anybody we could hire. I also witnessed Mike hire young scouts and see them develop. So I think he has a good eye for scouts as well as having a good eye for talent. So that was what drove the decision. He has a tremendous passion to come back here from Cleveland, to be part of this organization and help us turn it around. Those are the kind of qualities we were looking for.”
Haslam, who struck a deal Aug. 2 to buy the Browns from Randy Lerner for about $1 billion, said he’s all in with Lombardi.
“Over the past two weeks as we started to focus on this, I had the opportunity to talk to several in the business who I respect,” Haslam said. “These are people at the very top of the NFL business, the most-respected people in the business, and without exception every one of them said this: ‘If you can get Mike Lombardi to be your general manager, you should hire him immediately.’
“In the time that Mike and I have spent together, I have been very, very impressed. [He has] smarts, passion, drive. He wants to win. He wants to win badly. But also with the knowledge he has of the league, the NFL players, college players, et cetera. I know we got the very best possible person.”
This will be Lombardi’s second stint in Cleveland. Lombardi joined the Browns as a member of the scouting staff in 1987. He was named the team’s pro personnel director in 1989, a title he held until he was promoted to director of player personnel in 1993. He served as the right-hand man of coach Bill Belichick from 1991 until the original Browns moved to Baltimore following the 1995 season.
“It’s a great honor and a great privilege for me to come back,” Lombardi said. “When we left in ’96 after the team moved, it was heartbreaking for me as it was for all of you in this room. And I think we’ve all grown from those days. I know I have, and I think our careers have all grown. I think I stand in front of you different in terms of professionally and personally and with more passion that ever.”
From 1991-95, Lombardi and Belichick drafted only one player who made the Pro Bowl.
“We made mistakes in the draft,” said Lombardi, who added former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar called to congratulate him this morning. “There’s no question about that. It’s funny. When you scout, if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re going to make them again. We did that.”
Lombardi, 53, repeatedly preached that he is a changed man.
“If I was the same guy that was here 20 years ago, I would say that Jimmy and Joe shouldn’t have hired me,” Lombardi said. “But you have to change and you have to grow intellectually, personally. I think it’s really important, so I view change as good.”
Lombardi has been linked to the Browns for several months, and many members of the local media have criticized his past shortcomings.
“I know the expectations, and I know the reactions as I walk in here,” Lombardi said. “But I take them as a positive. I’ve never shied away from a challenge. I’m excited for it, and I think I’m ready to do it because I really want to do it.”
After the news conference, Lombardi explained he has thick skin because he worked for late Raiders owner Al Davis. But Lombardi also asked reporters for a fresh start.
“I can’t control what you write,” he said. “I’m just asking for a fair and honest chance to move forward.”
Lombardi might need to ask some Browns players for a clean slate, too. In his role as an analyst, he called the team’s choice to draft quarterback Brandon Weeden 22nd overall last year a “panicked disaster.” Lombardi said he must watch practice film before drawing his final conclusions about Weeden.
“I think it’s going to take some time to study him,” Lombardi said. “I’ve got to go back through and watch practice tapes. I think when you live in the building, I think you have a better understanding of the player moving forward, have an evaluation and do that. So it’s going to take me some time to really formulate my final opinions of him.”
When asked if Weeden's age -- 29 -- is a concern, Lombardi said, "I think it's about his play."
Lombardi also criticized Heckert’s selection of wide receiver Josh Gordon in the 2012 supplemental draft. After news of the Browns hiring Lombardi broke this morning, Gordon tweeted, “Uh oh. Am I in trouble?”
When told about the Gordon’s comments on Twitter, Lombardi said, “Josh Gordon, trust me, he has nothing to worry about. In fact, he can have my Twitter account if he likes ‘cause I’m about to close that thing down.”
Lombardi added that he needs to study more film on Gordon to form an opinion about him.
Lombardi joined the NFL personnel ranks in 1984, working for the San Francisco 49ers until 1986. He has 22 seasons of experience as an NFL front-office executive.
“What differentiated Mike is the idea of building teams versus picking players,” Banner said. “There are a lot of teams in the league that pick players and don’t really have a clear understanding of the difference between doing that and assembling a team where people complement each other, you’re creating the right culture, attitude, work ethic, picking players that fit your particular program as opposed to just picking good players that end up making personnel people look good and not necessarily making your team any better.”