CANTON: Browns General Manager Mike Lombardi attempted a balancing act Monday in front of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Luncheon Club, and the no-nonsense crowd of old-school football fans nudged him a few times to see whether he would fall.
With a monologue, an audience question-and-answer session and a chat with reporters, Lombardi spent nearly 54 minutes addressing the state of the Browns in his most extensive public comments since he was hired as their personnel chief on Jan. 18. Of all the topics discussed, Lombardi spent the most time trying to sell the idea of the new regime aiming for sustained success without giving up on the present, a point of contention for fans since the team traded its fourth- and fifth-round draft picks a couple of weeks ago in exchange for third- and fourth-round selections next year.
“We’re going to try to be as aggressive as we can in terms of how we approach every decision, but we’re also going to be thinking in terms of one and two years ahead because you can’t operate in the NFL today if you think just to the next game or the next practice,” Lombardi said in a packed banquet hall at Tozzi’s on 12th. “You don’t really want to end up 5-11, 11-5 and back to 5-11.
“People say, ‘Well, you traded away a fourth- and a fifth-round pick. You could have had guys in those rounds that perhaps could have helped you.’ Yeah, we could have had guys perhaps, but we’re also trying to think in terms of six months, a year and moving forward. And I think the value always comes into play.”
A member of the audience quickly pointed out that every prominent figure of the expansion era has promoted the notion of building for the future. The man then demanded Lombardi to give him a time frame for a turnaround.
“I’m not sitting up here saying I’ve got a five-year plan — this is going to work,” Lombardi said. “I’m telling you we’re building something. I’m not saying it’s for the future because I think it’s all going to come down to us making sure we make good decisions and [we’re] moving forward. And I’m not asking for any more patience than anyone else.
“I’m just saying we’re going to build this thing the right way so we can sustain success. We’re certainly, by no means, thinking about giving up on the season — I’m too competitive — nor is [coach] Rob Chudzinski. We’re going to go in there and compete. We’ve got some pieces to compete with. This team last year was in a lot of close games [and] had a lot of opportunities in the fourth quarter. I think we can build on that.”
With Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s family business, Pilot Flying J, at the center of a federal investigation into an alleged fraud scheme, it’s impossible to ignore the possibility of his legal woes preventing the Browns from sustaining anything, let alone success.
“Our job is to keep working on the football team and keep doing the things we do,” Lombardi said. “And that’s what [Haslam] expects us to do, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
With that in mind, Lombardi addressed several other issues facing the team.
The Browns didn’t draft a quarterback and still have Brandon Weeden penciled in as their starter with Jason Campbell expected to push him this offseason. In his previous role as an analyst for NFL Network, Lombardi was critical of Weeden and has yet to endorse him since joining the Browns.
“Everything’s an evaluation,” Lombardi said. “We just have to keep going. Quarterback’s very important. I think Brandon’s a young player. It’s only his second year in the league. He’s got a great opportunity to demonstrate his talent. [Offensive coordinator] Norv [Turner] has been around some really good quarterbacks. Norv and Chud have been able to modify their system to utilize the talent level of the player.”
Lombardi, though, conceded seeing Weeden, the 22nd overall pick in last year’s draft, in his second season will help the new decision makers correctly judge him. He said talent evaluators need “enough of a sample size to make a decision” and avoided outlining his early impressions of Weeden.
“I think you have to know your team really well, and it can’t just be making quick decisions emotionally,” Lombardi said. “You have to really know your team.”
Lombardi indicated the Browns did not come close to drafting a quarterback in any round.
“I don’t think that was an area where I thought the value would’ve met the pick,” he said.
Still, there are almost always rumblings when it comes to the Browns and quarterbacks. After Lombardi’s appearance, news broke about the Arizona Cardinals releasing backup Brian Hoyer, who has been linked to the Browns for months.
This much is certain: Former Denver Broncos and New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow isn’t in the Browns’ plans.
“Unfortunately, Tim has to get somewhere where he can develop his skills as a passer,” Lombardi said. … “When you commit to Tim, like Denver did the last eight games of the season when Tim was playing, you’re committing to that whole style of play. It’s all or nothing and that becomes very difficult, and that’s kind of not the vision of where we’re headed.”
The Browns recently drafted Leon McFadden in the third round to compete for the starting cornerback job opposite Joe Haden, and other young players, Tashaun Gipson, Eric Hagg and rookie sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter, are in the mix for the starting free safety job.
“In the defensive backfield, ideally we would like to keep getting some players, in terms of keep evaluating,” Lombardi said.
He also added, “You can play with young players [in the secondary] if you can rush the passer.”
Many fans wonder whether free-agent free safety Kerry Rhodes will sign with the Browns because he played for defensive coordinator Ray Horton the past two years with the Cardinals.
“He’s a name out there,” Lombardi said. “We haven’t really done much at all. Right now, we’re focusing on the Cleveland Brown players and seeing where we are.”
Lombardi indicated Gipson would receive a legitimate chance to start.
“Gipson played last year, and he played well for the team,” Lombardi said. “So he’s going to get all the looks.”
When asked about improving the guard play, Lombardi said John Greco “was a really pleasant surprise” last season when he replaced Jason Pinkston in the starting lineup. Pinkston’s season was cut short after a blood clot was discovered in his lung, and now he’s trying to make a comeback.
Former Browns wide receiver and three-time Pro Bowl return man Josh Cribbs has reportedly visited the Oakland Raiders, New York Giants, New York Jets and Detroit Lions as a free agent. Lombardi sounded as if there’s not a good chance the Browns could pull off a surprise and bring back Cribbs.
“I think he wants the perfect opportunity,” Lombardi said. “I’m sure that what he finds and what we may talk about has to be perfect for both parties.”
On the agenda
Center Alex Mack and strong safety T.J. Ward headline the list of Browns players whose contracts are scheduled to expire next year. Lombardi indicated the team plans to work on extending those deals.
“I think that’s certainly on the list of things to do as we move forward,” he said. … “I think certainly those are good players. We just have to make sure we evaluate them. It’s got to be a fit within what they want to do and what we want to do.”
Lombardi doesn’t expect delays in signing outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, this year’s sixth overall selection, or the team’s other four draft picks because the new collective bargaining agreement has streamlined the process.
“I think the new system lets you make sure we’ll get that done,” he said.
Lombardi said the Browns are searching for new scouts after recently parting ways with several.
“We’re talking to people,” he said. “I think it’s about timing and making sure everything fits. I think there’s really not a rush.”
Lombardi said scouts weren’t in the Browns’ draft room this year, but the team’s brass relied on their written reports. He said that’s not an uncommon practice in the NFL.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.