BEREA: Instead of grinding away in a front office, Mike Lombardi has spent the past five years sitting in front of a camera and rattling off opinions as an analyst for the NFL Network.
But Lombardi always wanted to break back into the business ever since the Oakland Raiders fired him in May 2007, and his wish has been granted. Owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner named Lombardi the Browns’ vice president of player personnel Friday morning.
It will be Lombardi’s second tour in Cleveland, where several members of the media have criticized him and protested his anticipated reunion with the Browns for months. Lombardi, though, did his best to disarm the skeptics during his introductory news conference, insisting he is a changed man determined to prove them wrong.
“I know the expectations, and I know the reactions as I walk in here,” said Lombardi, whose previous stint with the Browns was from 1987-95. “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.
“Look, there is a great passion for football in this town. Whether it was a positive reaction or a negative reaction, the reaction is important because that’s how important football is. It’s my job to prove the reaction to be positive.”
Although he will not hold the title of general manager, Lombardi will head the organization’s 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 Lombardi replaces Heckert as the organization’s top personnel chief.
Banner and Lombardi worked together for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1997-98 and remained friends. Banner said Lombardi interviewed with the Browns twice and for the first time last week. But reports forecasting Lombardi’s return to Cleveland had repeatedly surfaced since October.
“We kind of loosely joked with each other about possibly working together someday 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.”
Haslam said he’s all in with Lombardi. Kansas City Chiefs director of pro personnel Ray Farmer is the only other candidate known to have interviewed with the Browns.
“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.’ ”
However, Lombardi won’t be the ultimate authority when it comes to trading, signing and drafting players. Neither Banner nor Lombardi would reveal who has final say on roster decisions, but Haslam announced on Oct. 16 that football operations would report to Banner. In other words, Banner has significant power in those aforementioned areas, and he wants to use a collaborative process to make important calls and acquire the types of players who fit well with Chudzinski’s plan.
“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.”
Lombardi, 53, certainly will be a key part of it. Although he hasn’t started dissecting film on college prospects, Lombardi said he’s ready to dive into preparations for the draft, which will begin April 25.
“I’m really ready,” Lombardi said. “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.”
Lombardi also needs to evaluate the players on the Browns’ roster and perhaps approach some of them the way he approached reporters Friday after the news conference when he asked for a fresh start and a clean slate. In his role as an analyst, Lombardi called the choice to draft quarterback Brandon Weeden 22nd overall last year a panicked disaster and questioned Heckert’s selection of wide receiver Josh Gordon in the 2012 supplemental draft.
After news of Lombardi joining the Browns broke, Gordon tweeted, “Uh oh. Am I in trouble?”
“Josh Gordon, trust me, he has nothing to worry about,” Lombardi said when told about the tweet. “In fact, he can have my Twitter account if he likes because I’m about to close that thing down.”
As for Weeden, Lombardi said he must watch practice film before drawing his final conclusions.
“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.” He added it’s important for new offensive coordinator Norv Turner to spend time with Weeden and evaluate him.
So Lombardi is asking the public for patience before he discusses the roster. He’s also hoping Browns fans use a wait-and-see approach when it comes to his return.
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 Browns moved to Baltimore following the 1995 season. From 1991-95, Lombardi and Belichick drafted only one player who made the Pro Bowl.
“We made mistakes in the draft,” Lombardi said. “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. Trust me, we’ve all looked at the draft of Cleveland. Belichick and I sit together, we look at it and we talk about it. But we learn from it.”
Haslam and Banner are counting on that.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. 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.