Lombardi gets second chance with Browns

BEREA – The heavy lifting is done. Now it’s time to put the pieces together.

The Browns have scattered plenty of debris in the last 14 seasons. With Rob Chudzinski in place as the franchise’s 14th head coach and Michael Lombardi on board as vice-president/director of player personnel, it’s now up to time to decide if the maneuvering of owner James Haslam will work.

Lombardi joins the Browns after spending the previous five seasons working for the “NFL Network.” He brings 22 years of NFL experience in the front office, including nine with the Browns (1987-95) as pro personnel director and director of player personnel.

Lombardi left no doubt that he’s ecstatic about getting a second chance in Cleveland. He said it was surreal walking into the building.

“I’m really ready,” Lombardi said of the challenge. “I’ve been resting for five years. I’m ready to work.”

Haslam and CEO Joe Banner sat next to Lombardi during his introductory press conference. Haslam relied heavily on the recommendations of other front office people in the NFL in making the call.

Haslam and Banner were sold on Lombardi’s passion and knowledge of the NFL game. His ability to evaluate talent was extremely important in the final decision.

“When Joe and I started talking about what we wanted for our general manager, we talked about two things – one, an outstanding talent evaluator, and we wanted someone who understood how to put together a team,” Haslam said.

“As we started to focus on this, I had the opportunity to talk to some in the business who I respect; these are people that are at the very top of the NFL business. Without exception, every one of them said this – if you can get Mike Lombardi to be your general manager, you should hire him immediately.”

Banner played a big role in the decision. He worked with Lombardi in Philadelphia for two seasons (1996-97) and was impressed by Lombardi’s contributions in the 1998 draft that landed future Pro Bowlers in offensive lineman Tra Thomas, linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, returner Allen Rossum and linebacker Ike Reese.

“He was an integral part of two drafts and free-agent signings,” Banner said. “The second draft, if you broke it down, was one of the best drafts you saw anybody have and ended up being part of what became four (NFC) Championship appearance teams.

“He went on to Oakland, which had been struggling, and had a series of playoff appearances and a Super Bowl appearance. I can tell you that I’ve spent time with some excellent talent evaluators in this league, and there’s no question when it comes to that, he’s near or at the top of quality talent evaluators in this league.”

Lombardi had been rumored to the Browns since Haslam assumed ownership last summer and Banner was considered the frontrunner as president and CEO. The rumors weren’t received well by several media members and a large portion of the fan base because of his tenure with the Browns.

He first came to Cleveland at the end of the Bernie Kosar era of the late 1980s. He ascended up the power structure and eventually worked hand-in-hand on talent procurement with former coach Bill Belichick starting in 1991. The Browns had a collective 36-44 record in five seasons leading up to the team’s move to Baltimore in 1996.

Belichick and Lombardi had several misses on draft selections. Most notable were the failed first-round picks of running back Tommy Vardell and linebacker Craig Powell.

“We made mistakes in the draft, there’s no question about that,” Lombardi said. “When you scout, if you don’t learn from your mistakes you’re going to make them again. We put together a team in ’94 that won 11 games and went to the divisional round. It was a learning experience.”

A possible problem area for Lombardi comes from his work for the NFL Network. He was critical of some of the moves made by the Browns, including the selection of quarterback Brandon Weeden in the first round and the use of a 2013 second-round choice on receiver Josh Gordon in a supplemental draft.

Lombardi said it was all part of doing his job as an analyst. He joked when reminded that, upon hearing news of Lombardi’s arrival in Cleveland, Gordon tweeted, “Oh, oh, am I in trouble?”

“Based on twitter, that’s a really good tweet,” Lombardi said. “I’ll take that one. Trust me, Josh Gordon has nothing to worry about.”

Browns’ fans want to believe they have nothing to worry about with Lombardi now in town, but it’s a hard sell.