BEREA, Ohio — Based on his past draft failures at the foot of a future hall of fame coach in Cleveland, I feel as strongly as ever that the Browns' hiring of Mike Lombardi as vice president of player personnel was a colossal mistake.
Even after listening to Friday's plaudits from owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner and the polished comments from the ever-eloquent Lombardi, I can't endorse the decision.
To go down that second-chance path with Lombardi will require me to believe that Lombardi is a changed man.
Sorry, Mike, but that could take awhile.
It's not that I don't believe people can change, or at least learn from their mistakes. Bill Belichick, the aforementioned hall of famer, certainly did, albeit with one of the game's greatest quarterbacks at his side.
In his past incarnation in Berea from 1987 to 1995, Lombardi seemed obsessed with advancing his career. During Belichick's five drafts starting in 1991, which included Ernie Accorsi serving as general manager the first year and Lombardi as player personnel director for only the last two, the Browns had 40 draft picks and selected only one Pro Bowler. That was their first choice, safety Eric Turner. They were never slated to pick lower than 10th.
Banner knows that bringing in Lombardi as part of the collaborative team with himself, Haslam and new coach Rob Chudzinski was not a popular move. Banner worked with Lombardi from 1997-98 with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Listen, I understand that I'm going out on the limb myself by hiring Mike,” Banner said Friday. “So I didn't do this casually. I've spent a lot of time talking to him about everything that matters before I put him in front of Jimmy or Chud. 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.”
Lombardi fell on his sword in his introductory remarks, saying: “When we left in ‘96 after the team moved it was as heartbreaking for me as it was for all of you and I think we've all grown from those days. I know I have. I think I stand in front of you different professionally and personally and with more passion than ever.”
Skeptics might be snorting into their cereal bowls at that notion.
“Any time you grow older you change,” said Lombardi, 53. “We change the way we scout, we change the way we believe things. If I were the same guy that was here 20 years ago, I would say Jimmy and Joe shouldn't have hired me.”
Banner believes Lombardi got a “wake-up call” spending the past five years out of the league.
“He's very introspective and I don't know if I would have used that word 15 years ago,” Banner said. “I think his sense of self and his awareness of self is dramatically different. He was always very analytical. ‘What was I thinking? What happens now? What did I do wrong?' In that respect he was always learning from his mistakes. I'm not sure he was always that way personally as much as he is now.”
Banner said Lombardi now looks within himself rather than “blindly proceeding or blaming someone else or something else.”
Lombardi said some of his growth came from frequent talks with Belichick. They have dissected all the Browns' drafts.
“We talk quite a bit about this place and this building,” said Lombardi, whose son Mick is a Patriots scouting assistant.
Lombardi's recent stint at the NFL Network also helped him because of his access to the library of tape at NFL Films and the interviews he did with coaches. With those resources, he reassessed how to scout and how to do things over.
“I used to have a sign at my office at the Oakland Raiders that said, ‘If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less,' ” Lombardi said, quoting retired U.S. Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki, the first Asian-American to become a four-star general.
As insistent as Lombardi was that he's learned from the past, the Browns were still in full damage-control mode.
In his eagerness to get the choice embraced, Haslam joined Banner on that somewhat shaky limb. Haslam said he talked to several of the “most respected” people “at the very top of the NFL business” in their search for a player personnel director.
“Without exception every one of them said, ‘If you can get Mike Lombardi to be your general manager you should hire him immediately,' ” Haslam said.
That led some to wonder if those were executives from the AFC North.
That wasn't the only spin. The Browns announced the hiring of Ray Horton as defensive coordinator before the 6 o'clock news. They distributed a sheet of quotes about Lombardi more quickly than they did for Chudzinski, then came out with a second. Seated along the wall were Lombardi's wife, Millie, celebrating her birthday, and son Matthew, a senior at the University of Delaware, whose presence might have toned down some of the questions.
The Browns invited a few writers upstairs to a conference room to talk to Lombardi, who was kind to his detractors.
“I've done your job, I've been in the media, I understand criticism,” Lombardi said. “I just ask you we start clear, and if I make mistakes or you think I'm making mistakes, I have no problem with it. I'd like it not to be as personal as perhaps sometimes it is, but I can't control what you write. I'm just asking for a fair and honest chance to move forward.”
Fair and honest is a reasonable request. But until I see him in action, I can't be convinced of Lombardi's transformation.
Distributed by MCT Information Services