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Hiring of Lombardi raises eyebrows

Mike Lombardi returns to Cleveland with a clean slate, and lots to prove.

BEREA, Ohio - The latest re-shaping of the perennially losing and perpetually changing Cleveland Browns, a process that officially started with new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner taking over last October, is now complete at the highest levels.

Last week's hiring of Rob Chudzinski as head coach made sense, even as it didn't make much of a national splash. 

The newest and presumably last major move raises eyebrows. Michael Lombardi is in, officially, as vice president of player personnel. That means he gets a seat at the head table next to Banner. It's what Banner has had cooked up for months, a reunion with a friend from Banner's early days with the Philadelphia Eagles 15 years ago. For the second time in a week, the Browns introduced a man no other team was interviewing for a high-level job. 

Now, Banner's plan is out there. He's sticking his neck out, too. 

"Listen, I understand that I'm going out on the limb myself by hiring Mike," Banner said. "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."

Hiring a top personnel exec who spent the last five years working in television and is remembered in Cleveland for his role in the release of Bernie Kosar 20 years ago is indeed bold. Lombardi felt compelled to start his introductory press conference Friday by saying he's a different person and a different evaluator than he was in Cleveland in the early 1990's. Lombardi knows his reputation, even admits part of it is fair. 

"If I was the same guy who was here 20 years ago," Lombardi said, "I would say that Jimmy and Joe shouldn't have hired me."

That's one way to start. 

There's a reason NFL teams need a clean slate from time to time, and there are reasons the Browns seem to do this every other year. They need more players, better players — lots of them — and Haslam and Banner said Lombardi is the guy not just to find those players, but to build a winning team. 

Lombardi deserves that clean slate, too. The way the NFL is constantly changing, those 20 years since he was last here might as well be 200. And this version of the Browns isn't even the same organization it was back then. But Kosar's run of success in the late 1980's marks the last time the Browns had a quarterback, and that's the biggest reason the Browns have won a whole bunch of nothing in 14 seasons since re-entering the NFL. 

For what it's worth, Lombardi said he received a congratulatory text message from Kosar on Friday morning. For the sake of what's ahead, Lombardi said he'd only offer an evaluation on current Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden after he's watched a bunch more tape. As for Lombardi's on-air comment last season that the Browns drafting of Weeden last April was "a panicked disaster," Lombardi said, "I don't remember that."

Good will can only come with good wins. Big wins. Lots of them.

Haslam and Banner had better really believe what they were saying on Friday. 

Haslam: "Every person I talked to said ... if you can get Mike Lombardi as your GM, you should hire him immediately."

Banner: "We wanted somebody that understood how to put together a team, a consistent winner. Mike Lombardi will help us do this."

Lombardi's track record with the NFL Draft is far from stellar. Only the Raiders have lost more games in recent years than the Browns have, and Lombardi's been working in media since the Raiders let him go in May 2007. Lombardi and Banner said they've often talked about working together again since Lombardi was fired shortly after the Eagles' ownership change in 1998. 

Banner said he viewed that not as a failure by Lombardi, but as "a change in administration and leadership of team and the desire to get their people. I didn't view it as a negative or positive about Mike as much as it was a desire to put together a team the new group was comfortable with."

Banner said that no one in the Browns organization wields absolute power, that every decision will be a collaborative effort. Lombardi echoed that, as well as Banner's comments last week that Chudzinski will drive personnel decisions. Somebody will have to make the final call, and we'll see how that goes. 

"We’ve all got to get on the same page and we’ve all got to work together," Lombardi said. "I think that’s the most important thing. I hate to keep harking back to the Raiders, but titles were never important there. We just all worked. I think that’s all we have to do."

What we know now is that this call was clearly Banner's call, that Lombardi came ready to address his past and start anew with his future. Banner said Lombardi "was always a candidate," and Haslam said every recommendation came back glowing. 

This is what they have. Lombardi is who they have. 

"There are criticisms of Mike that are warranted based on who he had been," Banner said. "My assessment of my time with him is he’s changed and I think all he’s asking is for people to give him a fair opportunity and a fresh start, and then make a judgment whether they feel what he’s doing here both personally and professionally warrants them changing that opinion to the extent that they had it. 

"That’s all anybody is asking. Nobody’s standing here telling anybody that those aren’t valid or they should just forget them. We’ve made a judgment, give us a fair opportunity to be proven right or wrong."