Questioning the Browns' front-office moves

The Browns' additions to the front office have a lot to prove, and a long way to go to get fan approval.

Mike Lombardi’s hiring as Vice President of Player Personnel of the Cleveland Browns became official on Friday when the team held a press conference to welcome him.

The question is how long he’s been working “unofficially” for the Browns, and how the hire plays with fans.

Shortly after the Browns press conference ended, new Indians manager Terry Francona sat down with Matt Underwood for a 1 p.m. Town Hall Meeting with season ticket holders at Ideastream downtown.

During pre-Meeting small talk, the hiring of Lombardi came up and Underwood asked the crowd for its reaction.

There were nothing but boos.

This does not mean Lombardi can’t succeed, of course, just that he has a perception mountain to climb. Especially since he was hired after months of the Browns skirting around reports that he would be hired. The scene of Lombardi in December talking around the Browns on a TV show on Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia, then having one of the hosts say “Enjoy Cleveland, Mike” comes to mind.

The Browns released several statements praising Lombardi, one from Belichick and another from broadcaster Jim Nantz, an admitted close friend of Lombadi. The team also touted Lombardi's experience in San Francisco -- where he was fired by Bill Walsh. NFL types seem to have no middle ground with him, calling him anything from smart to political, knowledgeable to a climber.

Owner Jimmy Haslam said he heard consistently from people he respects that ‘If you can get Mike Lombardi to be your GM, you should hire him immediately.”

No other team chose to interview Lombardi this offseason.

At this point, the team’s front office structure as it comes to football comes down to Lombardi and CEO Joe Banner making personnel decisions along with coach Rob Chudzinski. Chudzinski’s wishes will be heard, of course, and the team will certainly try to build a roster to fit his system, but he’s never been a head coach and never been involved in personnel. Which means the personnel side will be driven by a business-guy-turned-football-guy and a Player Personnel guy who has not worked in Player Personnel since he volunteered in Denver five years ago, a guy who has had two front office job interviews the past five years, one with the Browns.

The Browns said at Friday’s news conference that things did not come together with Lombardi until the last week or two, and Lombardi said he worked with NFL Network until the Browns hired him.

But Lombardi’s name came up almost immediately after Banner joined the Browns, and in November and December he was reported as signed and sealed by national outlets. 

In early December, in response to a question, the Browns passed along the word that Lombardi’s hiring was far less likely than reports were making it.

Thursday, when presented with information that Lombardi had been advising Banner for some time, the Browns dismissed the information and said if Banner talked to Lombardi about coaching hires he was merely one of 100 people Banner spoke with.

The next day they hired him.

The clear impression is the Browns did all they could to neuter the trail, when in fact the role of Lombardi behind the scenes in the team’s hiring was a big part of the chatter in the NFL.

The day after the season ended, one NFL insider pointed out Lombardi had been maneuvering for Tom Heckert’s former job for some time.

This week, several insiders (they asked not to be named … which is something teams, like the Browns, also do when they want to make a point) said Lombardi’s connections with Norv Turner were no coincidence in his hiring by the Browns as offensive coordinator.

Several respected national writers broke the news of Turner’s hiring within minutes of the news that Chudzinski was hired as coach -- almost as if they were a tandem.

Insiders pointed out Turner and Lombardi worked together when Turner was coach of Oakland and Lombardi was in the front office -- though Turner and Chudzinski also worked together in San Diego.

Some went as far as to say Turner was hired before Chudzinski, which is possible but would be highly unusual, and that Chudzinski was hired to help get Turner. The Browns called that notion absurd. Then the team downplayed Lombardi’s influence. His hiring was announced the next day.

Teams of course don’t have to reveal their plans. But being misleading speaks to the front office approach and to credibility and trust, all of which matter.

It’s also true that in Turner and defensive coordinator Ray Horton, the Browns have given Chudzinski two strong hires in key spots. If the team wins and Lombardi brings in the right guys, that will change the boos.

But … the team also announced Horton’s hiring without letting defensive coordinator Dick Jauron know about it, a common professional courtesy. Jauron heard of his replacement being hired from the media. The only contact Jauron -- one of the league’s classier men -- had with the team was a voice mail from Chudzinski telling him he could interview for other jobs, but he had to seek permission. That essentially was no contact, because owner Jimmy Haslam made that fact clear the day after the season ended.

The disingenuousness of the way things have played out has to be considered, at best, quirky.

The Browns fired a general manager whom they said gave the team a solid foundation and had the team in excellent salary cap shape. They brought in a guy who hasn’t worked in a front office since 2007. They misled when asked questions about the guy they wound up hiring.

An owner has the right to make changes, of course, but the way it played out seems … interesting. Few front office types would accept a GM/personnel job without the juice that goes with it. Except someone from TV who has not had a job with a team in some time. Heck, Chip Kelly talked to the Browns for seven hours, then said Philadelphia was the place he could win.

Lombardi, Banner and Haslam all pointed out that dealing with negativity has helped Lombardi, and he said he’s changed from when he previously worked in Cleveland.

He has a chance to prove it.

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