No more hiding for Banner, Lombardi
Eleven or so months after starting the move into his position of power with the Cleveland Browns, there is no more anonymity for Joe Banner.
As for the only general manager in pro sports who wouldn't attend the type of press conference the Browns held Wednesday night after trading Trent Richardson, Mike Lombardi clearly does what Banner says.
The newest new guys calling the shots for the Browns on Wednesday pulled the trigger on the trade of Richardson to the Colts for a 2014 first-round pick. Banner and Lombardi pulled the plug on the Browns 2013 season after two miserable games, pointing towards the future and making themselves the stars of this reality show -- a show that's consistently been more unpredictable than any on TV as the on-field results have consistently landed the Browns in the top 10 of each spring's draft.
This time, they're going for the gusto. It's top three or bust, preferably No. 1, and all they had to do to start filling the numerous holes the roster they inherited has is create another one. Banner and Lombardi's philosophy in trying to return the Browns to NFL relevance is clear: If you can't beat anyone, try to outsmart 'em all.
Now, we wait to see if they actually can.
The Browns have been so bad for so long -- earlier Wednesday, new head coach Rob Chudzinski announced the 19th different quarterback to start for the franchise since 1999 -- that there was no quick-fix for this group. Banner and Lombardi knew that last offseason and went forward accordingly, investing in making the defensive front seven the strength of the team and choosing to give second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden another shot to prove himself, thinking they already knew the answer.
They kept more than $20 million in salary-cap money unused, went young in the secondary and thin at other spots, hired a first-time coach and very well-paid, well-respected coordinators and asked them to see what they might be able to do. The Browns have one touchdown in two games, Weeden has a thumb injury, Richardson couldn't find daylight or a way to snap out of whatever mysterious funk he was in and now the 12 rookies on the roster have their welcome to the NFL business moment.
There's still a chance this is the best plan for the long term. For now, though, it's simply a bold and unique one.
The guys upstairs are now the guys out front. The 52 players in the locker room, long sent home after a day's work before the trade of the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft became official, have a game on Sunday to keep preparing for and 13 more after that. No NFL player is guaranteed tomorrow, but these guys are left to trust that the Browns will be trying to win as early as next September.
The Browns are tanking this season to get a quarterback and a bunch of younger, hopefully more talented guys to place around him, and they're not interested in even beginning to hide it. Forget "Steady For Teddy" or any other cutely-named campaign in the mold of the "Suck For Luck" that surrounded the Peyton Manning-less Colts landing the top overall pick following the 2011 season. The Browns are just waving the white flag and pointing the car towards the future.
That car is used to going in a circle.
Jimmy Haslam taking ownership last fall provided a new start, but through two games and this surprising trade of Richardson they've very much looked and operated like the same old Browns. Besides approximately 2.4 yards, a cloud of dust and a bunch of delay of game penalties, the blueprint has looked this: Old administration fails. New administration enters, places lots of blame, points toward future and washes hands of old administration's mistakes.
For the Browns, it happened in 2001, in 2005, in 2009, in 2010 and it's happening again now. It just hasn't usually happened this quickly.
Or this boldly.
When the NBA season tips off next month, there are going to be a few hapless teams tanking in hopes of winning that league's 2014 lottery. The Browns, forever fourth in the AFC North, look like they're trying to become a model. Even as past Browns executive teams became so good at being so bad, they were consistently bad enough to pick third in the following year's draft. Or seventh. Banner and Lombardi's journey towards being better than previous bad groups might as well start with trying to be the worst.
The shock of seeing Richardson moved so abruptly will eventually wear off. Though it may lead to other Browns players looking over their shoulders and wondering who's next, Banner said at an obviously impromptu news conference Wednesday night that the team isn't looking to make any more trades.
And that leads to what everybody with any ounce of anything invested in the Browns -- one replica jersey, one season ticket, a one-year contract or the chance to be a core player on what's clearly going to be a Banner-driven core -- has to do. Trust him.
He's made it so there's no other choice.
"We have to earn the belief and trust (of the fans) in the decisions we're going to make as a group, and I don't expect them to trust that until we prove that the trust is well placed," Banner said. "So, I understand the skepticism for now. We have to do what we think is right, move the franchise forward and get it to where we want it to be."
That these Browns don't have a quarterback or any certain answers at any offensive skill position in a passing league isn't breaking news. What Banner and Lombardi did last year in free agency and in last year's draft more than anything was defer, delay and push chips toward the future. They sold off a really nice chip in Richardson, and they parlayed that with the possibility that he may not immediately snap out of whatever slump he's been in and that the banged-up Colts might have used up all their Luck -- pun intended -- in the last 20 months.
Only in Cleveland and only with the Browns could each Sunday's result involving a team 300 miles away matter more internally than the one with the actual Browns team, but this is both a new era and a new reality. Banner's in charge, teams around the league know how to reach Lombardi and their grand vision might only include a handful of players on the current roster. Banner is smart and wants everybody to know it; he's smart enough to know now that everybody's watching him.
More important than profile or perception, though, is this: Banner and Lombardi have dubbed nearly every key move Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert made a mistake. They've left the future of the franchise to their own decisions, and in doing so they've absolutely no one else to blame.