Marla Ridenour: Browns need a strong football man as GM, and it’s not Mike Lombardi

By Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal sports columnist

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Hiring Mike Lombardi would be the biggest mistake in the history of the Browns.

OK, firing Paul Brown and moving the team to Baltimore, both coming on Art Modell’s watch, were far worse. But my reaction — one I actually uttered — shows how strongly the possibility of bringing in Lombardi as the Browns’ next general manager angers me.

For a franchise plagued by incompetence and disastrous decisions, letting Lombardi set foot in Berea in anything but an NFL Network capacity would be a Herculean gaffe that would sap every ounce of enthusiasm I have for the Jimmy Haslam era.

The new owner brought energy and excitement not just to a beleaguered fan base, but to a beleaguered media corps that does not relish covering one of the league’s laughingstocks, although Bill Belichick once begged to differ. Count me among the downtrodden.

Now if the drumbeats in the distance that grew louder last weekend are any indication, Haslam and CEO Joe Banner could be poised to quash our hopes.

Lombardi spent 1987-95 with the Browns, rising from scout to pro personnel director to player personnel director. He did little to distinguish himself save for his advocacy of a “black box” device to test agility and speed, which seems almost laughable now.

More important, under Belichick from 1991-95, Lombardi was responsible for such first-round draft busts as Tommy Vardell and Craig Powell. Taken 30th in 1995, Powell, a linebacker, was one of five players I predicted the Browns would select because Lombardi spoke of him so glowingly and because he fit Belichick’s chart of measurables for his position. On draft night, Ohio State assistant Fred Pagac told me Powell should have stayed in school another year. When the Browns tabbed Vardell, a running back, ninth overall in 1992, I lamented they had no version of Stanford left tackle Bob Whitfield to block for “Touchdown Tommy.”

The Browns’ 40 draft picks during the five-year Belichick-Lombardi regime produced one Pro Bowler, safety Eric Turner, and he was their first choice. Fifteen of the 40 never made the team as rookies, although all were late-rounders.

Their two most productive years were 1991 and 1993, even though the players chosen — Ed King, James Jones, Pio Sagapolutele and Michael Jackson in ’91 and Steve Everitt, Dan Footman, Mike Caldwell and Herman Arvie in ’93 — produced only one playoff season. First-rounders Antonio Langham and Derrick Alexander in 1994 were reliable starters, Langham playing seven years in the league for four teams, Alexander nine years for four teams.

But that’s hardly a glowing resume for a team that was never slated to pick lower than 10th in the first round (before trades) during those five years.

The fact that Belichick, now the longtime New England Patriots coach, never hired Lombardi again — although Lombardi’s 23-year-old son, Mick, is a Patriots’ scouting assistant this season ­— tells me all I need to know. Lombardi’s other tours of duty with the Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos have been with teams where a powerful figure above him (i.e. Al Davis, Bill Walsh and Mike Shanahan) called the shots.

With his capacity to memorize facts and deliver them eloquently, Lombardi seems much better suited to what he’s doing now than returning to the NFL after a five-year absence.

When Lombardi’s name first surfaced in connection with the Browns over a month ago, I dismissed it as a rumor started by Lombardi in his attempt to get hired by an NFL team. Perhaps that’s all it is now. But it gained credibility last weekend, when Hub Arkush, editor of and publisher of Pro Football Weekly for 31 years, reported on his syndicated radio show that Lombardi would likely become the Browns’ GM after the season. Lombardi and Banner worked together with the Eagles in 1997-98.

In an exclusive interview with the Beacon Journal last month, Banner refused to engage in the Lombardi speculation, saying he hadn’t decided if he was making a GM change. He said in the past he preferred his coach to have final say on the 53-man roster.

But my beef is not all about Lombardi. I would prefer the Browns retain some semblance of continuity by keeping GM Tom Heckert, but my priority is finding a place for a strong football man in the organizational chart as Haslam and Banner restructure.

Since the team returned in 1999, the GM position had for the most part been a black hole until Heckert arrived in 2010. Think of the motley crew of Dwight Clark, Pete Garcia and George Kokinis. Some would argue that streak ended with Phil Savage in 2005. But even as Browns fans saved Savage in a power struggle with President John Collins at the end of the 2005 season, they learned three years later that Savage’s scouting talents weren’t enough to right a floundering ship. Heckert’s might.

I don’t want the Browns to repeat the sins of the past by bringing back one of its sinners (Lombardi). But as Haslam and Banner reinvent the organization, I also don’t want them to sacrifice the best football man they’ve had in 14 years without finding an even better football man to take his place.

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.


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