Happy Wednesday, friends. Yesterday, a decent brouhaha erupted in my former stomping grounds of Cleveland, Ohio. It’s pretty widely assumed that, with the change in ownership, head coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert will be let go at season’s end.
New owners like to do their own thing, and when Jimmy Haslam hired Joe Banner to be team president, he brought in a guy who is going to certainly change the structure of the organization.
Banner was very successful in Philadelphia as the guy who ran the business end of things, and who oversaw contracts, financial, and cap strategy. I would expect that will be his role in Cleveland as well, and I'm interested to see how he comes out on Shurmur and Heckert, both of whom he knew from Philadelphia. If the Philly rumor mill is to be believed, the organization wasn't all that sad to see Heckert leave for Cleveland when he did, and that would seem to match the color of the smoke that's now coming out of the chimney.
ESPNCleveland.com’s Tony Grossi wrote a pretty scathing article yesterday about Lombardi, presumably trying to poison the well:
No relation to Vince, by the way: Lombardi arrived in Cleveland in 1987 as an energetic personnel wannabe after being fired by Bill Walsh in San Francisco.
After the Marty Schottenheimer and then Bud Carson eras crumbled, Lombardi latched on to Bill Belichick’s coattails and effectively undermined and marginalized Ernie Accorsi, the GM who built the Browns’ five playoff teams of the late 1980s.
Accorsi saw what was happening and departed in Belichick’s second season in 1992, leaving the young coach little choice but to rely on Lombardi for personnel decisions. Their five drafts together were some of the worst in Browns’ history.
Belichick cultivated much better talent off the field. While so many of his proteges went on to bigger and better things – Ozzie Newsome, Scott Pioli, Mike Tannenbaum, Phil Savage, Jim Schwartz, to name a few – Lombardi bounced around to mid-level personnel positions before settling in on his true calling as an “insider” on NFL Network.
Lombardi is known in NFL circles for soliciting job interviews with clubs, only to be repeatedly denied. Why wouldn’t Belichick hire him with the Patriots?
First of all, Grossi is a total hack, and he was fired last year by the Plain Dealer for over-the-line comments about former owner Randy Lerner. You know, I think that’s relevant when he wants to talk about how Lombardi has been fired from jobs.
I lived in Cleveland for 10+ years, so I’ve been exposed to a lot of Grossi’s writing and bloviating on TV and the radio. I hold his football knowledge in pretty low regard, and I’m not impressed that he’s been covering the Browns since 1984, or that he’s a voter for the Hall of Fame. His comments about Lombardi seem to me like he doesn’t like him personally, and that he’s grinding an axe.
Leaving all that aside, let’s assume that Lombardi is hired as the Browns GM. I’ve been a fan of Lombardi’s since he was one of the founders of National Football Post, because I think his combination of football knowledge and writing ability is rare and valuable.
As a personnel guy, Lombardi has had hits and misses, like anybody has. He’s been cast in a negative light by Al Davis, and contrary to what Grossi would have you believe, he’s held in high regard by Belichick. Belichick hired Lombardi’s son to work in the Patriots front office, and he’s said nice things about the father over the years.
In Michael Holley’s book War Room: The Legacy of Bill Belichick and the Art of Building the Perfect Team, a lot of time is devoted to discussing the collaboration that happened between Belichick and Lombardi in creating one universal scouting system, which was a major challenge. The pro scouts of the Browns were working with one grading system, and the college scouts were using another. There was no way to compare an NFL veteran with an incoming rookie, and to understand them in comparison with each other.
The real reason that Accorsi and a number of long-time Browns front office people were pushed out is that they were set in ways that Belichick found unacceptable. It was a tough slog, but he and Lombardi created a single grading system and evaluation methodology, and it’s the framework for what the Patriots still use to this day. It's also what the Broncos used under Josh McDaniels, and most likely, still use today, at least in some form. I’m speculating on this, but I think it’s likely since Matt Russell and Keith Kidd are still in the building, with Russell as the de facto GM.
Anyway, if Lombardi is hired in Cleveland, I expect that Josh McDaniels will be at the top of his coaching list. He has always defended Josh, and I think this article that he wrote upon his firing (which was, coincidentally, two years ago today) is very telling.
For what it’s worth, I think that Lombardi was exactly right; the Broncos wanted to change, but they weren’t committed to changing. Do you know why people have trouble quitting smoking? It's because they want to want to quit, and they know it's the right thing to do, but they don't really want to quit. There's no real commitment, and that's what it takes to overcome the difficult patches you go through. The firing of McDaniels and the hiring of John Elway was a return to the Broncos Way. Luckily for us as fans, it’s working very well. Truth be told, though, it’s mostly working because of Peyton Manning, who can make just about any Way work.
I hold McDaniels in a higher regard than most Broncos fans, and I do think that he’s going to be successful as a head coach if he ever gets the real opportunity to build his program. Lombardi is known to view the GM role as one that is best done behind the scenes, and in partnership with the head coach, like how he worked with Belichick in Cleveland. I think that arrangement would be best for McDaniels, and that partnership with a smart personnel guy would have helped him in Denver.
The best thing about McDaniels, even beyond his excellence in scheming, is that he’s able to use the talent he has, without preconceived notions of what they are, or how they’d fit into his scheme. Like Belichick, he’s shown a willingness to adapt his on-field strategy to match the players he has.
Remember, he recognized talent in Brandon Lloyd, and overlooked his reputation for having an attitude problem. When he returned to New England, he’s used Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez well, despite never having been particularly focused on incorporating tight ends before.
The implication of that flexibility, and predilection toward trying to employ the talent he has in the best way possible, is that a change in GM and head coach doesn’t mean that all the talent the Browns have acquired in the last couple years has to be flushed. McDaniels could work with young guys like QB Brandon Weeden, RB Trent Richardson, RT Mitchell Schwartz, WRs Josh Gordon, Greg Little, and Travis Benjamin, and craft an offense that works well.
McDaniels is from Canton, which is an hour south of Cleveland. When I went there for Floyd Little’s induction into the Hall of Fame in 2010, we briefly met Josh’s mom on the street, and said hello. Josh played college ball for John Carroll University, which is on the east side of Cleveland. Coming to the Browns would be a homecoming for him.
I am obviously speculating on something which would be the result of another bit of speculation coming true. I just see Lombardi and Banner looking very hard at McDaniels, and I see him being interested in coming to Cleveland. If they’re given time to build the team, which I think they would be, I think we’ll see a lot of folks who trash McDaniels changing their tune one day, like old-time Browns fans have done about Belichick. And by old-time fans, I partially mean everybody at the Plain Dealer, and especially Grossi himself. You never see any of them casting Belichick as a fool, like they relentlessly did in the 90s. It was a lot like how the Denver Post got McDaniels run out of Denver. Someday, Woody Paige is going to tell us all about how he knew all along that Josh had what it took to be good, if only he'd listened to good advice when he was younger.
Well, Grossi is the only person left who claims to be credible about football who thinks that cutting Bernie Kosar was a mistake. (His career stats after leaving the Factory of Sadness - 141 completions, 215 attempts, 1,397 yards, 8 TDs, 6 INTs.) Of course, he has a shot at Lombardi in there, to make it easier to support the thesis, because nobody is buying the “Belichick-as-dumbass” narrative anymore.