As the 2012 season comes to a close, in what seems to be an annual practice, big change is expected in Cleveland. With new owner Jimmy Haslem and new president Joe Banner running the show, they will almost certainly bring in their own head coach and general manager.
This would signal the end of Tom Heckert’s tenure as Cleveland’s GM. Despite his impeding discharge, Heckert has vastly improved the talent base of the Browns. The former Eagles GM came in with a bare cupboard, thanks to the poor personnel decisions of his predecessors Phil Savage and George Kokinis. Heckert did a nice job in the last two drafts in obtaining some much-needed building blocks, yet his moves haven’t carried over to the win column as the Browns have posted double digit losses in each of his three seasons.
It appears as if there will be another changing of the guard at a position that has served as a perpetual revolving door since Cleveland returned to the NFL. At the top of Haslem and Banner’s list for general manager is current NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi. Undoubtedly, this raises several questions. What would be the draw of Lombardi for the job? What will he be able to do differently from the myriad of GM’s this franchise has seen since its reincarnation? How will he fit with the Browns?
Lombardi has no shortage of experience evaluating talent for successful organizations. From 1984 to 1987, he served as a top scout for the 49ers, reporting directly to Bill Walsh. He then moved on to Cleveland, where he spent ten seasons working his way up to Director of PLayer Personnel. After Modell moved the team to Baltimore, Lombardi left Cleveland, coming to Oakland in 1999. He spent eight seasons working closely alongside Al Davis as the senior personnel executive. After his four decades in the field scouting and player personnel evaluation, Lombardi has spent his last five years as a television analyst and sportswriter. However, Lombardi has kept himself plugged into the game by unofficially consulting for Bill Belichick, regularly providing him with advanced scouting and game plans.
Lombardi, despite his experience, does have questions surrounding his draft deicisions. Lombardi was largely responsible for Browns first round busts like Tommy Vardell and Craig Powell. Simply put, with over 40 draft picks in Cleveland, Lombardi selected just one Pro Bowler (Eric Turner). In fairness, both Belichick and Lombardi never got to see out the vision they had for the organization, but then again, neither will Heckert.
In addition to his years of experience and connection to pre-1999 Cleveland football, Lombardi bring one other key advantage. Lombardi is likely the only person that could deliver Nick Saban as the Browns’ head coach. According to NFL sources, Saban has “let it be known that if he returns to the NFL … it would likely be with Lombardi playing Pioli to his Belichick.” If Saban returns to the NFL he wants someone who is familiar with his system, which is very similar to the Belichick personnel system. Lombardi and Saban worked together during the 90s, when Saban was the Browns’ defensive coordinator and Lombardi was the Director of Player Personnel.
If Lombardi is unable to persuade Saban, look for Josh McDaniels to be the choice. Despite his poor political skills during his two seasons in Denver, McDaniels is a brilliant offensive mind and could benefit from a second chance as his mentor Bill Belichick did. “I believe McDaniels will one day be a successful head coach,” Lombardi wrote for NFL.com two years ago. “I believe this because I know what it takes to be successful in the league. His teams might not have been the most talented, but they were well-coached, well-designed and well-prepared.”
Bottom line: Lombardi appears to be the clear front-runner for the general manager position; however, his ultimate success likely hinges on his ability to bring Saban back with him to the shores of Lake Erie.
What do you think of Mike Lombardi? Is he an improvement over Heckert? Can he get Nick Saban back to Cleveland? Let me know on Twitter @steveschindler!