November 21, 2014

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Browns GM Tom Heckert wants to finish what he started, but isn’t sure he’ll get the chance

BEREA — Browns general manager Tom Heckert sees the plan coming together. He likes the roster he infused with young talent and a few well-placed veterans. He believes his team will contend for the AFC

North next year.

He wants to see the project through to its fruition.

He knows that may not happen.

Heckert expects to learn his fate from new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner shortly after the season ends. There’s a strong possibility he isn’t retained.

“It would be disappointing,” Heckert said Friday in an informal sit-down with reporters. “But I do get it. It’s just one of those things.

“I think there’s a variety of reasons why that could happen, but I’m OK with that. I don’t know how else to react. If it doesn’t work out, I can’t just sit around and pout about it, I’ve got to go try to do it somewhere else.”

Even if Banner offers to keep Heckert, there could be a stumbling block. The restructuring of the organization has the coach and personnel department reporting to Banner. He would most likely control the finances of the football department, which could restrict the moves of the general manager.

Heckert left his GM job of four years in Philadelphia so he could have final decision-making on the roster. That includes whom to draft, sign and trade, and the power is spelled out in his contract.

“I’m not going to lie. It’s important. It’s why I came here,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s an end-all, but it’s very important to me.”

Heckert is in the third year of a five-year contract and rebuilding project. The plan didn’t include the sale of the franchise on the eve of training camp in July.

But that’s what happened. Randy Lerner sold to Haslam, who put Banner in charge and jettisoned president Mike Holmgren. Haslam and Banner have said they’ll decide after the season whether to keep Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur, among others.

Heckert said he doesn’t know what the decision will be and hasn’t asked. The regular-season finale is Dec. 30 in Pittsburgh and he expects to find out his fate “right away.”

Banner is widely expected to make a change. Multiple reports have NFL Network analyst and former Browns executive Michael Lombardi as a possible replacement.

“I really have no idea,” Heckert said. “That’s the honest truth. I can handle two weeks.

“I would love to (return). I really enjoy the city and I really enjoy this team and so that would be the ideal situation.”

Heckert’s dad, Tom, worked as a scout for the Browns in the 1980s. That’s one of the reasons this job holds special meaning.

“There’s no question about it,” Heckert said. “I was around when the fans were crazy and that’d be awesome to be back. The fans kinda see where it’s going. Eventually they’re going to see this team’s going to be pretty good.”

Heckert, who was hired by Holmgren in January 2010, talked to a group of reporters for the first time since training camp. His future’s been a popular topic on talk radio and many fans are campaigning for him to stay.

Heckert assumed some of the support is a backlash to the Lombardi rumors.

“I get teased about it a lot upstairs,” he said. “Obviously I don’t read a ton of stuff, but just being out and about, a lot of people come up and it’s great. I appreciate it. I really do.

“I guess it’s kind of funny. I don’t know if it’s the lesser of two evils. That’s what it seems like if we’re comparing me to people. I don’t know Mike at all. It’s just crazy. The positive part with me is fine. I don’t know why the other stuff is going on.”

Heckert has spent his three years transforming the roster from one of the NFL’s oldest to one of its youngest. The Browns lead the league with 72 starts by rookies. Indianapolis is second with 44.

Heckert drafted 11 of the starters and added six more through trades and free agency. He drafted the triumvirate of quarterback Brandon Weeden, running back Trent Richardson and receiver Josh Gordon this year.

“I like Brandon. I think he’s going to get better,” Heckert said. “I think he’s gotten better throughout the year. He has everything you want. I think he’s a good player.”

Heckert also added depth at many spots, particularly defensive tackle, where they’re five-deep.

“You can never say we’re there, but I think it’s getting closer to where we want to be,” he said.
Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas is one of the few starters Heckert inherited.

“It would be a shame if we let him go anywhere else,” Thomas said. “You can’t point to anything he’s really done wrong as far as all the moves he’s made. He’s really turned this roster over.”

Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson also preceded Heckert.

“I don’t know what it is that he finds in players and what he sees that other scouts don’t notice, but in two years, it’s been something I haven’t witnessed before since I’ve been here,” he said. “Not to take anything from the guys that were here in the past, but Tom’s a guru. He’s the reason why we’re having the success we are right now. If we can piece this thing together and keep this group together, I think the sky is the limit.”

Cleveland’s three-game winning streak and five wins in the last eight games have fans optimistic about the future and high on Heckert. He wishes the results would’ve come sooner this year, but is convinced the Browns will contend for the AFC North title next year. They’ve never won it.

“I really believe that. And that’s whether I’m here or not,” he said.

Heckert said one of the hardest things to accept if he leaves is that he wasn’t given the full five years he was promised.

“We were told, when I first came here, that you’ve got five years to fix this thing,” he said. “Things change. You’ve just got to roll with it. It’s something you’ll think about, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Heckert was his usual laid-back self during the interview, but he leaned forward in his chair when asked if he and Shurmur should be kept if Haslam wants to keep the train rolling.

“YES!!!” Heckert said. “Anytime you make changes it’s going to affect some things. I don’t know. I’m not the one that can answer that.

“I’m not saying you have to start all over, but it’s not going to be smooth. It’s just not.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

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• WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.
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