The Cleveland fans remembered Lombardi, not so fondly, from his nine years (1987-95) under former owner Art Modell in the personnel department. He had climbed to director of player personnel in 1993, reporting only to coach Bill Belichick, then was dumped as part of Modell’s move to Baltimore.
The fans’ bitterness combined with biting criticism from media members who worked with Lombardi two decades ago created a tornado of trepidation after multiple reports that Lombardi was the favorite to become the next general manager. The possibility of his return created a surge in former GM Tom Heckert’s popularity and widespread worry for months.
Owner Jimmy Haslam and Banner weren’t deterred and hired Lombardi on Friday as vice president of player personnel. The Browns won’t have a general manager and he’ll run the personnel department.
Lombardi said he was “humbled and honored” to be back and is motivated to prove people wrong.
“I know the expectations and the reactions as I walk in here, but I take them as a positive,” he said. “I never shied away from a challenge. I’m excited for it and I think I’m ready to do it because I want to do it.
“There is a great passion for football in this town. To me, whether it was a positive reaction or a negative reaction, the reaction is important because that’s how important football is. It’s my job to prove the reaction to be positive.”
Haslam again took charge of a news conference and declared Lombardi “stood out in a very strong field.” Haslam said he had met Lombardi before but didn’t really get to know him until the last couple of weeks, when his passion for football was obvious.
He relied on Banner, who worked with Lombardi in Philadelphia in 1997-98. They stayed in touch, and Banner said they discussed players and working together again. SiriusXM Radio’s Adam Caplan reported Lombardi has been advising Banner for months, but both denied it.
Banner was asked if the negative perception in Cleveland is fair.
“There’s criticisms of Mike that are warranted based on who he had been and I think he feels like and my assessment of my time with him is he’s changed,” he said, “and I think all he’s asking is for people to give him a fair opportunity and a fresh start.”
Lombardi has 22 years of NFL experience but has spent the past five years as an analyst for NFL Network. He said he was waiting for the right fit with a team and found it in his former home.
Lombardi wasn’t linked with any of the other six general manager openings, but Haslam insisted people across the league said he was too good to let get away. He’s not worried Lombardi has been out of the game long enough for the Browns to have hired three coaches.
“He wants to win and he wants to win badly,” Haslam said. “I know we got the very best possible person to be a GM.”
“I missed Sundays at 1 o’clock and I really wanted to get back in the league,” Lombardi said.
Banner was specific in the qualities he appreciates in Lombardi, who last worked for a team from 1999-2007 with the Raiders. Banner said the Browns, Eagles and Raiders improved during Lombardi’s tenures and the playoff trips and Super Bowl loss are proof.
“What differentiated Mike was the idea of building teams versus picking players,” Banner said. “There are too many teams that end up with a bunch of really good players and they go 9-7 but they’re not championship-caliber teams.
“I feel like I have as first-of-hand knowledge of his ability to evaluate players, which is the most important thing he’s going to do, as I could possibly have on anybody we would hire. I also witnessed Mike hire young scouts and see them develop.”
Banner and Lombardi downplayed questions of who has final say over personnel decisions, saying they’ll use a collaborative effort. Banner wants consensus among himself, Haslam, Lombardi, coach Rob Chudzinski and whoever else might be involved in a particular decision, such as a high draft pick, trade or free-agent signing.
“We probably won’t do things about which we don’t have consensus. So we really won’t ever get into who has the final say,” Banner said.
“You get a lot of smart people in a room you’re going to make a smart decision,” said Lombardi, who called a congratulatory call from former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar “huge.”
Lombardi’s primary job is to stock the roster with the type of player Chudzinski desires. Lombardi said he’s watched a little film on draft-eligible players and will have to get up to speed with the Senior Bowl next week, the combine next month and the draft in April. The Browns have the No. 6 pick.
Lombardi and Chudzinski didn’t know each other, but are the two most important hires of Haslam and Banner. Chudzinski got the job Jan. 10.
“Not having a relationship always makes it difficult,” Lombardi said. “Tapes are sometimes your relationships with coaches, and his tape was good.”
Lombardi declined to assess the roster, saying he needs to watch more film of games and practices. He said the most important thing is correctly evaluating “our team.”
In his role as a TV analyst, he ripped the pick of quarterback Brandon Weeden at No. 22 and the supplemental draft selection of receiver Josh Gordon. Weeden’s future in Cleveland is uncertain at age 29 and with an entirely new regime, while Gordon caught 50 passes for 805 yards and five touchdowns.
Lombardi said he didn’t remember his Weeden comment and doesn’t care about his age.
“I think it’s about his play,” he said.
Gordon tweeted soon after Lombardi was hired: “Uh oh… Am I in trouble??”
“That’s a really good tweet right there,” Lombardi said. “Trust me, he has nothing to worry about.”
Much of the panic over Lombardi was his spotty draft record with Belichick. The 40 draft picks during their regime yielded one Pro Bowler, safety Eric Turner, their first choice. Banner countered with the Eagles’ 1998 draft that landed future Pro Bowlers in tackle Tra Thomas, linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, kick returner Allen Rossum and linebacker Ike Reese.
The Belichick-Lombardi tandem also helped the Browns go 11-5 in 1994 and collect the last playoff win in team history. Belichick has used the lessons learned in Cleveland to win three Super Bowls with the Patriots, and Browns fans hope Lombardi follows suit.
“The foundation of our program in New England had its roots in Cleveland,” Belichick said in a statement. “Mike was instrumental in setting up the personnel structure of that program, which is the basis for our current system.
“Mike is one of the brightest football minds I have ever worked with. He has a strong understanding of every aspect of the game and the process of putting a team together.”
Lombardi said he never imagined he’d be back with the Browns and called returning to the building “surreal.”
“But my heart was broken when I left, I’ll tell you,” he said. “I know it ended bad for all of us and I know it was horrible, but there were some great memories here.”
He’s eager to make more.
“I’ve been resting for five years, I’m ready to go,” he said. “I had enough makeup on, I’m ready to go.”