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Browns approach to hire coach first seems to keep Mike Lombardi in the mix

By Pat McManamon

Sorting through the priority that the Cleveland Browns will hire a coach first and a GM second is interesting. And for very strong reasons it jumbles the Browns search a bit — and brings a name that has been lingering for some time back into play.

Yes, his name is the same last name as the one on a famous NFL trophy.

Consider that in the NFL personnel contracts do not run through the end of the season, they run through the draft. It’s the reason owner Jimmy Haslam can sit and honestly say that the personnel staff with the Browns will stay with the team, and keep preparing for the draft and free agency.

To entice a front office type at this juncture to go from one team to another means that a person has to be promoted, which means they have to be given control of personnel.

When Tom Heckert was hired to be the GM of the Browns, he was able to leave the Eagles in January because he was given control of the roster in his Cleveland contract, something he did not have in Philadelphia. That meant he took a promotion.

If the Browns try to hire a front office type working for another team, they would have to promote him from his present job. Which means giving him the final say over the roster.

Which Haslam and Banner already said isn’t going to happen.

Which means the team is left considering folks out of work or a guy a team is willing to release from his job, which usually does not happen when a guy has already spent time laying the groundwork for draft and free agency.

Or … it could mean someone working in the media. Which again brings Mike Lombardi to the forefront as a guy who could be a legitimate candidate.

Lombardi’s name has been circulating for some time, and Banner and Lombardi have both danced around the possibility of him joining the Browns. But folks in the NFL believe he has been angling for the Browns spot for some time, in part because of his association with Banner.

Adam Caplan of was on WKNR on New Year’s Eve. Caplan has been a longtime NFL analyst, but he is from Philadelphia and has been plugged into the Eagles and what happens there.

He knows Banner.

He told ESPN-850 that Banner considers Lombardi a very smart man, and the two remain close.

It’s not a lock Lombardi would join the Browns because a coach like Chip Kelly of Oregon might not want him, so the Browns have to leave their options open. But if it’s a coordinator from an NFL team … a Bruce Arians or Dirk Koetter or Ray Horton, for example … that puts Lombardi back into the mix. (The more Nick Saban or Jon Gruden’s names are mentioned, the less likely it seems they’d join the Browns.)

The issue of control and power and all that stuff also is interesting. Haslam and Banner prefer to call it a “collaboration,” which is a nice way to put it. But there is a persistent feeling around the league that Banner is a business guy who wants to have say in football and that’s why he will not be hiring a strong GM. Logic would dictate that a strong GM would want the job description of a strong GM.

Caplan pointed out that if Banner retains final say over contract decisions and how guys are paid, in effect he has final say over the roster.

That would seem to indicate who is in charge of football — and it would seem to indicate one large reason Heckert was let go even though Haslam and Banner said over and over he had brought a good young foundation to the Browns and had the team in excellent salary cap shape.

If all that is true, why fire him?

Because a  new owner who spends that much money wants his guys, and in the new structure the GM is not a true GM but more a personnel evaluator who brings information to the honchos, i.e the coach and the CEO and the owner.

Banner admitted (candidly) that hiring the coach first and giving him authority over the roster limits the GM pool because no strong-minded GM will want to work in a situation where he does not have say in personnel.

That might eliminate folks considered up-and-coming like a David Caldwell (Atlanta) or Tom Gamble (49ers) or Steve Keim (Arizona). Why take a job if the job lacks the juice of the title? Especially if a business-minded CEO wants to have say-so in football decisions?

This does not spell immediate doom, mind you. Banner handled contracts in Philadelphia and he is a smart guy. He got in tepid water when he extended guys when they were young. In a few years those guys he extended realized they were underpaid and raised a ruckus.

The Eagles won a lot of games, but that was with football guys making most of the football decisions. The exception was contracts, which of course can have a big effect on football decisions.

Consider, too, the fact that Banner has hired two folks to run the business side of the team, which is the expertise that Banner brought to the Browns. Adding two business guys conceivably could free the CEO to be more involved with … football.

This approach with the GM really seems to shrink the pool. And it can work if the person hired as coach has the savvy and smarts of Andy Reid, who really is the foundation for the model in Philadelphia, the model that is being brought to Cleveland.

It may lead the Browns to someone willing to take a personnel position, someone not working with another team, someone .. perhaps … from the media.

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