As another branch of the Bill Belichick tree looks as though it will be splintered in Kansas City, where Scott Pioli is enduring a 2-10 season, could another be reviving in Cleveland, where it all started?
There have been a lot of rumors around the Browns that NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi could be the next general manager should new team president Joe Banner and owner Jimmy Haslam decide to make a switch after the season.
According to two NFL sources, there is indeed fire behind that smoke.
Tom Heckert was hired in 2010 by then-president Mike Holmgren to transform the franchise. While it hasn’t exactly shown up in wins and losses yet — the Browns are 4-8 after going 5-11 in 2010 and 4-12 in 2011 — Heckert has done a nice job in the last two drafts to get some much-needed building blocks.
Banner, who was with Heckert with the Eagles from 2001-09, also has a connection to Lombardi, who was in personnel with the Eagles from 1997-98.
Heckert might force his way out after the season if Banner assumes many of the personnel controls, especially financial, that he had for most of his run with the Eagles.
What would be the draw of Lombardi, who last worked in personnel from 1999-2007 as senior personnel executive to Raiders owner Al Davis?
For one thing, Lombardi has been associated with winning teams wherever he’s been, from Bill Walsh’s 49ers, to the Browns (where he helped build the organization into a Super Bowl contender before Art Modell pulled the plug and moved the team to Baltimore), to the Eagles and the Raiders. Lombardi’s past weakness has been the cap, but Banner is an expert in that area.
There’s also the person Lombardi could deliver as head coach: Alabama’s Nick Saban.
According to the NFL sources, Saban has let it be known that if he returns to the NFL — where he flopped, going 15-17 with the Dolphins from 2005-06 — it would likely be with Lombardi playing Pioli to his Belichick.
One of Saban’s many missteps in Miami — the first being that he accepted a job he really didn’t want — was hiring a general manager in Randy Mueller who did not know the Belichick personnel system. Mueller, who was a good personnel man when running his own ship with the Saints, had to learn Saban’s system on the fly, and it never really clicked.
Saban could well be looking for his next/final NFL opportunity if he wins his fourth national championship next month in the BCS title game against Notre Dame. If the Browns (Saban is from northern West Virginia, played for and coached at Kent State, and was a Browns assistant under Belichick) and Lombardi are dangled, he may indeed take the plunge again.
Despite Saban’s personality and his issues in Miami, an NFL owner would be a fool not to make a run at him. He’s a phenomenal coach if he can figure out the personnel and get the right quarterback. And if you want Saban, you need Lombardi.
If Saban decides to stay in college and Lombardi is still hired by the Browns, the next two names on the list would be Oregon coach Chip Kelly and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Belichick thinks the world of Kelly and has consulted with him the past two years. McDaniels is a born-and-bred Ohioan.
Kelly and his imaginative offense would certainly bring excitement to Cleveland, but McDaniels probably wouldn’t be a crowd pleaser after his 11-17 stint as head coach in Denver, where he ruffled feathers.
Maybe Browns fans should consult with Patriots fans on that one: Do you want a media-friendly coach, or victories?
“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. I’ve never worked with Josh, nor have I spent much time around him. But I have observed him each week, from his game plans to his teams’ performance on the field.
“His teams might not have been the most talented, but they were well-coached, well-designed and well-prepared.”
One other plus for Lombardi: Despite technically being out of the NFL for five years, it’s one of the worst-kept secrets that he has been consulting for Belichick during that time.
“He still puts the game plans together for Bill Belichick,” Brian Baldinger, Lombardi’s NFL Network colleague, told 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland Friday.
“I see the stuff being used week in, week out. There’s no question that Bill uses the advanced scouting Mike delivers to him.”
It’s arguable how much Lombardi is actually involved with Belichick, who bounces ideas of assorted people outside the building. It’s an effort to stave off the type of groupthink that can sometimes consume and paralyze coaching staffs and personnel departments.
So Banner and Haslam have a tough decision to make. They can continue on, with subtle progress being made, or they can go for broke and try to pick up where they left off and the Ravens began.