BEREA (AP) — Michael Lombardi came back to the Browns as unpopular as the day he left.
He realizes there are Cleveland fans who still despise him and Bill Belichick for releasing popular quarterback Bernie Kosar in 1993. Lombardi knows there are skeptics who question his ability to evaluate talent after failed drafts in Oakland. He understands the doubts about him jumping back into a front office after five years on TV.
Lombardi can’t change the past, so he’s moving forward.
“I’m just asking for a fair and honest chance,” he said.
Lombardi, who most recently worked as an analyst for NFL Network, was introduced as Cleveland’s new vice president of player personnel on Friday, a hiring met with mostly disapproval by many Browns fans who associate him with those dark days in the mid-1990s before former owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore.
Lombardi is aware of the negativity surrounding his return. The only thing he can do to change people’s minds is help build the Browns into a consistent winner.
“Look,” he said. “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. It’s not anybody else’s. I take the responsibility to work hard at my craft and do it.”
The 53-year-old Lombardi laughed when he was asked if the less-than-enthusiastic reception bothered him.
“I have thick skin,” he said. “I worked for Al Davis. I’ve been ripped before.”
He last worked in the NFL in 2007, the final of his eight years working under Davis, Oakland’s maverick owner whose phone conversations with Lombardi never began with a ‘hello’ or ended with ‘goodbye.’ Lombardi ran the Raiders’ personnel department and helped the team win three AFC titles and make one Super Bowl.
Before joining Oakland, he spent two seasons in Philadelphia working with new Browns CEO Joe Banner, who knew his decision to bring Lombardi to Cleveland would be met with criticism. Banner, though, believes Lombardi will be a perfect complement to owner Jimmy Haslam and new Browns coach Rob Chudzinski.
“Listen, I understand that I’m going out on the limb myself by hiring Mike,” Banner said. “So I didn’t do this casually. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to him about everything that matters before I put him in front of Jimmy or Chud. Time will tell if it’s right or wrong, but I made (the choice) confidently and with my eyes open about the perceptions, about the realities, about my own time I spent with him.
“I feel comfortable with it.”
Haslam said he consulted with “people at the very top of the NFL business” before he and Banner began their search for a new general manager or personnel director. Haslam said Lombardi, who has 22 years of pro front office experience, received high praise.
“Everyone of them said this,” Haslam said. “‘If you can get Mike Lombardi to be your general manager, you should hire him immediately.'”
After being introduced by Banner, Lombardi opened his remarks by saying he was “humbled and honored” to be back in Cleveland. Lombardi never imagined being back in the building where he spent long nights along with Belichick and his coaching staff, which included Alabama coach Nick Saban and Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome.
Lombardi is fond of those years and said he has changed in the time since.
“When we left in ’96 after the team moved it was heartbreaking,” he said. “I think we’ve all grown from those days. I know I have, and I think our careers have all grown. I stand in front of you different professionally and personally and with more passion than ever.”
Banner has maintained a close relationship with Lombardi since their time together in Philadelphia. As the Browns pointed out in their press release, Lombardi played an integral role in the 1998 draft and a trade for linebacker Hugh Douglas, laying the foundation for the Eagles, who made four consecutive trips to the NFC Championship and one Super Bowl.
Banner feels his friend has grown.
“There’s no question he’s changed,” Banner said. “First, he’s very introspective and I don’t know if I would have used that word 15 years ago. So I think his sense of self and his awareness of self is dramatically different than it was. Like too many of us, you don’t fully appreciate something until you lose it.
“He took for granted his time and opportunity in the NFL and then he lost it. I think that was a wake-up call. To be honest, I think he learned from some hard experiences he had with people he worked with. He has grown a lot from that.”
Banner dismissed any notion he would have final authority on personnel decisions, reiterating it will be a collective effort.
“We’re going to have a group that’s now rounded out that’s going to collaborate on these decisions and we’re going to try to draft a consensus,” he said. “We probably won’t do things about which we don’t have consensus.”
For Lombardi, there was no hesitation in coming back to Cleveland, where fans wait for the Browns to make their first Super Bowl visit. This is where his sons, Matt, and Mick, a scouting assistant for the Patriots, were born and where he’ll begin his own rebirth.
Lombardi has lot to prove.
“I know the expectations and the reactions as I walk in here, but I take them as a positive,” he said. “I’ve never shied away from a challenge. I’m excited for it and I think I’m ready to do it because I really want to do it. I think part of anything you want to do in life is to prove your intent and also to reward people for what they are. That’s what I plan on doing.”
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