By Bruce Hooley | ESPNCleveland.com
The irony for the Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslam is that what branded him a buffoon just three weeks ago could rehabilitate his image now.
By ordering, or allowing, the firing of head coach Rob Chudzinski after just one season, Haslam lost what fraction of his fan base still believed in him as the leader of the franchise.
A ponderous, halting search for Chudzinski’s replacement has since further alienated Browns Nation, but Haslam could win back some or all of the doubters by immediately firing first-year General Manager Michael Lombardi for negligence and serial incompetence.
The arrest of Browns wide receiver Davone Bess in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Friday for assaulting a law enforcement officer is only the latest demonstration of Lombardi’s colossal ineptitude. He has damaged the organization far beyond salary cap and roster ramifications, branding it with another public relations black eye at a time it can ill afford.
Police reports say Bess was acting erratically when approached by an officer in the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport. The officer suspected Bess to be under the influence of drugs – this on the morning after Bess posted a suspicious picture on his Twitter page that depicted a substance believed to be marijuana.
Early Friday evening, details surfaced of Bess’ arrest and forced hospitalization in March after six Broward County deputies subdued him at his home, where he also appeared to be under the influence of drugs.
One month after that arrest, Lombardi exchanged fourth-round picks with Miami and traded a fifth-rounder for a seventh-rounder to obtain Bess, a five-year veteran coming off back surgery, who the Dolphins did not attempt to re-sign.
The Browns signed Bess to a three-year extension for $11.5 million, with $5.75 million guaranteed.
Clearly, then-Miami general manager Jeff Ireland fleeced the Browns on the deal, the same Jeff Ireland Miami fired after the season.
One of the candidates Miami has interviewed for Ireland’s job is Ray Farmer, the Browns’ assistant GM.
Firing Lombardi immediately would not introduce the unrest that firing Chudzinski inflicted, because Farmer is in place to seamlessly take over the Browns’ personnel department.
Lombardi’s failure to – through his web of scouts and NFL insiders he often trumpets – learn of Bess’ March arrest shows him undeserving of the trust a team must have in a general manager charged with reshaping the roster through the upcoming college draft.
Some may say CEO Joe Banner, who brought Lombardi into the organization, is as culpable as Lombardi for the Browns’ personnel blunders. But Lombardi has the GM title, and if he’s going to claim the glory for signing Brian Hoyer, then he must accept the blame for roster moves that blow up.
That, of course, is a new concept to Lombardi, who has insulated himself from responsibility at previous NFL stops by always having a dominant coach (Bill Belichick) or owner (Al Davis) to hide behind.
If Bess were Lombardi’s only such error, it would be easier to excuse, but the litany of bad acquisitions Lombardi has masterminded shows him incapable and unfit for the job he has.
Bryant played well through 12 games until a second bout with an irregular heartbeat forced him to injured reserve and required a December medical procedure.
Bryant had the same heart problem during his career in Oakland. If he cannot resume his career, his Browns contract guarantees him $15 million.
Groves suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week Two and played five games before going on injured reserve with additional ankle issues.
Mingo’s minimal impact nevertheless proved the greatest of any Browns rookie in the first draft under Lombardi’s direction.
Think about that.
Astoundingly, Lombardi failed to draft one player capable of making an appreciable impact on upgrading a team that went 5-11 the year before.
Lombardi’s chief achievement so far has been his acquisition of Hoyer, who went 2-0 in three starts before tearing a knee ligament that ended his season.
Hoyer’s brief emergence seems a modest offset to all the damage Lombardi has done to the Browns’ roster, to the franchise’s reputation, and by connection, to Haslam’s personal reputation.
How many players who wind up on the police blotter after signing with the Browns, or who have been there before getting big money from the team, must Lombardi attach to Haslam’s name before the owner gets his fill?
How many inexcusable personnel gaffes – either via inadequate research or outright wrong judgments on players’ abilities -- must Lombardi make before Haslam overrules Banner and fires Lombardi to restore credibility and competence to the team’s front office?
Lombardi is indefensible on the Bess matter if he didn’t’ know about the March arrest in Miami.
And Lombardi is doubly- derelict in his duty if he did know of that March arrest and took the risk of allowing Bess to work aside Pro Bowl receiver Josh Gordon, who is one additional violation of NFL drug policy away from a season-long suspension.
Either way, there is no excusing Lombardi’s latest gaffe. It should be his last as a Browns executive, not because Haslam reacts too swiftly, as he did with Chudzinski, but because Lombardi’s firing is both merited and necessary for the franchise’s greater good going forward.
|Bruce Hooley hosts "Hooley & Jerod" from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on ESPN 850 WKNR. He is the author of, “That’s Why I’m Here: The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story.”|
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