CANTON — Browns general manager Michael Lombardi stood in front of a dining hall packed with grizzled, frustrated fans at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Luncheon Club event. Many of them have been watching the Browns longer than Lombardi has been alive.
They don’t waste time.
The first question after Lombardi’s monologue referenced the unsuccessful plans of the previous regimes since 1999, asked for a timeframe for success from this one.
“The future in the NFL is next week, you know that,” Lombardi said Monday in his most public appearance since getting the job in January. “I’m not sitting up here saying I’ve got a
five-year plan, it’s going to work. I’m telling you we’re building something.
“I’m not asking for any more patience than anyone else. I’m just saying we’re going to build this thing the right way so we can sustain success. We’re certainly, by no means, thinking about giving up on the season. I’m too competitive, nor is (coach) Rob Chudzinski. We’re going to go in there and compete. We’ve got some pieces to compete with. This team last year was in a lot of close games, had a lot of opportunities in the fourth quarter. I think we can build on that.”
Owner Jimmy Haslam, CEO Joe Banner and Lombardi have spent much of the offseason talking about a long-term plan. Haslam has taken it a step further by repeatedly saying the turnaround won’t happen overnight and the team isn’t ready to go from 5-11 to 13-3, while insisting “we are not at all throwing this year away.”
A draft last month that brought only five players and included two trades for 2014 picks seemed to push the plan down the road. Lombardi disagrees.
“It becomes more of a foundational thing than it does, ‘Be patient,’” he said. “I think there’s a disconnect there. I don’t want you to think I’m here saying don’t come to the games this year because we’re not going to be any good. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying we’re going to build this thing right so we can sustain success.”
The questions didn’t stop, and Lombardi was ready for the one about why this regime is different than its predecessors.
“Because we’re going to follow a blueprint for success,” he said. “We’re going to try to be as aggressive as we can in terms of how we approach every decision, but we’re also going to be thinking in terms of one and two years ahead because you can’t operate in the NFL today if you think just to the next game or the next practice. You don’t really want to end up 5-11, 11-5 and back to 5-11.”
The Browns have 14 wins in the last three seasons, so there’s clearly work to be done to become a consistent contender. But Banner acknowledged the roster improved the last two years in the rebuilding process started under former GM Tom Heckert.
San Francisco went from out of the playoffs to Super Bowl contender in its first year under Jim Harbaugh, then made the Super Bowl last season in his second year. The 49ers may have been further along, having posted seasons of seven, eight and six wins from 2008-10.
“I don’t think there’s any fast rule,” Lombardi said. “We’re not a cooking school here. There’s not one recipe to follow. So I think you just have to constantly keep evaluating. I think the one thing you have to do is make sure you evaluate the players you have correctly, and then if you have to make changes, you do that.”
That was a theme with Lombardi. He wasn’t around last season, so he isn’t sure exactly what he has on his roster. He refuses to evaluate prematurely.
“The first rule of scouting is never begin with the end in mind,” he said. “You try not to form an opinion of a young player too early. Because then all you do is collect data to support your own opinion. That’s the hardest part of scouting.”
Lombardi had an opinion of quarterback Brandon Weeden last year as a TV analyst — it wasn’t favorable — but that’s allowed to change in his new job. The development of Weeden is critical to the Browns’ success in 2013 and will determine if the team has to find another starter for the future.
“Everything’s an evaluation. We just have to keep going,” Lombardi said. “Quarterback’s very important. I think Brandon’s a young player. He’s got a great opportunity to demonstrate his talent.”
Lombardi said the value was never right to draft a quarterback, leaving Weeden the expected starter. He also didn’t draft a receiver — although veteran Davone Bess was added in a trade — or a tight end. The team seems committed to letting the young skill position guys, particularly Weeden, receivers Greg Little and Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron, show what they’ve got in 2013.
“They’re all Cleveland Browns, and you have to know your team,” Lombardi said. “And I think that takes a little bit of time.”
Lombardi spoke vaguely about many subjects. He was clear and direct on the importance of passing the ball and rushing the passer.
“Today in football, if you can’t effectively throw the ball, if you can’t get the lead early in the game, if you can’t rush passer, then you’re going to have a hard time winning,” he said.
He said a critical stat that receives little attention is first-half point differential. The teams that lead at halftime usually win, and go to the playoffs.
“We’re going to throw the ball effectively. We’re going to get the lead, and when we get the lead, we’re going to have pass rushers that can maintain the lead,” he said. “Why draft (Barkevious) Mingo? Why sign Paul Kruger? You have Jabaal Sheard there. Well, you need to rush the passer. So the philosophy has to follow.”
Lombardi said the only way to beat great quarterbacks is to pressure them, and veered back to the pass rush when asked about the possibility of starting two rookies in the secondary in cornerback Leon McFadden and safety Jamoris Slaughter.
“You can play with young players if you can rush the passer,” he said.