When Michael Lombardi was announced as the new "assistant to the coaching staff" for the New England Patriots Thursday, many pundits chalked the news up as little more than Bill Belichick doing a professional favor for an old friend.
However, the deal is much more than that, especially where Lombardi's future in the NFL is concerned.
It's been a wild 14 months for the longtime personnel man, broadcaster and sportswriter.
In January of 2013, Lombardi was hired for a second stint with the Browns, where he worked with Belichick during the mid-1990s. It was a move that was met with derision by many Browns fans, something Lombardi told the Associated Press (via ESPN) he was fully aware of:
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.
Unfortunately, things only got worse from there. According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, the relationship between Lombardi and team president Joe Banner deteriorated steadily as the season wore on.
That season, which ended with seven straight losses and a 4-12 record, culminated with the decision to fire head coach Rob Chudzinski after only one year on the job.
The coaching search quickly devolved into a farce. Lombardi wanted Josh McDaniels. Banner didn't. Lombardi's buddy Belichick called owner Jimmy Haslam to recommend interviewing former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano. Banner wanted no part of it.
Rumors flew that some candidates withdrew their names from consideration because "of the management team in place" in Cleveland. The team finally settled on Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, but the damage was done.
On February 11, the axe fell on both Lombardi and Banner, who just like Chudzinski were with the team all of one year.
The shock of the sudden firings had barely worn off before Lombardi was linked to New England.
In many respects, it's the best possible thing that could have happened for Lombardi.
I'm not going to sit here and assign blame for the dumpster fire in Cleveland. Suffice it to say that it appears there's plenty to go around.
However, the fact remains that Lombardi was fired after only one year, and the way his short tenure ended in Cleveland is not exactly a glowing mark on one's professional resume.
Now though, Lombardi goes from Ringling Brothers' Circus to one of the NFL's model franchises, a team that has won a staggering 10 AFC East titles over the past 11 seasons.
Yes, his role in the organization isn't nearly as prominent (at least on paper), but where the Browns have been a cesspool of failure in recent years the Patriots are an oasis of success.
That success rubs off on the perception of those in the organization...all of them.
For the Patriots, it's a deal that makes sense in many regards. For starters, Lombardi has had Belichick's ear (and vice versa) for many years now.
Mike Lombardi was a de facto Patriots personnel executive before his time with the Browns. Now it will just become official.— Greg A. Bedard (@GregABedard) February 13, 2014
And let's not forget, it's not like Belichick gave his cousin a job even though said cousin's only personnel experience is that sweet roster he put together in franchise mode on Madden.
|1984-1987||San Francisco 49ers||Scout|
|1987-1996||Cleveland Browns*||Director of Player Personnel|
|1998||Philadelphis Eagles||Director of Player Personnel|
|1999-2007||Oakland Raiders||Senior Personnel Executive|
|2013||Cleveland Browns||VP Player Personnel/General Manager|
*Belichick was head coach from 1991-1995
Lombardi has well over two decades of experience in NFL front offices. Sure he has his detractors, but there are also many people who hold his football acumen in high regard.
That rates a gold star on the ol' progress report.
For his part, Belichick was absolutely effusive in his praise for Lombardi, according to Mike Reiss of ESPN:
"Mike has a lot of experience. He's done a lot of things in his career in the NFL [and] I'm sure he'll be doing many of those things for us," Belichick said at the NFL combine. "We'll see how it goes."
Then Belichick almost smiled. Almost.
Worst-case scenario? There is no worst-case scenario. Belichick would have used Lombardi as a de facto advisor whether he was on the staff or not. Your opinion of Lomardi's skill as a talent evaluator means just about as much as mine. Belichick values his opinion, and that's all that matters.
Was Mike Lombardi a good hire by the New England Patriots?
Also, the Patriots don't even have to shell out any real money. As Will Brinson of CBS Sports points out, Lombardi's enigmatic new moniker means he still gets his money from the Browns while the Pats pay him like a pizza-delivery guy.
Those sneaky Patriots.
Best case? The Patriots get a savvy, experienced, GM-level football mind for the cost of a large pepperoni and cheese (plus tip).
It's a win for the team, and a win for Lombardi, who gets the chance to rehab his image (much like McDaniels before him) in an atmosphere tailor-made in which to do so.
In other words, it's a win for everybody. Except maybe the Browns.
But hey, what else is new?