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The Suburbanite
  • Is Gruden a good fit for the Browns?

  • A few years ago, when Michael Lombardi could be less careful about couching his most candid views, he wrote a pointed critique of Jon Gruden. Its contents and recent developments offer fascinating clues on what Browns owner Jimmy Haslam intends to — and can do — next.

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  • Only yesterday? Ancient of times? How long ago was 1997?
    One perspective is to recall the names of the triumvirate at the top of the Cleveland Indians’ World Series team: Mike Hargrove, Dick Jacobs and John Hart.
    That same year, Jon Gruden, Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi — potential associates with the 2013 Cleveland Browns — were fellow employees of the Philadelphia Eagles.
    Gruden was in his last year as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator in 1997, just before Al Davis hired him as the boy head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Banner was working his way to the Eagles’ presidency. Lombardi was a personnel man trying to get back on his feet after the Browns moved to Baltimore without him.
    After just one year in Philadelphia, Lombardi followed Gruden to Oakland. Could they come to Cleveland as a package deal?
    Did Jimmy Haslam decide to hire a head coach before a general manager because he wanted to see first if he could land Gruden, knowing Lombardi might be a good fit as a top personnel man, but leaving Lombardi out in the cold if Gruden can’t be persuaded?
    On the flip side, would hiring Gruden actually disqualify Lombardi, for reasons we will establish in this article?
    Welcome to the speculation whirlpool of the Browns’ coach search.
    These points are not speculative:
    • Gruden, 49, has powerful credentials and would be an electric hire for many Browns fans thirsty for a little juice.
    • Haslam is a heavy-hitting ally to Tennessee Volunteers football. Gruden is a former Tennessee graduate assistant, married to a former Tennessee cheerleader.
    • Gruden and Lombardi know each other well.
    What does Gruden think of the Browns job? Or working for Lombardi? He is as visible as any TV football analyst in America — he analyzed South Carolina’s win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day — but he hides from such questions.
    Lombardi is more opinionated on current events as an NFL Network analyst, but it must be wondered how much he couches what he says in the current time frame.
    Yet, we know some of what Lombardi really thinks of Gruden. At least, we know the insights Lombardi shared while building the website — National Football Post — he led before taking a job with NFL Network.
    Here is what Lombardi wrote not long after Gruden was fired in January of 2009 as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
    “ ‘Love you Bro’ has been a familiar refrain here at the Post when referring to Jon Gruden. The nickname is intended to poke a little fun at Gruden because no matter how long he has known someone or how much he might dislike a person, he always ends the conversation with ‘Love you, Bro.’
    Page 2 of 3 - “I found him to be bright, energetic and passionate, devoted to football, and someone I wanted to learn from and exchange ideas with. You could see he was going to be a head coach one day.”
    Al Davis was struggling to recover the glory days when he hired Gruden and Lombardi in 1998. The Raiders were 15-17 under head coach Mike White before Davis fired him after the 1996 season.
    Davis hired Joe Bugel in 1997, then fired him after the team went 4-12.
    Gruden went 8-8 in his first two years before breaking through to 12-4 in 2000. In 2001, Gruden’s Raiders won the AFC West and were on the verge of wrecking Bill Belichick’s very first playoff game with the Patriots before the tuck-rule play and Adam Vinatieri’s miracle in the snow reversed the outcome.
    The following year was Gruden’s finest hour, and Lombardi’s. Gruden jumped to Tampa Bay and led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win. The Oakland roster Lombardi spent three years helping put together was the one Gruden beat in the Super Bowl.
    Lombardi went on in his National Football Post piece:
    “When I joined (Gruden) in Oakland, I learned more about him as a person and coach. What came to the forefront was that Jon is never happy.
    “He can never love his players — especially his quarterback. Jon always wants new, even when new is not necessarily better. He was instrumental in returning the Raiders to their glory days with the help of some key players, notably Rich Gannon, then went off to Tampa to have all the power and ability to run his own show. That’s where his downfall started.”
    Perhaps Gruden and Lombardi could get past that viewpoint and work together as men who have changed. Or, Lombardi’s 2009 view might suggest that Lombardi would not be a fit in Cleveland if Gruden could be landed. Is this part of the reason Haslam decided to hire a head coach before a personnel chief?
    “Jon’s inability to truly ‘love you, bro’ prevents him from being successful,” Lombardi went on in his NFP take. “He does not want to fall in love with any one player, and he is very hard on the players.
    “I once referred to Gruden as the Larry Brown of the NFL. I meant that as a compliment because I love Brown, but when Brown, the well-traveled NBA coach, has control of the personnel on a team, he makes horrible decisions and hates the players he coaches. He wants new, but after new is over, he wants more new. Does that sound familiar?”
    Lombardi closed the article with a scathing quote from Michael Clayton, a wide receiver who played for Gruden from 2004-08.
    Page 3 of 3 - The Clayton quote:
    “How do you build a championship team with all the inconsistency? You have to do it the right way. I’ve always been a person who feels like you reap what you sow. You have to treat people fairly.
    “It’s about showing more confidence in your players. He was kind of a turncoat. He’d tell you one thing and then do something else.”
    For what it’s worth, Clayton made it through five seasons with Gruden, who had a hand in drafting him, then was cut after the 2009 season, when Gruden had nothing to do with the team.
    Clayton made it back into the NFL in 2010, with the Giants, but he was out of the league in 2012 and probably won’t be back.
    Gruden probably could return to the league any time he wanted to.
    Before former Browns president Mike Holmgren hired Pat Shurmur, for example, he talked with Gruden. Holmgren suggested Gruden and Bill Cowher fell into the category of head coaching candidates who would be “pricey.”
    Browns fans naturally are very curious. Would Haslam pay the price for Gruden? Not that most Browns fans would care if Haslam lands Gruden, but could Gruden and Lombardi shake hands and forge a new alliance?
    To what extent does Lombardi’s former Eagles associate, Banner, agree with Lombardi’s critique of Gruden?
    It’s complicated.
    Gruden wasn’t available in 2010, partly because he did not want to move out of Tampa the year his son, Deuce, was in his senior season with a high school football team with which he was established.
    Holmgren didn’t pursue Gruden in 2011 — it was not a consideration because Holmgren was loyal to Pat Shurmur, whom he had hired in 2010.
    Deuce Gruden was caught in an Internet interview saying his father would have considered going to Cleveland in 2011.
    “He’ll probably keep the Monday Night Football job for the next year, my last year of high school, and then probably head out to a team like San Francisco or maybe Cleveland,” Deuce Gruden said in an on-camera interview with The Sporting Rave in December of 2010.
    It was Holmgren who gave Gruden the training (while they were together with the 49ers and Packers) to become a coordinator with the Eagles, where Gruden and Banner spent three years together.
    Holmgren is gone. Banner is the Browns’ new CEO. What does Jimmy Haslam do with all of this?