Haslam could be in deep trouble

The expression on the face of Browns general manager Mike Lombardi looked so familiar as he took part in a pre-draft press conference last Thursday.

At first I couldn’t remember where I’d seen it before, but it eventually came back to me. It was the same look that former Browns coach Pat Shurmur had in the days after he realized that Jimmy Haslam would be the new owner of the team last summer.

Shurmur would never admit it at the time, but he knew he was done in Cleveland. He needed a playoff appearance to save his job, and that was highly unlikely with the collection of talent he had been given.

Lombardi had that “Oh my God” look on his face. There was the look of a man that might have read parts of the FBI affidavit that produced the raid on Haslam’s Pilot Flying J headquarters in Knoxville and wondered what it meant for him in the long term.

Lombardi probably saw the same end game that confronted Shurmur last July – a possibility of new ownership and changes starting at the top.

Haslam is innocent until proven guilty, but the mounting evidence of his knowledge of a scheme to bilk rebate money from unsuspecting trucking customers grows more damning each day. The FBI doesn’t barrel through the doors of businesses with search warrants unless it’s sure it has the goods on the subjects.

Conversations Haslam had with employees apparently were taped. If details of those conversations are as reported in the affidavit, Haslam could be in deep trouble.

What that means to his ownership of the Browns is clear, based on history. The NFL doesn’t tolerate hits to the helmets of quarterbacks, and it’s less forgiving to owners with legal problems.

The case of Eddie DeBartolo Jr. provides clear precedence. DeBartolo was fined by the NFL and barred from participating as owner of the San Francisco 49ers for one year after pleading guilty to failing to report an alleged extortion plot involving a gaming license for a riverboat casino in Louisiana. He eventually ceded control to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York.

Haslam maintained his innocence during press conferences this week in Knoxville. Asked if he might relinquish control of the Browns, his response was, “Why would I do that? Candidly, I haven’t done anything wrong.”

The legal system will sort through it and come to a conclusion. If it doesn’t play out favorably for Haslam, the ripple effect will be more like a tsunami for others in the Browns’ front office.

The potential damage done by an indictment and conviction in a court of law makes missing on the Tim Couch and Courtney Brown draft picks seem inconsequential. If you thought it hit rock bottom when fans pelted Browns Stadium with beer cans in 2006 after a controversial call in a game against Jacksonville, think how the current scenario might play out.

Maybe Lombardi has played that mind game and realized he might be working for the “NFL Network” again some day. Why else would he have been so pompous and curt at a press conference that was more an insult to reporters and fans than anything else?

Lombardi has no wiggle room with the public. Fans distrusted him when he left town following the move to Baltimore in 1995, and many still despise him to this day. The last thing he needed to do was basically thumb his nose at them with his embarrassing performance last Thursday.

Lombardi will undoubtedly chalk it up to the need to remain coy in the week leading up to the draft. Don’t tell the minions too much, lest they give the enemy all the secrets.

It never changes for the Browns. Controversy follows the organization like a trained dog follows its master. Why couldn’t it have been the Boy Scouts that showed up at Pilot Flying J headquarters to seek the meaning of truth and honesty?

Instead, it was Efrem Zimbalist Jr. that came a knocking.