The NFL's hiring and firing season can be a confusing swirl of speculation, conjecture and misinformation, but sometimes a marriage of team and candidate just makes too much sense not to happen. Like Scott Pioli becoming the next general manager of the Cleveland Browns.
At this point, all we definitively know is Pioli, New England's vice president of player personnel, has been given permission by the Patriots to interview for the Browns GM job, and that Cleveland owner Randy Lerner has made landing Pioli his top, full-steam-ahead priority. Though a specific timetable for Pioli's interview with the Browns is not yet known, I'd say any minute now is a reasonably accurate window. And it won't take long for the two sides to strike a deal. In fact, if Pioli is not the Browns new decision-maker by the end of the week, I'd be shocked.
My confidence in this particular case of match-making is based on many factors, not the least of which is these two: After years of being considered one of the league's best general manager candidates, Pioli is finally ready to make the jump from New England, should the right offer come along. And the Browns, after the debacle of their 2008 season, are most definitely ready to welcome a savior. That's why Lerner won't stop at anything to ensure that he makes Pioli "the right offer.''
Cleveland is by no means the perfect job for Pioli. I believe he'd rather be hired by an NFC team, if only to avoid the specter of competing against both Bill Belichick's Patriots and his father-in-law's Dolphins (Pioli is married to the daughter of Bill Parcells). But Pioli can't control the fact the short-sighted Lions opted to not even give him a phone call before they promoted Martin Mayhew to general manager Monday, or that St. Louis will go with Billy Devaney as a one-year GM while the franchise remains for sale.
When all is said and done with the game of general manager musical chairs unfolding in the NFL, Pioli is expected to interview with the Browns and probably the Chiefs, the other team that has him atop its wish list. And while Kansas City may be attractive to him given the Chiefs' patient and stable ownership situation, plus the easier assignment of competing in the AFC West, there's something that convinces me Cleveland will be Pioli's new place of employment.
Pioli's ties to the city can't be underestimated. He cut his NFL teeth working for the old Browns as a personnel assistant from 1992 to '95, on what turned out to be something of an all-star front office cast led by Belichick as head coach. He likes Cleveland, has a close friendship with Indians general manager Mark Shapiro and has long considered restoring the Browns to prominence one of the most intriguing challenges in the NFL.
It wouldn't hurt, of course, that Pioli might bring the Browns new head coach along with him from New England. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is a native of Canton, Ohio, and Pioli and he as a package deal would mean another key hire steeped in the Patriot Way. That would allow the new Browns regime to hit the ground running without much of a transition or learning curve.
My guess is at this point Lerner really only has to sell Pioli on Lerner. The two know each other, but not well, and what each man has to determine in the course of an interview is how quickly a comfort zone develops between them. Because there's plenty of work to be done in Cleveland, where Pioli would be granted autonomy in personnel decision-making and likely command a salary in excess of $3 million per year.
Among the earliest decisions that would hit Pioli's desk would be how to get value of some sort for Derek Anderson, the team's former starting quarterback. Also, how to improve an offensive line that had been a strength in 2007 but finished this season as an obvious weakness. And which version of running back Jamal Lewis is the real one: the 1,300-yard model of 2007 or the struggling 1,000-yard model of 2008?
I'm sure Pioli isn't under any illusions about the last-place team he'd inherit in Cleveland. The 10-6 record of 2007 proved to be a mirage, and he knows he wouldn't have a roster ready to compete with the likes of anyone but Cincinnati in the AFC North. The Browns need to get younger and cheaper in several spots, but they have just four picks remaining in the 2009 draft thanks to moves made by former general manager Phil Savage, further limiting the speed and scope of Cleveland's rebuilding phase. And we haven't even mentioned yet what to do about either Braylon Edwards or Kellen Winslow.
Still, by the time the dust settles and the first weekend of 2009 is in the books, I expect Pioli and the Browns will have walked down the aisle together. After nine years of spectacular success in New England, Pioli needs a new challenge, and Lord knows the down-and-out Browns need Pioli's reputation for personnel acumen. That kind of common sense match-making and clarity is the way it's supposed to work in the NFL's hiring and firing season, and sometimes, amidst the speculation, conjecture and misinformation, it even does.