John Lott, who went from Cleveland to a Super Bowl with the Cardinals, has a good idea why the Browns were weak and what it takes to get strong.
The Steelers were one of those teams that would strut forward and say, “Please enjoy this knuckle sandwich.”
There was a time when the Cardinals would reply, “Please, sir, not my nose.”
That was then.
It wasn’t that way earlier this month, when the Cardinals proved to be tough birds who nearly left Pittsburgh as road kill.
One reason they were able to go toe-to-toe in Super Bowl XLIII was having to look John Lott in the eye every day.
Lott is one of he most demanding strength coaches in the NFL, and he laughs at anyone who tells him to back off. At 44, he puts himself through the same punishment demanded of the 24-year-olds.
Romeo Crennel, who worked with Lott at two coaching stops, laughs an evil laugh when he talks about the meek being sent to Lott for conditioning. It was a root-canal-without-medication thing.
Lott’s idea is that players come away from his procedure with some bite.
Lott has split his last four years with a team that fell apart (Browns, 2005-06) and a team that came together (Arizona, 2007-08). Before that, he was with the Jets.
One thing he has noticed: Every athlete he sees has a certain conditioning ceiling. What really floats the franchise boat is chemistry. The Cardinals have it. The Browns weren’t even close.
This time of year, after teams round up free agents and draft picks, the new players spend more time with the likes of Lott than with their wives and girlfriends. Strength coaches can be a team’s backbone.
Even an iron-willed strength coach like Lott, though, says it is more important that a team develops a heart and some legs. He elaborated: “The bottom line in terms of players is you can be a good-looking donkey and clean him up ... put nice shoes on him. But once you put on that shoe, a donkey is gonna lose that race against the thoroughbred.
“I don’t care if you’ve got the best jockey in the world riding the donkey. That’s why it’s unbelievably important to have the right personnel picking people coming in.
“That personnel person has to be in a symphony, if you will, with the head coach. If (the personnel man) wants to bring in this guy, and this head coach wants to bring that other guy, then you’re gonna have a debacle.”
It’s no secret now that General Manager Phil Savage and Crennel were not a good match. Lott knew it when the problem was just a whisper. Lott sided with Crennel.
“When I left the Jets for Cleveland in 2005,” Lott said, “people said, ‘You’re going ... where?’ I told them, ‘I’m gonna help a buddy of mine who’s been wanting this head coaching job forever.”
Lott worked for Bill Parcells in the 1990s on a Jets staff that included Crennel and Eric Mangini. His take on that:
“Bill used to say, ‘We’re not in the business of collecting talent. We’re in the business of building a team.’ Teams win championships. That’s where your personnel people and your head coach have got to get together.”
Lott was gone in 2007, when the Browns sent six players to the Pro Bowl.
“Who cares about Pro Bowls?” Lott said. “That means nothing.”
Lott on Lerner
Browns owner Randy Lerner is fighting for credibility but is getting knocked down quite a bit this offseason.
Public skepticism about Lerner’s ability to pull his franchise together has become more pervasive. Sources say the league is monitoring the Browns in the context of “key franchise with an alarming recent history.”
Lott had some encouraging words for Lerner.
“Randy is a good man and a good owner,” he said. “Randy wrote me a nice letter when I left there. He said, ‘Hey, this is how this business is.’ He appreciated what I brought.
“Randy the saying put your money where your mouth is. He did. This team needed to go in the right way. I think Eric will be just what that place needs.”
- Bill Belichick has a thing for Ohio State linebackers and shouldn’t be forgotten as a candidate to pounce on Ohio State’s James Laurinaitis. In Belichick’s final year as Browns head coach, he had Buckeye alum Pepper Johnson in his linebacking corps and spent a first-round pick on OSU linebacker Craig Powell. In New England, Johnson has been on Belichick’s coaching staff, and Buckeye alum Mike Vrabel has been one of his steadiest players.
- New Chiefs GM Scott Pioli will think long and hard about spending the No. 3 overall pick on Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry. Pioli was Bill Belichick’s main man in personnel last year when the Patriots scored with linebacker Jerod Mayo at No. 10.
- Add the Sporting News’ War Room to the list of scout-informed analysts sensing a rare crop of offense tackles. The War Room predicts Virginia’s Eugene Monroe, Baylor’s Jason Smith and Alabama’s Andre Smith all will be top-six picks.
QB or Crabtree
The first four teams in the draft -- Lions, Rams, Chiefs, Seahawks -- all need quarterbacks of the future. That increases the chances QB prospects Matt Stafford and Mark Sanchez will push into the top four and ensure the teams drafting next will get inflated value when they draft players at other positions.
The biggest winner might be whomever picks Texas Tech wideout Michael Crabtree, the No. 1 talent at the Combine in some minds.
No matter how high Crabtree is rated, can you imagine the Lions picking him? He would be the fifth wideout on whom Detroit spent a high first-round pick this decade.