The Browns have gone back to the future to get the last piece of their top football managerial triumvirate by officially hiring Tom Heckert as their general manager on Monday afternoon.
Heckert, whose father, Tom Sr., worked as an area scout for the Browns, serving the Midwest, from 1982 through ’86, was believed to be the frontrunner for the job even before he interviewed with new team president Mike Holmgren last Wednesday. By NFL rule, he was not permitted to be hired until the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom he had worked as general manager since January 2006, were eliminated from the NFC playoffs. That hurdle was cleared Saturday night when the Dallas Cowboys routed them 34-14 in a wild card-round game.
The 42-year-old Heckert will have final say over the 53-man roster, something he did not possess in Philadelphia, where that responsibility is held by head coach Andy Reid. By league by-laws, that’s the only way Heckert could have made what appears at first glance to be a lateral move.
But it’s obvious that Heckert will be working closely with Holmgren on that, along with the last member of the triumvirate, head coach Eric Mangini, who was retained for a second season by Holmgren last Thursday. Mangini, in fact, met with Heckert during his interview with Holmgren the previous day, which was, although no one caught it at the time, a sure tip-off that the coach would be returning. Holmgren would not have invited into the session otherwise.
The Browns managerial tree looks almost completely different than it did a year ago at this time. In January 2009, Mike Keenan, who is not a “football guy,” per se, was working as team president, with George Kokinis, Managini’s hand-picked choice, ready to take over as GM. After the arrival of Holmgren, a longtime former Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks head coach, Keenan is now heading up the team’s business operations, with Kokinis having been fired halfway through last season, lasting just 10 months on the job. Kokinis is pursuing legal action against the Browns for his dismissal.
Heckert had been with the Eagles since May 2001, originally arriving as director of player personnel. Two years later, he was promoted to vice president of player personnel, a job he held for three years until being named GM.
Even though Reid had the last say on players, Heckert had a major part in that decision-making process and worked for the Eagles during a time when they acquired the likes of core players Lito Sheppard, Michael Lewis, Brian Westbrook and Sheldon Brown, all of whom arrived in Heckert’s first draft as GM in 2003. Heckert is also credited with doing a good job of finding quality rookie free agents, including safety Quintin Mikell, center Jamaal Jackson, defensive tackle Sam Rayburn, wide receiver Greg Lewis and linebacker Akeem Jordan.
Prior to going to the Eagles, Heckert, who has worked in the NFL for 19 years overall, served 10 years with the Miami Dolphins in player personnel. He started with them in the last years of the head coaching tenure of former Browns defensive back and Painesville, Ohio native Don Shula. He was elevated to director of pro personnel in 2000.
Born in July 1967 in Adrian, Mich., where his dad was working at the time for Adrian College, Heckert played defensive back at nearby Hillsdale College and then served there as an assistant coach for two seasons before going to the Dolphins.
Heckert is coming to the Browns at a good time. They have the seventh overall choice in this year’s draft and own 11 picks overall through the seven-round process as the team tries to get back on track following nine losing records, including two straight, in 11 seasons in this expansion era. The last two years have produced a combined mark of just 9-23. The 2009 club got to 5-11 only after ending the year with a four-game winning streak.
When Heckert’s father was with the Browns, they made the playoffs in three of the five years, won a pair of division titles and earned a trip to the AFC Championship Game in his final season there of 1986 after posting a conference-best 12-4 record. The club brought in a tremendous amount of young, talented players during that time who would lead the team to success through the end of the 1980s.
The Browns – and Heckert, Holmgren and Mangini -- would be delighted with a repeat of that, especially considering the monumental struggles in recent seasons.