Savage out as Browns GM

Published 10:25 am Monday, December 29, 2008

CLEVELAND (AP) — The general manager is gone. The coach is almost certainly next. The Cleveland Browns aren’t wasting any time cleaning house after a messy, miserable season.

Phil Savage, whose keen eye for talent wasn’t enough to overcome his communication and management deficiencies, is out as the team’s GM after four seasons, a person with knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press on Sunday night.

Savage, who joined Cleveland in 2005, was told by owner Randy Lerner that the organization was going in another direction, said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because there were still details of the move to work out. Savage had four years left on a contract extension worth $2.7 million per year he signed in May.

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It is unclear whether Savage resigned or was fired by Lerner. Neither could be reached for comment.

Savage’s ouster is expected to be followed by coach Romeo Crennel’s dismissal on Monday.

Lerner is scheduled to meet with the media at 10 a.m. at the club’s headquarters in Berea to discuss his intentions with Crennel, who dropped to 24-40 with Cleveland after the Browns were blanked 31-0 at Pittsburgh.

Crennel is 0-8 against the rival Steelers, a record that can’t be overlooked despite his popularity with players.

Lerner was not happy with Savage’s overall management this season, which began with the Browns expecting to make the playoffs after going 10-6 in 2007. While Savage was able to significantly upgrade Cleveland’s talent during his tenure — the Browns had six Pro Bowlers last season after having none since 2002 and he wisely drafted left tackle Joe Thomas and quarterback Brady Quinn — he seemed overwhelmed by the varied responsibilities and mishandled several situations this season.

First, he put added pressure on Cleveland’s coaching staff by declaring the team’s Week 2 matchup with the Steelers as ‘‘a critical game’’ and ‘‘the biggest in my time here.’’ He also got into an ugly exchange with tight end Kellen Winslow over the player’s hospitalization for a staph infection — a one-game suspension was later rescinded — and Savage embarrassed the Browns by sending a profane e-mail to a fan following a win over Buffalo.

The e-mail may have been the final straw for Lerner, who is now having to rebuild his organization for a second time.

Lerner is expected to make a strong push for former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher. Although Cowher has given no indications he’s ready to return to leave his gig as a CBS studio analyst and return to coaching, Lerner may be able to sweeten the pot by offering him full control of Cleveland’s football operations now that Savage is gone.

If Cowher doesn’t come, Lerner may try to bring in New England vice president Scott Pioli to run his football operation. Pioli began his career in Cleveland and is thought to be ready to step out of Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s formidable shadow.

Lerner did not attend Sunday’s game so he could begin sitting up interviews for potential coaches and GMs, a process that could take several weeks if he intends to talk with assistant coaches headed to the playoffs.

The Browns (4-12) were given a solid chance to unseat the Steelers in the AFC North but a slew of injuries, including ones to Quinn and quarterback Derek Anderson, contributed to Cleveland’s alarming slide. The Browns didn’t score an offensive touchdown in their last six games and were forced to start recently signed Bruce Gradkowsi — their fourth starting QB of 2008 — against the NFL’s top-rated defense on Sunday.

Cleveland was shut out in its last two games, the first time in club history the team failed to score in consecutive games. The Browns also set an NFL record by failing to score an offensive touchdown in 24 consecutive quarters, breaking a mark of 22 held by the 1974 Chicago Bears.

In January, Lerner gave Crennel an extension through the 2011 season, a deal worth nearly $12 million.

Lerner would prefer his next hire to be an experienced coach. He will make his strongest pitch to Cowher, who resigned after the 2006 season and has been unusually quiet about his future. Cowher played linebacker for the Browns in the early 1980s and served as an assistant coach with Cleveland from 1985-88.

If Cowher doesn’t come to Cleveland, the Browns are expected to turn their attention to some of the league’s top coordinators, including Steve Spagnuolo of the New York Giants, Tennessee’s Jim Schwartz, Baltimore’s Rex Ryan and New England’s Josh McDaniels. Other teams will be vying for those candidates as well.

The Browns, too, will have to abide the Rooney Rule, which requires them to interview at least one minority candidate for the head coaching position.