Axe falls on Crennel

Published 11:43 am Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Barely into another massive rebuilding project, the Cleveland Browns have already moved to Plan B.

Plan A — or Plan Cowher — has been scrapped.

Browns owner Randy Lerner made his second major move of the offseason Monday by firing coach Romeo Crennel, who lost 40 games in four seasons, never made the playoffs and went 0-8 against Pittsburgh, the only full-time Cleveland coach to go winless against the archrival Steelers.

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Crennel’s dismissal came less than 24 hours after Lerner fired general manager Phil Savage following a 31-0 loss in Pittsburgh.

The Browns, who began the season pegged as one of the NFL’s rising teams and ended it at 4-12 and in last place, began their offseason with a disheartening loss.

Bill Cowher isn’t coming to Cleveland.

The jut-jawed former Steelers coach and No. 1 target on Lerner’s coaching wish list told the Browns he is not interested in joining them.

During a meeting on Saturday night in New York, Cowher, who has worked as a studio analyst for CBS since stepping down following the 2006 season, informed Lerner he has no intention of returning to coaching in 2009 and asked to be taken off the list of possible candidates.

‘‘The explanation that he gave,’’ Lerner said, ‘‘was that he was very focused on his kids and his life in North Carolina, and the way he’s living in a noncoaching or, if you will, a civilian existence, and that he wasn’t finished with that.’’

Lerner said he and Cowher had a long conversation about the Browns and Cowher’s days as a player and assistant coach in Cleveland.

Cowher, who is certain to be coveted by several other teams, could change his mind. But Lerner said he left their meeting feeling as if it would be their last.

‘‘He wasn’t coy. He spoke very clearly,’’ Lerner said. ‘‘He was very prepared to describe his position. It wasn’t a dance.’’

Lerner said he never got a chance to make a financial pitch to Cowher.

‘‘It wasn’t that kind of meeting,’’ he said. ‘‘This was an informal visit to get out on the table that he was not prepared to be considered a candidate. Had I heard otherwise, I would have skipped that meeting and said let’s get to it (business).’’

So with Cowher apparently out of the picture, Lerner has turned his attention to finding a replacement for Savage, who improved Cleveland’s talent but had management deficiencies and embarrassed the club this season when he sent a profane e-mail to a fan following a win over Buffalo.

Lerner has been granted permission by New England to interview Scott Pioli, the Patriots’ vice president of player personnel who helped assemble three Super Bowl winners as coach Bill Belichick’s right-hand man.

The 43-year-old Pioli began his NFL career in Cleveland as a pro personnel assistant under Belichick in 1992. He has worked his way up and is now regarded as one of the league’s premier front-office executives. Savage was seen similarly when the Browns hired him in 2005, but Lerner feels Pioli has a more expanded role than Savage did while he was Baltimore’s director of player personnel.

Lerner did not know when he’ll interview Pioli, who may be ready to step out of Belichick’s shadow.

‘‘He’s very well trained,’’ Lerner said. ‘‘I think he’s got a very attractive football demeanor. It’s the right time of life for him. He’s a fundamentally good guy.’’

Lerner intends to speak with another front office executive, but wouldn’t divulge his name for competitive purposes.

As for his coaching search, Lerner said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, a 32-year-old native of Canton, Ohio, was on his list and that he will likely contact Eric Mangini, who was fired Monday by the New York Jets. Mangini began his pro career as an intern with Cleveland in the 1990s.

Lerner will abide by the league’s Rooney Rule and interview at least one minority candidate. He said two interviews are being planned.

Lerner also expressed an interest in speaking with Bill Parcells if he leaves the Miami Dolphins. Floyd Reese, Charley Casserly and Tom Donahoe are other possibilities to become Cleveland’s next GM. Lerner has also inquired about Mike Holmgren, who stepped down after 10 years coaching Seattle, and is planning to take a year off.

‘‘I do not plan to stop there, but I don’t expect that he won’t take a year off,’’ Lerner said. ‘‘I will make a further inquiry.’’

Lerner is determined to get his next round of hirings right. He feels responsible for the failures of Savage and Crennel, who were both new to their positions when they were hired in 2005. He doesn’t consider the past four years a waste and feels the Browns can attract talent despite their troubles.

‘‘I would like to think we are a more compelling organization to come be a part of than we were four years ago,’’ he said.

Crennel went 24-40 in four seasons with the Browns, who entered 2008 with huge expectations but collapsed amid injuries to quarterbacks Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson; dropped passes by wide receiver Braylon Edwards; and uneven play on offense and defense. Cleveland didn’t score an offensive touchdown while losing its last six games.

‘‘This has been a crazy year, starting with the injuries,’’ said Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas. ‘‘It seems like every bit of adversity you could possibly have happened to us. It felt like it was one thing after the other.’’

Although Crennel’s dismissal was expected, Lerner waited until after the season out of respect for the 61-year-old coach and former defensive coordinator.

‘‘Romeo was a gentleman through and through,’’ said Lerner, who met with the coach Monday morning. ‘‘He was gracious to a fault.’’

Crennel told Lerner he may be willing to stay with the team in another coaching capacity.

Crennel, who came to Cleveland after winning five Super Bowl rings, was genuinely respected by the Browns, who referred to him as RAC (Rack) — his initials — and were disappointed they didn’t play better for him. Quinn admired the way Crennel handled talk of his departure.

‘‘I think it says a lot about someone when they’re going through adversity who continues to do their job,’’ he said. ‘‘To me, as well as the rest of the guys on the team, that really said a lot about coach Crennel and who he is.’’