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    mikey In the Starting Line-Up

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    Lerner: Browns are still on course
    Owner confident GM Savage staying, organization is set

    Sunday, January 01, 2006
    Mary Kay Cabot
    Plain Dealer Reporter

    Browns owner Randy Lerner said Saturday the firestorm surrounding senior vice president and general manager Phil Savage is under control and that he would be "blindsided" if Savage wanted out of his 5-year contract.

    "I had a good conversation with Phil [Saturday morning]," said Lerner in a phone interview. "He was in Charlotte [N.C.] on his way to the [Meineke Car Care Bowl]. We talked about things like Leigh Bodden's new contract and negotiations for Orpheus Roye."

    Lerner said Savage will join him and Browns President John Collins in the owner's box as usual for today's season finale against the Baltimore Ravens - coincidentally the team that Savage helped build into a Super Bowl winner.
    "I expect it to be business as usual," said Lerner. "I don't see anything coming."

    Savage could not be reached for comment.

    Lerner said he understands that Browns fans are upset - even outraged - over Internet and radio rumors that the Browns planned to fire Savage after only one season. The Browns have denied the rumors.

    "There was never anyone walking around being critical of Phil or wanting to get rid of Phil," said Lerner. "On the contrary, Phil is a superb talent evaluator and football man, and John and I are very open and appreciative of what he's accomplished this season."

    Lerner said the title of general manager is still appropriate for Savage, and added that Collins will remain president. "There will be no redrawing of the [organizational] lines," he said.

    He denied reports that the Browns were annoyed with the amount of time Savage spends on the road scouting.

    "I want Phil to do his job in a way that he thinks is effective and in a way that he enjoys," said Lerner. "I spent six months doing my due diligence to make sure we had the right title, the right job responsibilities and the right man for the job. We're confident as ever that we got it right."

    Lerner did acknowledge, however, that he sought to bring in someone to improve the team's overall financial operation. Thus, the Browns hired Mike Keenan, formerly of the NFL Management Council. Keenan, who will be vice president of finance and administration, will be at the game today and formally assumes his duties on Jan. 9.

    "Everybody knows that Phil was brought in because he's a strong talent evaluator," said Lerner. "Yes, it's also part of his job description to manage the salary cap and he's done exceptionally well at that. But we wanted to strengthen that area and provide some resources for him. Does that make me a maniac?"

    Lerner said the Browns have lost money every year since 1999, except for this season.

    "Any organization that's been through the financial disorder that we've been through has to be very vigilant about how it manages its affairs," he said. "I wanted to bring a stronger and clearer financial visibility and planning to the total organization. But it never got into any discussion of Phil's effectiveness as a GM."

    Lerner said he doesn't see a problem with Savage working for Collins "because there was never any power struggle. Anybody's who's been in a marriage, you have your problems but you work them out for the benefit of those around you."

    Several sources said the rumors probably came from a high-level meeting the Browns had about two weeks ago during which Lerner championed the hiring of a "heavy duty contract negotiator." Savage balked and the parties, including Collins and salary cap specialist Trip McCracken, shelved the discussion.

    Then the controversy broke Friday.

    "We were all kind of shellshocked," said Lerner. "All of a sudden, an internal discussion about how to improve the business turned into 'Phil's being fired.' It wasn't true, but it took on a life of its own."

    Lerner said he never heard Savage say he wanted to negotiate a buyout of his contract and is not aware if it's been discussed by Savage and his Beachwood-based agent Neil Cornrich. Messages left at Cornrich's office on Friday and Saturday were not returned.

    Collins agreed with Lerner that it was the Browns' intent all along to provide Savage with support, especially in the financial realm.

    "Phil comes from a scouting background and player personnel," said Collins. "He has not been in as big a job as this in an organization. There's a learning curve there. But we knew that going in and he said it going in and it's only been 11 months, so we'll figure it out."

    Collins did not comment specifically on comments from team consultant Jim Brown on WTAM that Lerner and Collins held Savage accountable for the holdout of top pick Braylon Edwards, but did say he needs help managing player costs.

    "You've got to be able to understand how you're going to spend in excess of $100 million every year," said Collins. "The one thing anybody can agree on is nobody can get better by overspending on players. We've all looked at it and said, 'We need more resources. We need to understand that better. We need more expertise in that area to help Phil, who has the primary responsibility to ultimately [decide] how that player puzzle comes together.' "

    Lerner said the hiring of Keenan does not diminish Savage's role and Keenan is essentially replacing Douglas Jacobs, the organization's chief financial officer. Jacobs will be re-assigned to a holding company established by Lerner to manage the family business.

    Collins said the Browns will also most likely hire a chief legal counsel because the team hasn't had one since Lal Heneghan was fired in May 2004. The chief counsel could also serve as the contract negotiator.

    "We have a couple of junior lawyers, but we don't have a chief counsel," said Collins. "We haven't even agreed that that's a position in our organization and that was a lot of the context of the discussions with Phil."

    Collins also said that coach Romeo Crennel will also have more input in how the parts function together. He said Crennel clearly has the most experience of the key figures and he's like a father figure.

    "Hopefully when the season is over he'll have a lot more thoughts about how we can be doing this thing better and we'll able to spend a lot more time together," said Collins.

    During his WTAM interview, Brown suggested that Savage needs to set aside his ego and accept the changes Lerner and Collins are suggesting. On several occasions Friday evening, Collins also mentioned ego. He said they're all very privileged to have a chance to rebuild the Browns and "if that doesn't help you sort of swallow hard and check your ego at the door - and I'm not talking about Phil, I'm talking about all of us - then you probably don't belong here."

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