In rare interview, Lerner says he's committed to having winning franchise
BEREA, Ohio -- Sickened by the latest home loss in a soap opera-like season sliding away, Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner insisted he is as committed as ever to winning.
Sweeping change could be ahead for his disappointing-yet-talented team, but Lerner will wait until January before deciding on the future of coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Phil Savage.
During a rare interview Tuesday, the intensely private Lerner addressed a wide-range of topics, but steered clear of specific questions about Crennel or Savage, who are under fire with the Browns at 4-7 and out of the playoff picture one season after winning 10 games and sending six players to the Pro Bowl.
Lerner said he has not yet decided whether he'll bring back Crennel or Savage, whom he hired within a month in 2005.
The Browns are just 24-35 since their arrival and have yet to make the postseason. This season began with playoff expectations, but has disintegrated amid a series of embarrassing off-the-field distractions including tight end Kellen Winslow's disagreement with the club over his hospitalization for a staph infection and Savage's profane e-mail to a fan.
"I will take issues and concerns and criticisms very seriously and think through them and evaluate them in January," said Lerner, as puzzled as anyone by the Browns' dramatic dropoff. "That is at the core of the analysis. What happened? How do you go 10-6, play good football, have the NFL generally excited, get six prime-time appearances.
"How does all that happen and you struggle this way?"
Lerner rewarded Savage and Crennel with lucrative contract extensions following last season. However, he said financial considerations will have no bearing on their fates.
He also said the Browns have made no contact with former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, expected to be coveted by several NFL teams this winter.
Lerner was asked to describe his feelings as he watched thousands of fans pour out of Browns Stadium on Sunday in the final minutes of a 16-6 loss to Houston -- Cleveland's third defeat at home.
"Sickening," he said.
Lerner continually fended off questions about his plans for Crennel and Savage. But while he was careful not to criticize them, he didn't offer any endorsements either. He did vaguely outline his criteria for evaluating his GM, who was forced to apologize to a fan last week for the e-mail containing an expletive following Cleveland's game at Buffalo.
"You weigh strengths and weaknesses," he said. "I think that Phil recruits as aggressively as anybody could ever ask a guy to do and as thoroughly as anyone could ask a guy to do. I think we've been a beneficiary of those skills and that determination and commitment."
Lerner was troubled by the e-mail situation, but said he understands Savage's frustration at the Browns' startling fall after just missing the playoffs in 2007.
"I was embarrassed, probably not unlike Phil was embarrassed," Lerner said.
Savage hasn't always appeared comfortable in his role as Cleveland's top football executive. The former player personnel director in Baltimore is often on the road scouting college players and not at the Browns' facility to handle day-to-day administrative duties. Lerner was asked if Savage can handle the diversified job.
"I think you've got to cut the guy some slack," Lerner said. "I do think he is capable of doing his job."
Like his GM, the 46-year-old Lerner has been criticized for not seeming more involved with the daily operations of his franchise, which he inherited following his father's death in 2003. Lerner also owns Aston Villa of the English Premier League, leaving some to wonder about his loyalties.
"I feel fully engaged. I care totally about the team," said Lerner, who acknowledged his reclusiveness as a shortcoming. "When I reflect on that concern and criticism, it's probably a byproduct of the management approach I've chosen. If you're going to give people authority and hold them responsible and ultimately accountable for their performance, you've got to get out of the way."
Lerner has no plans to sell the franchise and denied a rumor he has been approached about a possible deal.
Fans can scream all they want. Lerner isn't leaving.
"It's a privilege beyond belief to be involved with a football team, especially your home town team and I'm not prepared to throw in the towel at 46 and suggest I can't get the job done," he said. "On the other hand, I don't want to live in some delusional bubble somewhere."
Lerner, too, has been faulted for not being able to hire the right people to run his team. It's a charge he dismissed by pointing to last season's successes.
"There are signs we've hired the right people without question," he said. "You go 10-6 and have six Pro Bowlers, you have signs of having the right people. However, I'll need to answer it in greater detail at the end of the season."
One of Lerner's biggest regrets during his tenure has been the Browns inability to establish an identity, something their rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, have had for decades.
"I find that very frustrating," Lerner said. "The Steelers from the 1930s to the 70s, maybe there wasn't much of an identity. But coach and group of players show up, memorable plays are made and a myth is born, a legend is born and an identity is born. The Rooneys were able to parlay that into another administration under Bill Cowher and kept it together for [37 years] with two coaches. I'm very envious of that."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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