December 30, 2005

ESPN's Phil Savage Report

Chris Mortensen of ESPN is reporting:

The Cleveland Browns plan to fire Senior VP and General Manager Phil Savage over "philosophical differences," primarily over salary-cap management issues, league sources tell ESPN's Chris Mortensen.

However, there are ongoing talks between Browns owner Randy Lerner, team president John Collins and Savage to try to reach a deal in which Savage would accept a reduced role and still keep a job with the team.

In that proposed new role, Savage would run the football personnel department, while an additional executive would be hired to manage the salary cap. Both would report to Collins.

Savage had resisted the proposed reduced role over the past several days, but there were talks late Friday afternoon to see if a compromise can be reached without Savage losing his job.

Collins has denied that the team plans to fire Savage -- including through a statement on the team's website that said Savage "is and will continue to be our senior vice president and general manager" -- but Mortensen has confirmed the team's plan with several sources.

What is a sensitive internal issue for the Browns is now also an embarrassing national story for the team, since millions across the country are seeing Mortensen's report run as an ESPN ticker on the Miami-LSU telecast as I type. But if there are "negotiations" going on, and the Browns' plans to bring in another executive on the business side of the organization have been "confirmed...with several sources", then perhaps ESPN's wording in their "plan to fire Savage" headline is not really warranted.

The headline was on a shorter version of Mortensen's report posted on the ESPN site earlier this afternoon. That report was more definitive on the fact that Savage would be fired, and it mentioned the Falcons' Ray Anderson as a possible replacement. The later story reports the negotiations to find a compromise solution that would keep Savage with the team. So ESPN has backed off the firing story somewhat, but kept the headline in place. It's a bit sensational, based on how Mortensen has amended his original report.

Since the report has riled the local radio talk show scene, the Browns have issued a statement denying that Savage will be fired, and saying he retains his title and his job, spinning the whole thing as a "rumor". The Plain Dealer has this report up on their web site this evening. I respect Mortensen's work too much to buy into the idea that there's nothing at all to it. The team has been putting out feelers around the league, and reports of Savage's displeasure with the proposed changes are plausible and understandable.

I do hope that Savage can swallow a slight reduction from his previous job description as Executive Vice President and General Manager and the Browns can keep a proven talent evaluator and a promising executive, one who would have no trouble finding lucrative employment elsewhere in the NFL. Salary cap management is for lawyers, and if Savage is under-equipped to handle that job... and he probably is... so what?

He may however tell the Browns to stick it after this embarrassing gaffe, and the Browns will kiss off a quality guy when they really didn't have to. This is an organization that has too few assets already, and is coming off a pathetic football performance last Sunday. No doubt Berea headquarters has not been a warm, fuzzy place this past week, but I hope Savage isn't scapegoated just because his background is scouting and not law school and he may have been in over his head on the financial side of the business.

But my 100% speculation says this is about more than salary cap management. Something to think about is that the Browns are reported to be $30 million under the salary cap this offseason, and I suspect that as the ranking football executive, Savage feels it is his complete responsibility to determine how that money is spent on player personnel, including salary cap decisions, no questions asked. That's a lot of money, and maybe owner Randy Lerner and John Collins have different ideas. Or maybe Romeo Crennel does.

From a strategic standpoint, and just as much from a P.R. standpoint, the Browns cannot afford to lose Phil Savage. He may have taken a hard line when approached about a reduced role, or they wouldn't have had to consider firing him. That they are known to have interviewed, at least informally, potential front office talent from around the league says that Lerner has decided to bring someone new into the organization, with or without Savage.

I 've been impressed by the steady and discrete management of the football organization so far under Phil Savage, but he is not calling the shots anymore, and it shows with this ham-fisted affair. And unless this is a done deal, and Savage is gone, then Randy Lerner has really screwed this one up. If he manages to retain Savage in a reduced role, he will have humiliated him needlessly. And if he loses Savage, how is this a better football organization for it?

It's obviously Lerner's call to fire Savage or not to. But this limbo, however long it lasts, is unfair to Savage and to the fans, and a black eye for the ownership. Mortensen is very well-connected and I believe that his reporting is accurate.

The bad publicity will hasten a resolution of this thing, I hope. What I fear is an awkward attempt to retain Savage, followed by his resignation in order to save face. Best case...he stays, because there is probably a very short list of NFL teams prepared to sign him as Exec V.P. and GM or better. If he goes, the Cleveland Browns will be the losers.

Never before have the Browns failed to win even one game in the Central Division in a season. At 0-5 going into the Ravens game Sunday, there's a good chance they'll make bad history. Since they returned to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have made seven selections in the first round of the NFL Draft. Not one of those players will be playing for the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Now I feel like a loser for having paid these guys for a ticket to see a 5-10 team on New Years Day!, after having witnessed them barely show up on Christmas Eve.

I can count the home games I have missed since 1988 on the fingers of one hand. And right now I couldn't care less about this one coming up.

Of course I'm overreacting.

Posted by dan at December 30, 2005 9:08 PM