Lerner says Savage extension is likely

BEREA, Ohio – Randy Lerner wolfed down the last bites of lunch in the Browns’ cafeteria, where the owner shared a table with former quarterback Bernie Kosar, before heading up to his office overlooking practice fields now buried in snow.

It’s a relatively quiet time in the NFL, those weeks between the frenetic first days of free agency and April’s college draft.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press yesterday, the ever-energized Lerner spent nearly an hour candidly discussing the Browns’ dramatic 2007 turnaround, an impending contract extension for general manager Phil Savage, coach Romeo Crennel’s calming influence and the resurgence of Aston Villa, the English soccer team he bought in 2006.

Only once did Lerner duck a question. Asked to handicap the Derek Anderson vs. Brady Quinn quarterback derby, a daily topic of conversation among Cleveland fans, Lerner was noncommittal.

“I’m not a coach and I don’t have any of the required skills to give an informed opinion,” he said with a laugh. “Like any fan, I’ve got a lot to say, but I wouldn’t stick my two cents into that one – for any price.”

Lerner’s tastefully decorated office is filled with personal and professional effects. Photographs of his children and late father, Al, are sprinkled among acquired art work reflecting one of his most passionate hobbies. A coffee table filled with orange Browns helmets dating to Cleveland’s football infancy provide the visitor with a hard plastic trip down memory lane.

After sitting down, Lerner perched his feet on the table’s edge, inches away from an updated white model similar to the one the Browns wore in 1948, and could break out for a future special occasion.

Seconds later, Lerner excitedly talked about the 2008 Browns. Coming off a 10-win season, they struck quickly in free agency by re-signing Anderson and running back Jamal Lewis, and adding defensive linemen Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams as well as wide receiver Donte Stallworth.

They were brought to Cleveland by Savage, who in just three years has completely rebuilt the Browns from laughingstocks to legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

Lerner will reward Savage with a long-term contract extension, which has been in the works for several weeks. Talks have gone so well that Lerner and Savage decided to put negotiations on hold to concentrate on free agency, college-player workouts and the draft.

Lerner said nothing is imminent but the deal will be finalized soon with Savage, who he says deserves much of the credit for bringing the Browns back.

“There are two characteristics that keep showing up with Phil,” Lerner said. “One is his patience to let circumstances play out in order that he have as much information to make a decision as possible. The other is that he has enormous reach within the NFL and college ranks to get second opinions about his assumptions and suspicions about either a player or an approach to a situation.

“People take his call, people like to talk to him and people do like him in general throughout the NFL. He has brought those relationships and that book of business and made it a valuable resource to the Browns.”

Savage is currently signed through the 2009 season. In January, the Browns gave Crennel a two-year extension through 2011, reward for his role in Cleveland’s resurgence.

A year ago, Crennel’s future with the Browns was uncertain at best. There was speculation he wouldn’t last through 2007, and yet Crennel not only survived the head-coaching pressure cooker but flourished.

“It’s a very difficult job,” Lerner said. “It’s a guy who does well in a confusing, chaotic kind of environment and can create calm and continue to inspire players and continue to show up with a plan and a safe pair of hands to execute the plan. A coach with good coordinators and a guy the players speak well of.