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Owner opens up about Browns, plans to reward GM with extension

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 an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, 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, who are coming off a 10-win season and struck quickly in free agency by re-signing Anderson and running back Jamal Lewis, adding defensive lineman 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 laughingstock to legitimate playoff contender.

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.

"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 pressure cooker but flourished in it.

"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.

"I think you can say that about Romeo, there's no question about that. ... It's about chemistry with players, chemistry with the GM, with the organization and the city and I think you are starting to see that with Romeo."

Only a late-season loss at Cincinnati prevented the Browns from making the AFC playoffs. Looking back at '07, Lerner didn't dwell on disappointment but on several fourth-quarter comebacks he hopes will spawn similar future success.

"The Rams at the Rams, the Jets at the Jets, the Ravens at the Ravens. The Bills at Cleveland," Lerner said rattling off Cleveland's close calls. "Those were not easy. We did a lot of fighting to get those, and a lot of perseverance and a lot of commitment went into those wins.

"I kind of feel like we are building on the kind of character that was demonstrated in pulling some of those out. They weren't just wins for this organization, they were part of a building process. Those 10 wins were really important because they were lessons and they were memories. I don't want to be overdramatic. But there was a depth to them."

Next season, for the first time since Lerner took ownership, the Browns, tougher schedule or not, will be expected to win. Period.

But as they learned last season, a 10-6 record might not be enough to guarantee any games in January. But Lerner has learned to savor the good times.

"I'm probably more concerned with what might not work out, but I also realize that you're probably not doing it right in this business if you're not enjoying it when you do get it right a little bit," he said. "I am feeling pretty good about winning 10 games, and I am feeling pretty good about knowing that we've earned the right to have some higher expectations."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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