Under Savage, lowly Browns get makeover

GM's rebuilding project stresses character


In a role reversal, the Cleveland Browns' new era can trace its roots to the Ravens.

Phil Savage, who helped mold the Ravens into a winning franchise after the relocation from Cleveland, has already put his fingerprints on the Browns nine months after being named their general manager.

The first step in his vision to rebuild Cleveland wasn't signing All-Pro players. The former top scout for the Ravens went searching for all-character ones.

"The overall professionalism has been raised to a point where our fans can say, `They might not win a ton of games, but at least they're representing themselves well and we can get behind these guys,'" said Savage, whose Browns take on the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium tomorrow.

Savage's plan to change the image of the Browns had a purpose that went beyond the overhauling of half the roster. He selectively sought out capable veterans from winning teams, wanting to place one new leader at every position.

The Browns added cornerback Gary Baxter from the Ravens, guard Joe Andruzzi from the New England Patriots, running back Reuben Droughns from the Denver Broncos, linebacker Matt Stewart from the Atlanta Falcons and nose tackle Jason Fisk from the San Diego Chargers.

But the key to the makeover was the hiring of coach Romeo Crennel, the longtime defensive coordinator for New England, and the trading for quarterback Trent Dilfer.

"I felt like there was a void of leadership with the Browns in a big way," Savage said. "It seemed like things would snowball on that team. If something went wrong, they didn't have the veteran leadership to turn it around.

"We were looking for that steady type influence, and it comes usually from the coach and the quarterback. I think Trent and Romeo are a good combination."

If Savage has learned anything from his first go-round as general manager, it's how the pieces can fall into place so quickly.

At the rookie combine in February, the Browns had just begun a "cooling off" period in contract negotiations with quarterback Kelly Holcomb, and Savage was left wondering what he was going to do about the most important position on the team. Within an hour, Savage received a phone call from Dilfer's agent, saying the 12-year veteran had been granted permission to seek a trade with the Browns, Miami Dolphins or San Francisco 49ers.

Savage then shipped a fourth-round draft pick to the Seattle Seahawks for Dilfer, a move that has paid off handsomely.

"If he didn't throw another touchdown pass for us, what he has done for the Browns can never be measured in showing the younger guys this is what it is to be a professional in terms of preparation, enthusiasm, attention to detail and focus," Savage said.

Savage was the director of college scouting for the Ravens when the team decided to not re-sign Dilfer after winning the January 2001 Super Bowl. Although he publicly never said anything, Savage had favored keeping Dilfer rather than signing Elvis Grbac.

Earlier this week, he thought about the twist of fate, one in which an ex-Raven provided Dilfer with perhaps his last chance at starting in the league.

"If someone would have said in 2005 that Trent Dilfer is going to be the starting quarterback of the Browns and Phil Savage would be the GM, I would have said, `Who made that story up?'" Savage said. "But it's not a script. I know Trent's beliefs and my own beliefs, and I think sometimes things just do happen."

Not much has changed with Savage since he left the Ravens to take over the Browns.

He still has the Southern drawl. He still runs every day. He still continues to go out on the road to scout college players.

In nine seasons with the Ravens, he was the right-hand man of Ozzie Newsome and a key component in the team drafting 10 Pro Bowl players (which started with the selections of offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and linebacker Ray Lewis).

That's why it will take more than one game for Savage to adjust being against the Ravens.

"I'll probably be trying to walk through doors that I'm not allowed to go through anymore," he said with a laugh.


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