If the first six months of Phil Savage's time in office can be marked by one thing it is addition by subtraction.
Last week The Owl said the Browns could take a hard-line stance on Ross Verba's threat to hold out if they wanted to, but the fact was they didn't have a tackle good enough to replace him.
A day later - not because of the column, of course, but it shows Savage and Coach Romeo Crennel were thinking the same thing - they signed tackle L.J. Shelton to a one-year contract. Then they signed Marcus Spears, a reliable if not spectacular backup.
Now they are going forward with plans to release Verba who, though he played well, became an embarrassment to the organization by the way he conducted himself off the field. The Browns pride themselves on the character of their employees, so when Verba made the news for bawdy parties that occurred at his home, you know owner Randy Lerner had to be seeing red.
Verba might find out this close to training camp that he isn't going to get the money he hopes to see. Most teams are tight against the salary cap at this point, and most of what they have left has to go to draft choices. He might end up regretting his decision. Tough luck if he does.
Taken as a whole, I applaud the way Savage and Crennel are re-shaping the team. I applaud Savage's frankness.
The season ahead could be a lean one. For all the success Bill Belichick has had in New England, it is easy to forget they were 8-8 in 1999, the year before Belichick arrived, and only 5-11 his first year. They won the Super Bowl the next season. Belichick wisely took a step backward in 2000 with a plan for the future
"I wish we could fast-forward through the season, so we could really zero in on what we're going to do next season," Savage said recently. "Right now, I'm thinking we would be better served to save some of our money for next year."
Money and the salary cap became an issue when Savage was asked about pursuing free agent cornerback Ty Law, whom Crennel coached in New England. Savage and Crennel believe a healthy Law could help the Browns in 2005, but Savage would rather save money for 2006 free agents, when once again they will have a chance to improve linebacker, the defensive line and, yes, left tackle through free agency.
The Browns won five games in 2003 and four last season. People paid big money to forecast these things do not see all the changes improving the Browns much in 2005. They are predicted to finish last in the AFC North by most preseason magazines, and Las Vegas sees them winning only five games. It was four, but bettors have put their money on the Browns doing better than that, so the over-under climbed a notch.
"Have we found bottom yet?" Savage said rhetorically. "I'm not sure. But once we do, we're going to have both feet on the ground and push ourselves back up to the surface."
Savage traded or released the best unit on the team when he dismantled the defensive line. But were Gerard Warren, Courtney Brown, Michael Myers and Ebenezer Ekuban going to get any better? Probably not, though I still say Warren will play well in Denver.
Now Verba is out. Shelton might not grade out as highly as Verba did, but he is here for only one year. If he plays well he'll be here longer. If not, the search will continue. But the headache is gone.
To make the addition by subtraction work means talent evaluation of new players has to be perfect or close to it, and only time will tell how that part of the project is going.