When Phil Savage came here from Baltimore, fans were ecstatic. After all,
this was no exhausted GM retread. This was the kid who was largely credited with
scouting the Ravens sterling defense. This was the kid who landed perennial Pro
Bowlers Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis—in the same draft. And this was the kid,
some whispered, whose scouting had helped propel the career of Raven's GM Ozzie
Savage seemed to a perfect answer for the questionable talent gracing the Browns roster after the 2004 season. Top picks underperformed. Young players failed to develop. And an ugly culture of futility seemed to have taken hold on the shores of Lake Erie.
A young, up-and-coming GM like Savage—who made his name as a relentless evaluator of athletic talent—seemed just the fit.
So forgive us if we engaged in a bit of irrational exuberance. Last year, we hailed the drafting of Braylon Edwards, nodded at the value-driven pick of Brodney Pool, and cheered wildly when Charlie Frye—abandoned in round two—somehow fell to us in round three. Never mind that Savage all but ignored the defensive front-seven until Day 2. Jason Fisk at nose tackle? Yeah, we'll find a way to make that work.
In retrospect it's clear that Savage was drafting crazy in 2005. Like a scared soccer mom trying to merge onto a crowded freeway, he just mashed the pedal and hoped for the best. What we got was an injured—but talented—wide receiver, an injured—but talented—safety, and an overmatched—but talented—quarterback. Lots of talent, very little production.
And don't even get me started on the purge that shipped the entire defensive line, wholesale, to Denver, where it played capably.
But 2006 is another year, and it looks like this time Savage is driving with his eyes open. A terrific free agent class finally shut the ugly holes on defense, while our linebacker-obsessed draft (Kamerion Wimbley, D'Qwell Jackson and Leon Williams) has shown promise in preseason.
Then LeCharles Bentley's knee blew out and the car slid straight off the road. In the weeks that followed, two reserve centers would retire (Bob Hallen and Todd Washington), one would earn a league drug suspension (Alonzo Ephraim), and one would suffer a high ankle sprain (Rob Smith). The numbers game at center is bad enough—there were Japanese kamikaze squadrons in World War II with lower attrition rates than this crew—but the lapses in judgment have made it worse.
As a GM, you must do more than assess physical talent. You need to know if players have the head—and heart—for the game. You can't commit to a guy like Hallen as your sixth man and have him quit on you a month before the season. Hell, the Browns dealt away Jeff Faine and latched onto untested rookie Isaac Sowells because we felt Hallen was that strong inside.
Alas, I've seen better decision making from Enron executives.
Then there is the aborted Lee Suggs trade. Granted, it looks like the Jets used the physical to back out of the deal, which would have sent DB Derrick Strait to Cleveland. But the boomerang job sends a disgruntled Suggs back home and projects a poor image abroad—at a time when the team needs to cut savvy deals just to keep the offense alive.
Finally, I'm surprised to find the team still ignoring the simmering calamity at quarterback. Current #2 Ken Dorsey has looked terrible, and the young trifecta of Derek Anderson, Darrell Hackney, and Lang Campbell has the stink of NFL Europe about it. If Savage decides to enter the season with Frye and a whole lotta nothing behind him, he is courting disaster. Let's just hope none of those backup QBs quits during the season.
It's easy to poke fun at Savage when he's running around like the assistant manager at a McDonald's, trying to talk the fry guy out of quitting his job during the dinner rush. But if Savage has made some rookie mistakes, he's also made a few savvy plays. The trade for center Ross Tucker could very well save the entire 2006 season—Tucker looked surprisingly good in limited action. And drafting Jerome Harrison and Lawrence Vickers in the late rounds is starting to look like pure genius.
As with any young player, I expect Savage make fewer bonehead plays and show more consistency in the GM role. The jury is still out on him, but the early gaffes with Hallen and Ephraim are not encouraging. Let's hope we see more due diligence in the future.