Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner, under fire after parting ways with general manager George Kokinis midway through his first season as GM, denied today that Kokinis had been fired and said he hoped to find a veteran NFL general manager-type like Ernie Accorsi or Mike Holmgren to help shape the organization and help embattled coach Eric Mangini.
"George is no longer active within our organization, but at this time has not been fired,'' Lerner said in a telephone interview.
This could be simple semantics because it's widely expected the Browns will attempt to cancel the remainder of Kokinis' five-year contract without paying him, citing "for cause'' and contending that he wasn't doing his job.
The story is shrouded in mystery, and Lerner no-commented almost all specific elements of it. He said he "began to have doubts'' about Kokinis by training camp, but wouldn't be specific.
Click here to read Don Banks' analysis on the Browns debacle, including comments from sources close to Kokinis.
Lerner has to be wondering about the kind of work environment Mangini has created, now that two of the people the coach wanted to help him shape the organization -- director of team operations Erin O'Brien, brought in from the Jets by Mangini, and Kokinis, hired away from the Ravens -- have left the team in the past couple of weeks, and no one will explain their departures. "It's not a happy building to be working in right now,'' said one source who is friendly with many Browns employees. That could be one of the reasons Lerner wants a veteran NFL leader in the building -- to see not only why the Browns are a woebegone 1-7 with little hope for the future, but also why the first 10 months of the Mangini regime have gone so haywire.
NFL sources have told SI.com's Don Banks that almost from the time Kokinis took over as GM last winter that Mangini didn't live up to the terms of Kokinis' contract, which mandated that the GM had final control of the 53-man roster. Another league source said he has been told the Browns will contend that Kokinis never tried to assert that authority, despite repeated attempts from the organization higher-ups urging him to take a stronger role in team affairs. If that's the case, then the team likely has documented his perceived failings.
The Browns have had a disastrous year, dating to the firing of general manager Phil Savage with four years left on his contract and coach Romeo Crennel with three remaining years. The Browns owe Savage and Crennel an estimated $21 million. Mangini is in the first year of a reported four-year, $12-million deal, while Kokinis was believed to be making slightly more than $1 million per year. If the team parts ways with Mangini after the season, that's another $9 million the Browns will owe a former employee.
Asked about Mangini's fate, Lerner said, "I still believe in Eric, and we're trying to give him the resources he needs to be successful. We all knew the situation we were in when Eric took over.''
Lerner wouldn't comment on specific candidates to take the role of organizational godfather, but he's clearly looking for a Bill Parcells-type leader who'd be able to help Mangini -- or his successor -- navigate the minefields of the job. Accorsi retired from the Giants in January 2007, while Holmgren stepped down as Seattle coach last January after formerly being both coach and general manager. Accorsi has told the Cleveland Plain Dealer he's not interested in a full-time job. But these two men clearly fit the profile of what Lerner wants -- a man who has had Super Bowl success and helped build winning franchises.
The Browns' owner will have a difficult decision to make after the season. Cleveland will have a high first-round draft choice in April, with a major need at quarterback, and the quarterback crop will be strong. The Savage-Crennel regime drafted Brady Quinn in 2007, but Mangini never had a strong belief in Quinn. So after 10 quarters at the helm of the team in September, Quinn was replaced by Derek Anderson, who has performed miserably. Even if Quinn gets the job back sometime this year, it will be by default. Sources say there's no way the team will bring back Quinn in 2010.
If Lerner has major doubts about Mangini come January, his decision about whether to go after a new coach will be doubly difficult. If Lerner thinks Mangini might be a short-timer, he could be inclined to plunge into the deep pool of coaching candidates come the offseason.