April 19, 2014

Medina
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Lerner begins interviews

By SCOTT PETRAK

Staff Writer

Owner Randy Lerner is acting swiftly in his search for the next general manager and coach of the Browns.

Lerner interviewed former Jets coach Eric Mangini on Tuesday night and was set to meet with Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli today. Neither interview is in Cleveland.

Lerner is also scheduled to interview Falcons president Rich McKay later in the week after being granted permission. McKay, who’s been respected in league circles for a long time, was stripped of his general manager duties after last season and reportedly is interested in returning to head of football operations. He was GM when the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl after the 2002 season.

“We think Rich is an important part of the success of the franchise,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank told the Associated Press. “He’s responsible for all the business side of our operations, helps (GM) Thomas (Dimitroff) tremendously with the salary cap and all of the (contract) negotiations, and he’s responsible for helping us as we go on a journey for a new stadium.

“We’re hopeful Rich will stay in Atlanta and we certainly believe that, but on the other hand, we have to let the process take its course.”

Pioli is believed to be Lerner’s first choice to run the football operations, and Pioli reportedly is very interested in the Browns. He’s ready to step out of Bill Belichick’s shadow and be the man in charge.

So it will likely be his job if Lerner can convince him of the viability of the organization, and Pioli can bring himself to walk away from Belichick.

Pioli has never built a team by himself, but he has the next-best thing on his resume. He worked side by side with Belichick to win three Super Bowls in a four-year stretch, six division titles and at least 10 games in seven of nine seasons. They also had the first team to go 16-0 in the regular season in 2007.

If Lerner has his way, he will have a deal in place with a general manager by the end of the week, and then the coaching search can kick into high gear. But as proved with the Mangini interview, Lerner isn’t waiting for a GM to start looking at coaches.

Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo must be interviewed this week while their teams have byes in the playoffs, so Lerner will likely seek permission from their teams.

The list of coaching candidates would differ depending on the GM or director of football operations — whatever title is given to the person making the final decisions.

Pioli could bring Josh McDaniels, New England’s 32-year-old offensive coordinator who was born and raised in Canton. He also has a history with Schwartz, as they both started at the bottom of the totem pole with Belichick in Cleveland.

Pioli and Mangini have a long history, too.

Mangini broke in as a ball boy and public-relations intern with the Browns in 1994 while Pioli was a pro personnel assistant. They worked together in New York from 1997-99 and then in New England until Mangini left to become Jets coach in 2006.

Mangini, 37, was fired on Monday after going 23-26 with a playoff appearance. The Jets were in first place, but lost four of five games to fall from playoff contention.

One possible sticking point to a Pioli-Mangini reunion is Spygate. Mangini accused the Patriots of stealing defensive signals in 2007, which ruined his friendship with Belichick. Lerner will surely ask about the health of the relationship between Pioli and Mangini.

Pioli’s presence would increase the possibility of Romeo Crennel returning to the staff. He was fired Monday as head coach, but Lerner asked if he’d consider staying in a reduced role, presumably as defensive coordinator.

Crennel told the Plain Dealer that it would depend solely on the coach. Mangini was secondary coach in New England while Crennel was defensive coordinator, and McDaniels was also on the staff.

“I’d have to sit down and talk to Scott about it, but more so than Scott, I’d have to talk to the head coach” Crennel said. “That would be the major factor.”

The Broncos fired longtime coach Mike Shanahan on Tuesday, and Lerner could go after him. Shanahan won two Super Bowls in the 1990s with John Elway at quarterback.

Petrak may be reached at spetrak@chroniclet.com or 440-329-7136.