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Browns fire coach Pat Shurmur, GM Tom Heckert; will hire new head coach before personnel man

By Nate Ulrich Published: December 31, 2012

The Browns fired coach Pat Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert this morning, less than 24 hours after another disappointing season wrapped up with a 24-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The organization’s new regime of owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner is on a quest to replace Shurmur, 47, and Heckert, 45. Both of them have two years left on their contracts.

During a news conference this afternoon, Haslam and Banner said they will hire a head coach first because he will play a more significant role in their organizational structure. Banner acknowledged that approach will limit their pool of general managers.

“Joe and I are going to begin very quickly to look for a new head coach first and then a GM, player-personnel-type second,” Haslam said. “There will be a million rumors out there -- you all have done this before – about this person or that person. We’re not going to comment on any people specifically for either of the two searches. Candidly, there are only two people who know who the candidates are, and you’re looking at both of them. Although we only made the decision with Pat and Tom in the last week or two, I think any responsible person does succession planning, and, candidly, we’ve been doing succession planning for the last two or three months.

“We think this is a great organization despite the changes that have occurred in the past. We’re well aware that this has been a carousel, and, candidly, as I’ve said before it’s [our] job to find the right coach and the right GM and bring stability long term for the organization. That’s our role. We take it very responsibly, very seriously. We’ve researched a lot of people, and we’ll be talking to some of those people over the next few weeks. Our goal is to get the best person, and if we happen to find that person within a week, that’s great. And if it takes a month, that’s great also. I mean that for the best person for each of the two jobs.”

Haslam and Banner said strong leadership is the top quality they’re seeking. Banner said he hopes they begin to conduct interviews right away, and they don’t have a preference between offensive and defensive coaches.

Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will interview with the Browns this week, Alex Marvez of Fox Sports reported today.

University of Alabama coach Nick Saban, University of Oregon coach Chip Kelly, Penn State University coach Bill O’Brien and New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are among the potential head coach candidates on the Browns’ radar, according to reports.

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden, Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians are other potential candidates who could receive interest.

“We don’t believe that there’s any job in the league that’s going to be available that can tell a better story about why you want to come to this particular team, this particular city and take a job,” said Banner, who worked with Shurmur and Heckert during his 12-year reign as president of the Eagles. “So we go into this extremely confident that we can go after the top people available, at least the top people in our opinion, and that we have a very good chance at being successful and convincing them that this is the right situation. Most of these top coaches are focused on finding a place where they think they can win, and we think we can make a very good case why this is the best opportunity in the league right now.”

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings might pursue Shurmur as an offensive coordinator, Jason La Canfora of CBS reported. He and Heckert also might reunite with coach Andy Reid at his next stop. The Philadelphia Eagles fired Reid, who Shurmur and Heckert worked with during their time with the Eagles.

Shurmur said Sunday night he would coach elsewhere next year if he's not with the Browns.

“I am extremely proud of the players on this team, who I felt made tremendous strides and helped to make the Cleveland Browns relevant again,” Shurmur said in a statement. “I want to thank them, as well as my entire coaching staff for making the past two years enjoyable. My coaches are outstanding teachers and even better men. They helped me lead these players through a unique time of transition. This group of players will achieve success soon, and there will be a part of me that will feel very good when that happens.

“I want to thank Randy Lerner, Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert for bringing me in and having the faith in me to lead this football team. I am disappointed that we did not win more games, but I do know the Browns are on their way to becoming a consistent winner. I appreciated the time spent with Jimmy (Haslam) and Joe (Banner), and wish them all the best as they provide a new vision for the Cleveland Browns.”

With Heckert gone, the Browns will seek someone to head their personnel department. Haslam said the entire scouting staff is under contract and will be retained.

Football operations will report to Banner, who possesses personnel powers previously held by Heckert. Banner established himself as a noted contract negotiator and salary-cap guru with the Eagles, but he did not have final say on draft picks, trades and other roster decisions.

On Dec. 18, the Browns named Alec Scheiner their new president. He will oversee the day-to-day business operations of the franchise, allowing Banner to focus on the football side of the organization.

“I leave the Browns feeling very good about many of the things we accomplished here and the direction in which I believe this team is headed,” Heckert, whose father was a scout for the Browns in the 1980s, said in a statement. “Having been around this franchise growing up, I was really excited for the opportunity to come here three years ago, and I want to thank Randy Lerner and Mike Holmgren for making that possible. I also want to acknowledge many of the hard-working people in the Browns organization, especially our player personnel staff, who are outstanding at what they do and supported me immensely in my role. I wish the team nothing but the best as they move forward.”

According to reports, NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi, who worked with coach Bill Belichick in Cleveland (1987-95) and Banner in Philadelphia (1997-98), is a candidate to head the Browns’ personnel department. On Sunday, Lombardi appeared on the network’s NFL Game Day Morning and said he hasn’t been contacted by the Browns. David Caldwell, the Atlanta Falcons’ director of player personnel, could receive interest from the Browns as well, according to Don Banks of Sports Illustrated.

Shurmur compiled a record of 9-23 with the Browns. He guided one of the youngest teams in the NFL to a record of 5-11 during the 2012 season, which ended Sunday with the Browns’ third consecutive defeat. The Browns went 4-12 in 2011, Shurmur’s first season as a head coach at any level. They finished 2-4 in the AFC North in 2012 after going 0-6 in the division last year.

Less than a week after training camp began this past summer, Haslam struck a deal Aug. 2 to buy the Browns from Randy Lerner for about $1 billion. Shurmur’s future with the team became uncertain at that point. And as the Browns’ second disappointing season on Shurmur’s watch wound down, his demise became a virtual certainty.

Hired by former President Mike Holmgren on Jan. 13, 2011, to replace coach Eric Mangini, Shurmur entered his first season with the daunting task of installing new offensive and defensive systems during an offseason that was almost entirely wiped out by the NFL lockout. Shurmur, who spent two seasons as the offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams before joining the Browns, didn’t meet some of his players until they reported for training camp in late July.

The lockout certainly didn’t help Shurmur’s chances of succeeding to start his tenure in Cleveland. Neither did his choice not to hire an offensive coordinator in his first year, a decision he later admitted that he regretted. Shurmur brought his version of the West Coast offense, Holmgren’s system of choice, to Cleveland, and the Browns averaged just 13.6 points (ranked 30th) and 288.8 yards per game (ranked 29th) in 2011.

In 2012, the Browns hired Brad Childress as their offensive coordinator. Shurmur said he and Childress collaborated on play calling, and the offense improved slightly with the Browns averaging 18.9 points (ranked 24th) and 314.2 yards per game (ranked 25th). But even with Childress aboard, Shurmur’s play calling, clock management and strategy, especially decisions about when to punt and when to go for it on fourth down, received rampant criticism from fans and media.

Shortly after Shurmur took control, he pursued Dick Jauron and hired him as the Browns’ defensive coordinator. Jauron guided the team as it transitioned from Mangini’s 3-4 system to a 4-3 scheme. Under Jauron, the defense ranked 10th (332.4 yards allowed per game) in 2011 and 23rd (363.8) in 2012.

Haslam said the assistant coaches are under contract and will be allowed to interview with other teams. He also said the new head coach might want to keep some of them. Shurmur retained four of Mangini’s assistants, but it’s uncertain whether there will be any holdovers from the Browns’ latest coaching change. Shurmur’s successor will become the Browns’ sixth full-time head coach since their expansion era began in 1999.

Holmgren, who left the Browns on Nov. 30 after essentially being replaced by Banner, said he chose Shurmur because he wanted an offensive-minded coach and was attracted to his pedigree. Shurmur’s late uncle, Fritz Shurmur, served as Holmgren’s defensive coordinator when he coached the Green Bay Packers. Holmgren and Shurmur also have the same agent, Bob LaMonte. But the attributes that attracted Holmgren to the younger Shurmur never translated to success.

The Browns’ longest winning streak of Shurmur’s reign lasted three games and gave the Browns a 5-8 record earlier this month after they started the season 0-5. They actually had slim playoff hopes entering Week 15, but those were destroyed with a 38-21 loss to the Washington Redskins on Dec. 16. The Browns were then crushed by the Denver Broncos 34-12 on Dec. 23 before falling to the Steelers in Shurmur’s final game as their coach.

Heckert left the Eagles after serving as their general manager for four years and was hired by Holmgren to seize control of the Browns’ personnel department on Jan. 11, 2010. Heckert made the move because he wanted to be the top decision maker when it came to executing trades, drafting players and making other roster decisions.

But Banner is expected to make his imprint on the roster with the help of a handpicked executive and whoever replaces Shurmur as coach. Banner said the head coach will have final say on the 53-man roster, deciding who makes the team after training camp and who dresses for games, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will be the ultimate authority on drafting, signing and trading players.

In the past two years, Heckert overhauled a veteran-laded roster built by Mangini and spearheaded a youth movement. The Browns finished 2012 with 29 players on their 53-man roster who were either in their first or second NFL seasons. They also had a league-high 87 combined starts from rookies this season.

Heckert acquired 17 of the Browns’ 22 starters from 2012. Of those 17 starters brought in by Heckert, he drafted the following 11: cornerback Joe Haden, defensive tackle Phil Taylor, running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden (first-round picks); strong safety T.J. Ward, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, wide receivers Greg Little and Josh Gordon, a selection in the 2012 supplemental draft, offensive right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (second-round picks); right guard Shawn Lauvao (third-round pick); and strongside linebacker James-Michael Johnson (fourth-round pick).

None of the players Heckert picked for the Browns has made the Pro Bowl yet. But several seem to have bright futures.

“He’s a great general manager,” Haden said Sunday night. “I can tell by the way he drafts players. You can look and you see his draft picks are out there on the field just basically balling for the team. He drafted me. He drafted T.J. He drafted Weeden. He drafted Richardson. This is such a young team, and all of his players are out there playing. That says a lot.”

Still, not every pick has panned out as planned.

Heckert, who has Youngstown roots, let fullback Lawrence Vickers go in free agency and replaced him with Owen Marecic, a fourth-round pick in 2011. Marecic was plagued by dropped passes and lost his spot atop the depth chart in 2012. Heckert traded a third-round and two fifth-round picks in 2010 to move up in the second round to select running back Montario Hardesty, whose career has been plagued by injuries, including a torn ACL in his left knee as a rookie in 2010 and a torn calf muscle that forced him to sit out six games in 2011. The jury is still out on Hardesty, who stayed healthy in 2012.

Although Heckert bolstered several positions – perhaps most notably the defensive line – he might have failed to bring a franchise quarterback to Cleveland. In Heckert’s first two years with the Browns, they cycled through Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace and Colt McCoy. They drafted Weeden 22nd overall in 2012.

Weeden, a 29-year-old former minor-league baseball player, played 15 games and finished with a franchise rookie record 3,385 passing yards and 14 touchdowns, but he also threw 17 interceptions and posted a passer rating of 72.6. It remains to be seen whether the new regime will give Weeden another season to prove himself after an inconsistent rookie year.

Heckert’s drafts will be remembered for some blockbuster deals – including one couldn’t pull off. The Browns failed in their attempt to trade with the St. Louis Rams for the right to draft Robert Griffin III second overall in 2012.

In March, the Browns offered the Rams two first-round selections (Nos. 4 and 22 overall) and a first-round pick in 2013 for the right to draft Griffin at No. 2. The Washington Redskins, though, struck a deal by giving up their first- and second-round picks in 2012 (Nos. 6 and 39), plus a first-round choice in 2013 and another in 2014. The Browns reportedly tried to add their 2012 second-round pick (No. 37) with a second proposal, but the Rams had already decided to accept the Redskins' offer.

Then on April 26, Heckert traded picks in the first (No. 4), fourth (No. 118), fifth (No. 139) and seventh (No. 211) rounds to the Minnesota Vikings, allowing the Browns to move up to the No. 3 slot, where they nabbed Richardson. The Browns were also aggressive by picking Weeden at No. 22 because there was a chance he would have been available to them early in the second round, when they ended up taking Schwartz at No. 37.

In 2011, Heckert traded the sixth overall pick in 2011 to the Atlanta Falcons, which they used to select wide receiver Julio Jones sixth overall in 2011. In exchange, the Browns received picks in the first (27th), second (59th) and fourth (124th) rounds in 2011 and first- and fourth-rounders in 2012. Heckert then traded the 27th overall pick and a third-round selection (No. 70) to move up to No. 21, so he could take Taylor. He drafted Little with No. 59, Marecic with No. 124, Weeden with the Falcons’ first-round pick last year and traded their fourth-round choice.

Heckert seemed at peace with his future when he addressed the media Dec. 14 during what amounted to a farewell chat.

“If things don’t work out, I’m pretty confident that I think I’m going to get a shot somewhere else,” Heckert said then.

Many of the players supported Shurmur and Heckert and because they believe the team is heading in the right direction.

“It is upsetting,” defensive end Frostee Rucker said Sunday night. “We all have the same goals and the same vision to win. It didn’t happen, but we took huge strides from the team they had last year to the one this year and we competed in every game. We didn’t win them all. But we competed, and we can hang with anyone and part of it is just getting over the hump. It never got to that point, but I believe in both those guys.”


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