BEREA: As Browns coach Pat Shurmur sits behind his desk and sips steaming coffee from a plastic cup on a warm August afternoon, he looks to his right and stares at the large calendar affixed to the wall.
It’s littered with several small, magnetic helmets. All but one of them identifies the team’s upcoming opponents.
The orange one without a logo, of course, represents the Browns. Shurmur moves it each morning to signal the start of a new day and remind himself what lies ahead on a busy agenda.
Key dates Shurmur has mapped out through next June are stationed to the far right of the 2012 season schedule. Minicamps, organized team activities, you name it — he has them written in marker.
But Shurmur doesn’t know whether he’ll receive an opportunity to carry out all of those plans. Incoming owner Jimmy Haslam III has vowed to restore glory to the franchise, and he might feel the need to clean house to make good on his promise. Another disappointing season would virtually guarantee the dismantling of the regime established by President Mike Holmgren and General Manager Tom Heckert.
Shurmur, though, strives to avoid looking into an uncertain future and stressing about the impending shift in power and its potential ramifications. Instead, he focuses on the little, orange helmet.
“If you can keep it simple like that, then you can function,” he said.
However, simplicity has been scarce for the Browns as they’ve prepared to host the Philadelphia Eagles at 1 p.m. today in the regular-season opener for both teams.
With training camp in its infancy Aug. 2, Haslam agreed to buy the Browns from Randy Lerner for about $1 billion. NFL owners will vote on approval of Haslam’s purchase Oct. 16 in Chicago, two days after the Browns face the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 6.
‘In the right direction’
“I’m sure there or after the season, things may change,” Heckert said in a recent phone interview. “There’s not a whole lot we can do about that. We’ve just got to do what we do and keep going and try to win some games.
“I think we’re in the right direction, and we’ll see what happens. But to be honest with you, we’ve got so much going on where you can’t let that faze you too much. You just keep rolling with it and see what happens.”
Shurmur is plugging away. Still, he has come to terms with the challenge he faces in trying to prove his worth to Haslam.
“We’ve got to get to know each other,” said Shurmur, who guided the Browns to a record of 4-12 last season as a rookie head coach. “But hell, I needed to prove myself to whoever owns the team, so I don’t put much thought into that, and we, as coaches, know that. Just look at how many places we’ve worked.
“When you’re moving up through the ranks and you work somewhere and you have success, then you [ascend] through the ranks and you move. Then at some point you get to a point where it’s not working out, then unfortunately at times you’ve got to move. Listen, we live in a real, real world in terms of understanding that reality.
“I’ve always felt that urgency. I really do. I wanted to come in this year and impress Randy Lerner as the owner, and the way you impress them is by leading their team to victories. That’s how you impress them. Now that’ll be Mr. Haslam.”
Wowing Haslam will be an uphill battle. The Browns have the third-toughest schedule in the league based on their opponents’ records from last season, they have already endured a fair share of adversity this year and they have 15 rookies on their active roster.
Key players sidelined
Starting weakside linebacker Chris Gocong is out for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon, and starting defensive tackle Phil Taylor will miss at least the first six games as he rehabilitates from a torn pectoral muscle. Starting strongside linebacker Scott Fujita received a three-game suspension from the NFL for his alleged role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal and just had it overturned Friday. Starting cornerback Joe Haden might miss four games pending his appeal of a suspension for a reported failed drug test.
Running back Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in this year’s draft, underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee for the second time in six months Aug. 9 and missed all four preseason games. Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden are among five rookies projected to start today.
“It’s easy to sit back with a paper and pencil and the roster and say, ‘You don’t have this, you don’t have this, you don’t have this,’ ” Shurmur said. “Nobody has a perfect team. We have the added challenge of doing it with some players that will replace guys that have started and some new faces.
“You play it the way it’s dealt, and at the end of the day, nobody has a perfect hand, nobody does. I think as coaches, if we sat here and we let ourselves be influenced at all by what gets said outside the building, we’d go kooky. But that’s OK ’cause I’m wired that way. I trust my coaches. I trust our players. I trust the direction that we’ve set.”
Holmgren and Heckert have faith in their program, too. Whether they’ll be able to implement their entire five-year plan remains to be seen.
Holmgren said last week that he hopes to complete his contract with the Browns, which pays him about $8 million a year and runs through 2014. But it might not be a realistic goal if former Philadelphia Eagles President Joe Banner wants the same role with the Browns. Banner is reportedly part of Haslam’s ownership group. Haslam has declined to comment on personnel decisions because his purchase of the team is not yet official.
View from outside
Heckert was hired as the Eagles’ director of player personnel in 2001, the same year Banner became their president. Heckert was promoted to general manager in 2006, but Eagles coach Andy Reid, not Heckert, had final say over roster decisions. Heckert joined the Browns in 2010 and received the authority he sought.
“Overall their talent is better,” Reid said during a recent conference call. “From [Heckert’s] standpoint, that’s an important thing. He’s gone in there and made some bold moves and made some phenomenal trades. There are some really good things that he’s done.”
Although some in the Philadelphia media speculate Heckert and Banner do not have a good relationship, Heckert said that is “100 percent not true.”
“As a matter of fact, I’ve never had one issue with Joe Banner,” said Heckert, adding he doesn’t know whether Banner will join Haslam in Cleveland. “I spent time with him at the owners meeting [in March]. It was really the last time I had a chance to talk to him at any length. But no, we get along great.”
Banner worked for the Eagles during Shurmur’s entire 10-year stint as an assistant coach to Reid. If given the opportunity, Reid said he would tell Haslam he’s “a big Pat Shurmur fan.”
Still, the change in ownership means jobs are on the line, and auditioning under such circumstances appears to be a daunting task. Shurmur is trying to embrace it.
“I think there are probably other coaches that have already established whatever their program is and we’re building that now, and that’s challenging,” he said. “I think that’s a fun thing in life, is to try to build it and then watch the people who built it enjoy the success. I think that’s where we’re at. I think we all know we’ve got a long way to go.”
So will Shurmur and Heckert convince Haslam they should continue the journey? Will Holmgren keep his job through this season, let alone beyond it? Or will all of them need to wipe out their calendars for next year and start over?
As Shurmur continues to move the tiny orange helmet, the answers to those questions should become clear.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.