To those on the outside, the Browns’ 4-12 season that concluded with a 13-9 home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers was dominated by dysfunction and disappointment.
The snap on the potential game-winning field goal against St. Louis that hit lineman Alex Mack’s foot.
Quarterback Seneca Wallace’s failure to spike the ball at the end of the first half at Baltimore.
Bengals quarterback Bruce Gradkowski catching the defense napping with a quick snap and quick-strike TD pass in the opener.
Every game seemed to bring another mistake, another embarrassment, another painful explanation from pained first-year coach Pat Shurmur.
There seemed little reason for hope.
But most of those who left the Browns’ locker room Sunday night found some, anyway.
They realized that they’d had no offseason, the NFL lockout dealing them a bad hand because they were starting over with new offensive and defensive schemes.
They knew the front office needed to take a look at quarterback Colt McCoy and had to live with his growing pains.
They understood that three running backs suffered serious injuries, hamstringing an offense that was already devoid of playmakers.
Yet they still lost six games by seven points or less, four of them by four points or less. Even if they disagreed with some of Shurmur’s play-calling or were disgusted with some of their teammates’ off-the-field drama, they continued to play hard.
To Shurmur, that’s the first step as he tries to restore legitimacy to one of the league’s laughing stocks.
“You can’t win in this league consistently without being tough and fighting and doing all the things that we saw our guys do,” Shurmur said. “Now we need to do some things to get better, which will help us win. But if that’s not there, then the rest of it will never come into play.”
Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, unsigned for next season, has confidence that Shurmur, General Manager Tom Heckert and president Mike Holmgren will make the right moves. They’ll have ammunition with the fourth overall pick in the April draft and another first-rounder acquired in last year’s draft-day trade with Atlanta. (The Falcons’ place in the order won’t be determined until they are eliminated from the postseason.)
“We’ve got a good staff set up, we’ve got good guys in here,” Jackson said. “This coaching staff now knows what they have, now we can make the right decisions. We have a solid defense, we add some pieces here and there and offensively as well, then we’ll be able to turn some heads and make some noise in the AFC North.”
That might be easier said than done with three of the division’s four teams qualifying for the playoffs. The Steelers, Ravens and Bengals seem to be set for years to come at quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton, respectively. The Steelers are aging, but continue to find gems in the draft. The Ravens restocked their sub-par receiving corps. The Bengals have a big-play offense to go with a rebuilt defense. Some could argue the Browns need help at six starting positions – quarterback, running back, right tackle, wide receiver, weak-side linebacker and cornerback.
Yet five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas was upbeat. He saw the Browns go 10-6 as a rookie, then fail to win more than five games in a season since.
“It feels better,” Thomas said, asked to compare this season to the past. “Obviously the losing [stinks], but I try to think back to years past, sometimes the last game’s not even competitive. It was nice to see everybody focus and work hard the way they did even though we had no playoffs to play for.
“I look at where we were at the beginning and see that we made good progress in the system, the young players we had, nice progress towards being a good offense. Having an offseason and picking up a couple players, it’s really going to reap some big benefits next season.”
Thomas seemed convinced that a big-playmaker, presumably at receiver, would make all the difference.
“It’s huge,” he said. “If you’ve got a guy who even if he makes one big play, that’s sometimes three or seven points. If you add three or seven to a lot of our games, they turn into wins.”
Of the Browns’ regulars, tight end Evan Moore sounded the most disgruntled by the season’s outcome.
“Four-and-12, no one puts asterisks next to that and says, ‘But some of the games were close,’ ” Moore said. “Four-and-12 is 4-12. It’s not good. Whatever it takes, all of us have to try to find a way to fix this thing.”
The onus of ‘‘fixing this thing’’ falls on Holmgren, Heckert and Shurmur.
The Browns will hire an offensive coordinator to help free Shurmur of some of that responsibility, even as he plans to continue to call the plays. The coordinator’s qualifications seem simple – he must be versed in the West Coast offense, be relatively young so he won’t mind playing second-fiddle to Shurmur and most likely be a client of Bob LaMonte, the agent who represents the Browns’ front office triumvirate. Former Vikings coach Brad Childress was mentioned as a candidate by ESPN’s Chris Mortensen Sunday, but his report waffled on whether the Browns were still interested in Childress.
The Browns must find their quarterback of the future, which in my opinion isn’t McCoy. Green Bay backup Matt Flynn might be an option if the Browns don’t want to spend the fourth pick on that position.
Heckert must hit it big in the draft and be more active in free agency to fill holes in the starting lineup.
Asked what it will take to get to the next level, Jackson said, “That’s not my decision to make. Those guys upstairs have Super Bowl rings, have coached hall of famers. I’ll leave that in their hands.”
Receiver/returner Josh Cribbs summed up the season perfectly after a three-point loss Nov. 27 at Cincinnati when he said, “We almost always almost win.”
Those could come across as the words of a disgusted man, and perhaps they were. But Cribbs’ teammates didn’t seem disgusted when another disappointing season had concluded.
“This team showed a lot of character today, last week, the week before that,” Jackson said. “When you lose it’s tough. It’s easy to quit and no one in that locker room did. It’s a definite plus because when we start to win, it’s going to be easy for us to handle the victories with our experience with losing.”
After dropping a four-point loss to the 12-4 Steelers, rookie receiver Greg Little also thought the near-misses bode well for the future.
“That definitely shows how close we are to being one of those 12-4 teams,” Little said. “It’s just turning the effort into success.”
A Browns’ locker room that had every reason to be morose was anything but. The players’ convictions were enough to convince a skeptic short on hope that the Browns’ straits may not be as dire as they appear.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MarlaRidenour. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.