By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: It’s certainly not unprecedented for the Browns to be in shambles, but the nature in which Rob Chudzinski’s first season as an NFL head coach has gone up in flames has been uglier than just about anyone could’ve imagined six weeks ago.
Since the expansion era began in 1999, the Browns have lost at least 11 games 11 times, including this season and each of the previous five. They’re tied with the Detroit Lions for the worst regular-season record in the NFL in the past 15 years: 77-162. But during that span, the Lions have earned one more playoff berth and one more record of .500 or better than the Browns.
Still, Chudzinski, the organization’s sixth full-time head coach since its rebirth, isn’t asking for sympathy. He knew this would be difficult.
“I expected it,” Chudzinski said Monday in the aftermath of the Browns suffering their sixth consecutive loss, a 24-13 defeat on the road Sunday against the New York Jets. “I understood the challenges that we had, and I know what it takes here, specifically. I’ll go back to the plan that we have overall as an organization to establish the type of success long term that we want, and [I knew] that would take some time to get to. I know what I signed up for.”
But did owner Jimmy Haslam sign up for a record of 4-11, which will morph into 4-12 if the Browns lose the season finale Sunday on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8), when he struck a deal to buy the team from Randy Lerner for about $1 billion in August 2012?
Haslam hasn’t talked to local beat writers since training camp opened July 25. He spoke publicly about renovation plans for FirstEnergy Stadium on Nov. 13, when the Browns were 4-5 and slim hopes for a playoff berth still existed. Neither Haslam nor his right-hand man, CEO Joe Banner, have been heard from since, though one or both of them is expected to hold a news conference once this dreadful season is officially ready for an autopsy.
Until then, all anyone can do is consider what Haslam said in the summer and how it pertains to the Browns losing nine of their past 10 games after starting the season 3-2.
“What really counts is how we perform in the last three games versus how we perform in the first three games,” Haslam said. “And are we a better team at the end of the year than we were at the first of the year? I think that’s important to all teams and particularly for young teams.
“We’ll all know at the end of the year if we’re a better football team than we were at the end of last year, and that we’re better than we were at the first of this year. We’ll all know that.”
The Browns are better in some statistical categories and worse in others. But the only thing that really matters is they’re in danger of regressing in the win column a year after Haslam and Banner fired coach Pat Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert in the wake of going 5-11.
Chudzinski isn’t expected to receive a pink slip anytime soon, but the downward spiral the Browns are enduring will put more pressure on him next season.
“I’m very confident in our future and the success we will have in the future,” Chudzinski said. “We have a lot of work to do, and there’s no doubt in that. I’m not immune to what our record is. It’s not good enough, and it needs to be better and we’ll improve on that.”
The most troubling aspect of the collapse, Chudzinski said, is that the Browns have let so many wins slip away. They have led in eight of the 11 games they’ve lost. And in five of those games, including the past four, they’ve either been tied or had a lead in the final quarter.
“Overall, that’s the thing that we need to get better at to grow as a team,” Chudzinski said. “Because if we do and are able to protect those leads or score and continue to build on those leads and win those games, that’s the difference.”
The Browns built a 10-0 lead against the Jets (7-8) before allowing 10 points in the final 1:18 of the second quarter and watching their momentum vanish by halftime. They’ve allowed 11 scoring drives for 53 points during the last two minutes of the first half in eight of the past nine games.
Rookie quarterback Geno Smith entered the weekend with a league-low passer rating of 62.9 but he looked like a Pro Bowler against the Browns as the Jets scored 24 of the game’s final 27 points and had a 14-3 advantage in the fourth quarter. The Browns have been outscored a combined 142-69 in the final quarter this season.
“It’s about a mindset to begin with,” Chudzinski said. “We’ve talked a lot using the term ‘the last five,’ the last five minutes of each half, of wanting to win the last five, and that’s been a huge point of emphasis. So the guys are aware of it. They know it. They want to do well. But you have to execute as well, and you have to make plays when you have the opportunity. From a coaching standpoint, we have to do everything we can to put them in the very best position for that, and we need improvement in all those things.”
Chudzinski said he bears “all of the responsibility” for the Browns’ season going down the tubes. Some defend Chudzinski by pointing out that the team has cycled through three quarterbacks this season because of injuries and poor performances and that the running game has been nonexistent. To Chudzinski’s credit, he’s not using those factors or any others as excuses.
“I don’t think that way. I don’t function that way,” he said. “I’ve always felt like whatever situation you’re in, whatever you’re doing, whoever you have, you have to figure out a way to make it work. It’s a puzzle [and] you have to figure out how you can put that puzzle together. And obviously, we haven’t been able to do that this year well enough.”
The vast majority of fans in Cleveland are beyond sick of waiting for a winner. They’ve watched other teams in the NFL go from worst to first in one year.
Chudzinski, a Toledo native, can relate. But he might not keep his dream job for long if the team doesn’t emphatically rebound next season.
“I grew up as a Browns fan,” Chudzinski said. “I know the frustration. I understand the frustration. I’ve lived it. I can only say that there’s nothing more that I want than for this place to be a winner and for us to turn it around, and we’ll get that done.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.