PITTSBURGH: Kicker Phil Dawson spent a little extra time looking around before he walked off of Heinz Field on Sunday, thinking it might have been his last game as a member of the Browns.
Special-teams ace and wide receiver Josh Cribbs sat facing his locker for a few minutes, the former Kent State quarterback saddened that he might also be leaving the fans he loves after eight seasons.
Dawson, a 14-year veteran who has received the Browns’ franchise tag for the past two years, might be too expensive for new CEO Joe Banner.
Cribbs saw himself relegated to special teams, touching the ball only 13 times on offense (six runs, seven catches) in 16 games.
With massive changes coming under Banner and new owner Jimmy Haslam, Dawson, Cribbs and several others might have said goodbye in a 24-10 loss to the Steelers in their season finale. Coach Pat Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert are expected to be fired today.
Cornerback Sheldon Brown, defensive ends Auston English, Juqua Parker and Emmanuel Stephens, linebackers Scott Fujita and Kaluka Maiava, punter Reggie Hodges, running backs Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya, quarterback Josh Johnson, wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Jordan Norwood, tight ends Alex Smith and Benjamin Watson, special-teams ace Ray Ventrone, fullback Eddie Williams and long snapper Christian Yount are scheduled to become free agents in March along with Dawson and Cribbs.
“Whether or not I’m still on this team, if they want me, contract talks, who knows? I would love to stay,” Cribbs said. “My family is here, kids go to school in Cleveland. But it’s the nature of the business.
“I haven’t run into a lot of head coaches who don’t like me as a player and as an athlete. So we’ll have to see with the new organization.”
Asked if he meant that he felt Shurmur didn’t like him, Cribbs said, “We were constantly rebuilding here. So it was like they were trying to find a new guy here and a new guy there when you might have guys that already can do it. When teams have so much change, it’s hard to find your niche. Hopefully I can do that.”
On 43 kickoff returns, Cribbs’ average of 27.4 yards was the third-highest of his career. On 38 punt returns, his 12.0 average was his second-best. With seven punt return yards against the Steelers, he became the Browns’ all-time leader in that category with 2,154 yards, passing Dennis Northcutt (2,149).
Cribbs, who turns 30 on June 9, did not return any kicks for touchdowns for only the second season in his career, while speedy rookie Travis Benjamin brought back a 93-yard punt for a touchdown against Kansas City.
Dawson, who turns 38 on Jan. 23, would also love to be back.
“I love Cleveland. I love everything about this place, but we’ll have to see what all is going on around here and if they even want me,” Cribbs said. “Until the phone rings on my end, I’m going to have to stay at home and do what I can to get ready for next season.”
Dawson said he took time to let “the guys I care about know how I feel about them.”
“There’s several guys on this team that have been together for several years and developed pretty close bonds and experienced some neat things in the little special teams world that most people never notice, but we’ve been able to pull it off,” Dawson said.
“Those kinds of things will be what I remember and those types of relationships will be the ones that last when football’s done.”
Voted to his first Pro Bowl last week, Dawson made 29-of-31 field goals this season, with one blocked. His 93.5 percentage was the best of his career.
His only real miss came Sunday, when a 39-yard attempt in the second quarter sailed wide right. A few minutes later, he atoned with a 51-yard field goal that tied for the second-longest at Heinz Field, trailing only a 52-yarder by Pittsburgh’s Jeff Reed in 2010.
“I actually think I hit the miss better than the next one,” Dawson said. “This isn’t an easy place to kick. I should know better after all these years not to aim outside the uprights, but I thought that was the best course and the ball just stayed out there. Everything was going to their bench all day and that one just stayed straight.”
Dawson finished 7-for-7 this season on field goals of 50 yards or longer and scored 116 points, the second most of his career.
Another who would like to remain a Brown is Ventrone, who ran 35 yards with a fake punt, keeping alive the lone touchdown drive. It was the only rush of Ventrone’s seven-year career and tied Benjamin’s end around for the Browns’ longest running plays of the season.
“I would love to be here for the future,” said Ventrone, a Pittsburgh native who had a cheering section of 60. “I will miss it if I’m not back.”
The Browns have the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft after finishing the season with a record of 5-11. The draft is in late April.
The Kansas City Chiefs (2-14, No. 1 overall), Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14, No. 2), Oakland Raiders (4-12, No. 3), Philadelphia Eagles (4-12, No. 4) and Detroit Lions (4-12, No. 5) are slotted ahead of the Browns in the draft order. The Arizona Cardinals (5-11, No. 7), Buffalo Bills (6-10, No. 8), New York Jets (6-10, No. 9) and Tennessee Titans (6-10, No. 10) round out the top 10.
The Browns don’t have a second-round pick next year because they gave it up to select wide receiver Josh Gordon on July 12 in the supplemental draft.
QB shows poise
Third-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis made his NFL debut and impressed his teammates, completing 22-of-32 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown with one interception for an 83.3 passer rating. The Browns’ top two quarterbacks — rookie Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy — were inactive after suffering right shoulder injuries Dec. 23 at Denver.
The Browns had four turnovers against the Steelers (8-8) but only one was Lewis’s fault. Strong safety Troy Polamalu stepped in front of Lewis’ pass intended for Benjamin in the first quarter and returned it to the Steelers’ 17-yard line. Benjamin, Gordon and Johnson lost fumbles.
“I thought Lewis played an outstanding game, considering the situation he was thrust into,” Shurmur said. “He showed what I thought and what I knew he had in him back in the days when he was with St. Louis.”
Lewis was not made available to the media because the Browns said he was being evaluated after taking what Shurmur called “a hit in the back” on a sack by linebacker Lawrence Timmons with 1:22 left in the fourth quarter. Shurmur was angry about the hit because he thought Timmons used his helmet. Johnson replaced Lewis and was strip-sacked on his only play.
Browns wide receiver Greg Little caught a 7-yard touchdown from Lewis in the third quarter.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Little said. “Thaddeus has that South Florida swagger about him. He always walks around and says, ‘If I ever get a chance, I’m going to show what I really have.’ Today people got to see a glimpse of what could be.”
The Browns and Steelers got down and dirty with some nasty play. It all started when Steelers offensive lineman Doug Legursky dived into the back of Browns linebacker Craig Robertson’s legs.
“It was after the play, and he cut me from behind,” Robertson said. “At this point of the season we are playing hard every play, but that’s something you don’t do. You can’t cut somebody from behind like that. He was blocking me, blocking me, doing good and then stopped. Once I passed him, he tried to cut me from behind. I didn’t take a liking to that very much.”
Robertson got up swinging.
“I got underneath his skin,” Legursky said. “I was finishing a play. He didn’t like the way I did it. It all stemmed from there.”
Browns defensive tackle Phil Taylor later blindsided Steelers offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum with a forearm, knocking him out of the game with a concussion early in the third quarter. After the game, Taylor retweeted several messages directed at him from angry Steelers fans.
“It’s between the whistles,” Taylor said. “You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel.”
Taylor insisted he wouldn’t be fazed if he’s disciplined by the league.
“I don’t care,” Taylor said. “If I get a call, I get a call. I got it.”
Browns defensive tackles Billy Winn and Ahtyba Rubin received personal-foul penalties after they got into a scuffle with Legursky and other opposing players following the Steelers’ extra-point kick with 4:39 left in the third quarter.
“It was a pretty grimy game,” Legursky said. “They were taking shots. Everybody was.”
The Browns made another hired on the business side of the organization by bringing in Brent Stehlik as their executive vice president and chief revenue officer, a league source confirmed for the Beacon Journal on Sunday.
The source spoke on condition of anonymity because the Browns have yet to announce the hiring. ESPN’s Adam Schefter first reported the move.
Stehlik, a Cleveland native who graduated from Mount Union in 1999, previously served as the senior vice president of business operations for the San Diego Padres. He oversaw all aspects of revenue generation and marketing for the Padres.
On Dec. 18, the Browns named Alec Scheiner their president. He will oversee the day-to-day business operations of the organization.
Stehlik and Scheiner worked together while they were with the Dallas Cowboys. Stehlik served as the Cowboys’ director of business development before joining the Padres in 2010. Scheiner served as the Cowboys’ senior vice president and general counsel before being hired by the Browns this month.
The Browns became the second team since 1966 to have rookies lead the team in passing yards (Weeden, 3,385), rushing yards (running back Trent Richardson, 950) and receiving yards (Gordon, 805) in the same season. The Buffalo Bills also did it in 1968. … Defensive end Jabaal Sheard tied a career high with two sacks, his team-leading seventh of the season. … Gordon joined wide receiver Kevin Johnson (1999), running back Eric Metcalf (1989) and wide receiver Webster Slaughter (1986) as the only Browns rookies to record a reception in all 16 games. … Running back Brandon Jackson recorded his first carries with the Browns, picking up 54 yards on eight attempts. … Little became the first player to lead the Browns in receptions (53) in back-to-back seasons since Kellen Winslow in 2006-07. … Rookie Tank Carder started at strongside linebacker for the Browns. … Weeden and McCoy (right shoulders), Richardson (left ankle), cornerback Sheldon Brown (concussion), linebacker Adrian Moten, guard Jarrod Shaw and tight end Jordan Cameron (concussion) were inactive for the Browns.
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 www.facebook.com.browns.abj.