By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: The disappointment could be seen in the facial expressions of Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton when he reflected on the 2013 season.
His eyes looked as if they were on the verge of swelling with tears.
“This is the truth, I’ve been thinking about this for a week, I’m really disappointed that I didn’t do a better job of helping our team win more games,” Horton said Thursday during a news conference. “You look back at the season and right now, sitting here today, eight wins would get you into the playoffs.
“I’m disappointed that I didn’t get our guys, my guys, better equipped to finish whether it’s the fourth quarter or however that comes out because we didn’t finish, and that falls on my shoulders.”
The Browns (4-11) had their playoff hopes dashed weeks ago, and the defense’s letdowns in crunch time — the last few minutes of each half — have been a major culprit. Now the only thing Horton’s men have left to play for in the season finale Sunday is a chance to upset the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8) on the road and ensure they don’t earn a postseason berth.
After this coming weekend, Horton will delve deeper into what went wrong.
“First thing after the season, you look at your calls, you look at your matchups,” Horton said. “How can I affect the game? I’ll go back and look and say, ‘Should I have pressured more? Should I have pressured less? Should I have put someone in? Should I have called a different defense? Should we have done something different?’
“I’ll challenge our players to sit back and look at their season. What could they have done? Because as you’re well aware, we’ve had some chances in the fourth quarter to swing games and we didn’t. That to me is my burden that I’ll look back and go, ‘What could I have done better?’ ”
But will Horton be back with the Browns next season? He’s expected to be a head-coaching candidate after interviewing for those positions with the Browns and Arizona Cardinals this past offseason. The NFL enlisted a panel of eight former coaches and general managers to compile a list of coaching and GM candidates with an emphasis on minorities, and Horton made the list, MondayMorningQuarterback.com reported last week.
“I hope I’m back here,” Horton said with a laugh. “I hope they don’t fire me. The offseason part, I really don’t have any control over that. I don’t know. Somebody asked a question last week about a list [created by the NFL]. I’m not aware of the list, but it’s nice to be mentioned. I think anybody, whether you’re a player here trying to get into the Pro Bowl or get re-signed, a coach trying to get promoted, that’s the nature of the business. You want to move up, you want to get better and you want to be recognized, all of those things. That’s part of that process.”
Advice for top pick
If Horton returns to the Browns, one of his top priorities will be to guide the development of rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo. The sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, Mingo has only five sacks and 12 quarterback harassments in 14 games played this season.
“Two things I would [tell Mingo]: Get stronger. Live in the weight room, which I’m sure he will, and also live in the playbook, which I know he will,” Horton said. “We ask a lot of that position. It’s a player that has to be smart. He has to play the run, and that’s a strength part of it, but he also has to drop into coverage. I think it’s been an up-and-down season for him. I think he started very well. He came off [a bruised lung] in the preseason and produced sacks. I think when he understands the NFL game is not all either brute strength or speed — he needs a combination of that with smarts — he’ll learn to look at his opponent, what works best, watch other players, how they attack them. He’ll become a better player just by maturation process.”
Mingo is one of many players who haven’t compiled as many sacks as Horton would like. The Browns have 39 sacks, only one more than last season when Dick Jauron was their defensive coordinator. Horton said he wishes the defense had more, and he thinks it missed opportunities to get seven or eight more sacks.
Outside linebackers Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard and Mingo must deliver more sacks moving forward, Horton said. Kruger has 4½ sacks and Sheard leads the team with 5½.
“Those three guys, between the three of them, need more [sacks], but also our interior guys,” Horton said. “I know our little guys have had sacks. [Outside linebacker is] the position, that’s the area that we need to, obviously, get more production out of the sack category.”
Joe Haden, the Browns’ No. 1 cornerback, sat out practice Thursday after aggravating his bruised hip Sunday against the New York Jets.
“It was OK. I was able to play,” Haden said. “It was hurting for sure, but I can’t make any excuses. I’m still trying to get it back right.”
Haden is not sure if he’ll be good to go against the Steelers.
“I’m coming in every day still trying to get the treatment, still trying to get back right because it’s not like it should be,” Haden said.
In addition to Haden, the following players did not practice Thursday: tight end Jordan Cameron (concussion), strong safety T.J. Ward (illness, shoulder), right guard Shawn Lauvao (thigh contusion), defensive end John Hughes (sprained knee, elbow), left guard Jason Pinkston (concussion), tight end Andre Smith (strained calf) and nose tackle Phil Taylor (concussion).
Kruger (flu) returned to practice after sitting out Tuesday.
The Browns announced their previously reported deal with defensive end Brian Sanford. He practiced Thursday after re-signing with the team that waived him Aug. 31.
Sanford, whom the Oakland Raiders cut Dec. 7, was spending time with his family in Connecticut when he got word on Christmas Eve about the Browns bringing him back.
“Merry Christmas to me,” said Sanford, who spent the past three seasons with the Browns. … “I was happy. I’m familiar with the team. I’m familiar with the city, and I was just really excited. My mom was more stoked than I was. She was going crazy and running around.”
The Browns also signed rookie wide receiver Conner Vernon to the practice squad. He spent training camp with the Raiders. The New Orleans Saints signed defensive back Terrence Frederick off the Browns’ practice squad. Running back Jamaine Cook was released from the Browns’ practice squad Wednesday and re-signed Thursday.
The Browns are ending the partnership they had with the Cleveland Clinic since 1976 and switching to University Hospitals, according to several reports. UH’s sponsorship is believed to be worth as much as $30 million to the Browns over 10 years. … The local chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America elected offensive left tackle Joe Thomas as the Dino Lucarelli “Good Guy Award” winner. The award is given annually to a player for his cooperation with the media and for the way he carries himself in the community and with his teammates. Thomas, who also received the honor in 2010, is the first player to receive the award twice. He and wide receiver Josh Gordon, the PFWA player of the year, will be honored at the 35th annual Akron Browns Backers banquet in May at the Tangier restaurant.
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.