By Ryan Lewis
and Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writers
PITTSBURGH: Browns quarterback Jason Campbell’s season came to a close Sunday outside an interview room at Heinz Field after the Browns’ 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
His news conference complete, Campbell put on his backpack and thanked several reporters for their work, shaking hands with them.
As he turned, he added, “Whatever happens, happens,” before walking onto the team bus for the trip back to Berea.
Campbell wasn’t the only one on the bus with an unknown future, as reports swirled surrounding coach Rob Chudzinski’s job security before NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported later Sunday night that Chudzinski’s firing was official.
Even so, Campbell’s future in Cleveland is anything but certain. He ended the year 1-7 as a starter. The Browns could sign a quarterback in free agency, select one in the draft or rely on Brian Hoyer, who’s recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Ending the season on a seven-game losing streak was difficult.
“It was super hard,” said Campbell, who threw for 240 yards, a touchdown and an interception on 23-of-41 passing. He had a passer rating of 71.2. “You think about the games we lost. The New England game is the one that hurt the most, because of the way that it happened and the effort the guys put into it. We had a lot of games we could have easily won.”
Campbell also had regrets about his season.
“I wish I could have done a couple things better, hit a couple throws I know I can hit,” he said. “Every quarterback is not going to hit every throw and make every play.”
On Sunday, some missed throws were costlier than others. The biggest was perhaps a missed chance on fourth-and-4 at the Steelers’ 29 late in the first quarter. The Browns (4-12) were trailing 7-0 and went for the first down instead of kicking a field goal. Campbell had receiver Josh Cooper wide open crossing the middle of the field, but he threw behind him. Cooper bobbled the ball while trying to reach back and couldn’t haul in the pass.
“I tried to throw across my body going this way,” Campbell said, motioning. “He [Cooper] kept staying on the move, so I tried to move the guy a little bit and turn and flick it that way across my body. I just wish I could have put it a yard more in front of him instead of his back shoulder.”
Campbell had another missed fourth-down throw in the third quarter from the Steelers’ 33 when trailing 14-0. This time, he underthrew Greg Little. On the Browns’ previous drive, Chudzinski elected to punt from the 33-yard line with 1:10 remaining in the half. Two drives in a row, the Browns drove inside the Steelers’ 35-yard line but came up empty.
Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham then made it a three-score game with a 30-yard field goal with 3:50 remaining in the third quarter.
Suisham added another field goal early in the fourth quarter to make it 20-0. Campbell found running back Fozzy Whittaker for a 35-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 2:46 remaining, but it was too little, too late.
Running back Edwin Baker added 69 rushing yards on 18 carries.
Wide receiver Josh Gordon had seven catches for 82 yards, becoming the first Browns wide receiver to lead the NFL in receiving yards with 1,646. That’s the 10th-most yards in a season in league history and also a franchise record.
His 117.6 yards per game this season also led the league and is the sixth-best mark in history. Gordon finished the year with 87 catches, nine of them for touchdowns.
He also had stomach flu before the game, Chudzinski said, and needed intravenous fluids before the game.
Tight end Jordan Cameron started despite entering the weekend listed as questionable with a concussion suffered two weeks ago against the Chicago Bears.
Cameron had five catches for 69 yards against the Steelers and said it was important for him to play in the final game.
“It was very important to just mentally to be like, ‘OK, I’m free, I’m good,’ and end on a note where I wasn’t playing the game worrying about my health,” Cameron said.
Hopes for improvement
The Steelers found the end zone on their opening drive as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit Jerricho Cotchery for a 9-yard touchdown. Later, rookie running back Le’Veon Bell scored on a 5-yard touchdown run, spinning out of an attempted tackle by defensive end Billy Winn.
The Browns defense gave up at least 20 points in seven consecutive games and 11 of the last 12.
Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is confident that if defensive coordinator Ray Horton returns, the defense could make strides, especially in the fourth quarter.
“If he’s here next year, which I think he is, we’re going to be much better,” Jackson said. “We’re gonna get those answers corrected that for whatever reason, the fourth quarter of games, we couldn’t finish out this year. ... We’re definitely in good shape, we have the guys in the room to get it done defensively.”
Inside linebacker Craig Robertson and free safety Tashaun Gipson both had interceptions Sunday, though neither resulted in points. Gipson finished with a team-leading five interceptions.
Inactives, lineup changes
Cornerback Joe Haden sat out with a hip pointer suffered Dec. 15 against the Bears and aggravated last week against the New York Jets.
Cornerback Buster Skrine left in the second quarter with a shoulder injury, with Julian Posey taking over.
In addition to Haden, four other starters were inactive for the Browns: left guard Jason Pinkston (concussion), right guard Shawn Lauvao (thigh contusion), right defensive end John Hughes (sprained knee) and nose tackle Phil Taylor (concussion).
Rookie Leon McFadden, a third-round draft pick, started at cornerback in place of Haden. Posey served as the Browns’ nickel cornerback, a role McFadden normally fills, until Skrine left the game.
Rookie Garrett Gilkey started at left guard in place of Pinkston, and starting left guard John Greco switched to right guard and started in place of Lauvao. Greco, who has been dealing with a knee injury, left in the first half but returned. Oniel Cousins took the snaps in his place. Winn started at right defensive end in place of Hughes, and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen started at nose tackle in place of Taylor. Gilkey, a seventh-round selection, and Kitchen, a Kent State University product, started for the first time in the NFL.
Draft order set
The Browns are in position to have the No. 4 selection in the 2014 NFL Draft due to their record and strength of schedule. The draft order ahead of the Browns will be Houston (No. 1), St. Louis (No. 2, from Washington) and Jacksonville (No. 3). The Oakland Raiders, also 4-12, started the day ahead of the Browns, but slid back in the order due to strength of schedule.
The Browns will face the following opponents at home next season: Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Texans, Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Raiders.
The Browns will face the following opponents on the road: Steelers, Ravens, Bengals, Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills.
Dates and times will be announced in the spring.