The Browns are in familiar territory as they head into another season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers on the eve of what is expected to be yet another radical makeover.
The new regime of owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner will likely begin the process of putting its stamp on the organization by cleaning house not long after the Browns (5-10) face the Steelers (7-8) at 1 p.m. today at Heinz Field. The Browns will probably part with coach Pat Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert by Monday.
“You try not to bring it up,” middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “If anything, you want the day to go by a little slower. You want to enjoy these last few days if that’s the case. It hasn’t been talked about, but you can tell [there’s] a sense of urgency, and our coaches do a great job of not wearing their emotions on their sleeve if they are down.
“They’ve got a million things to think about. They’ve got kids here that go to school. They have a house here. It’s a tough transition for the family, let alone themselves. So you try not to talk about it. You just try to continue the day as normal.”
Unfortunately for the Browns, blowing it all up and starting over has become normal during their expansion era. Whoever succeeds Shurmur will be the sixth full-time head coach of the Browns since their rebirth in 1999.
“I’ve been through it enough to learn how to deal with it, but you still think about it,” Jackson said. “You think about the relationships that you built with the guys that are in the building, not knowing their futures and their families’ futures. It’s a part of the business that’s ugly, and it’s a part of the business that you can never get used to it.”
Shurmur’s two most recent predecessors, Eric Mangini and Romeo Crennel, coached their last games with the Browns while using backup quarterbacks in blowout losses to the Steelers. With rookie third-string quarterback Colt McCoy starting, the Browns fell 41-9 in Mangini’s last game on Jan. 2, 2010, in Cleveland. And fourth-string quarterback Bruce Gradkowski started for the Browns in Crennel’s farewell, a 31-0 loss on Dec. 28, 2008, in Pittsburgh.
Third-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis will become the Browns’ 18th starting quarterback since 1999 when he makes his NFL debut today against the Steelers’ No. 1-ranked defense. Rookie Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy are out with injured throwing shoulders. Meanwhile, running back Montario Hardesty will replace rookie Trent Richardson, who’s out with an injured left ankle, in the starting lineup.
The Browns are 5-23 against the Steelers since 1999, but they prevailed 20-14 on Nov. 25. They have a chance to sweep the Steelers for the first time since 1988 and finish 3-3 in the AFC North after going 0-6 in the division last season. In other words, Shurmur and his men can still go out on a positive note.
“Listen, I get this, and my concerns are for my team and making sure that we do all the right things during the game to give our guys the best chance to win,” Shurmur said. “That’s where I’m at. At some point after that, I’ll begin to think about what goes on from there. I’m not worried about it.”
Shurmur is 9-22 in two seasons with the Browns. They went 4-12 last season after Shurmur and his assistants took control in an offseason that was virtually wiped out by the NFL lockout and installed their systems — the West Coast offense and the 4-3 defense. Less than a week after camp started this past summer, Haslam struck a deal to buy the Browns from Randy Lerner for about $1 billion on Aug. 2. Former President Mike Holmgren, who hired Shurmur and Heckert, left the Browns on Nov. 30 after essentially being replaced by Banner.
“I think a lot of people don’t get a fair shake in this business whether it be the quarterbacks or the regime,” special-teams ace and wide receiver Josh Cribbs said. “They came in during the lockout. Now the owner decided to sell the team. It’s just so unfortunate the way the nature of the business is. But I’ll tell you one thing: We’re geared up to win this last game, to give it our best shot because this win, a sweep of Pittsburgh, would do a lot for this city and might do a lot for the coaching staff as well. Finishing strong is the biggest thing at this point.”
In addition to coaches and members of the front office, Cribbs, Pro Bowl kicker Phil Dawson and several other players might be saying goodbye to the Browns. 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 and long snapper Christian Yount are scheduled to become free agents in March.
The roster will probably be overhauled again because a new coach and new personnel head would want to acquire players who fit into their systems and mesh with their philosophies. In the past couple of years, Heckert dismantled a veteran-laded roster built by Mangini and infused it with youth.
“I think Tom has done a great job of putting together young talent, and Pat’s done a good job of coaching them,” Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said. “I think we’ve shown improvement. We’ve shown growth, but it’s none of our decisions. Those decisions happen over our heads.”
The Browns now have 29 players on their 53-man roster who are either in their first or second NFL season. They also have a league-high 82 combined starts from rookies this season. The Indianapolis Colts are second with 52.
“I think we’ve made improvements, some may say not fast enough, but I think we’ve made improvements,” Shurmur said. “I think we came into a less-than-ideal situation when we got here. I’m proud of the work that the guys that I hired did in terms of inspiring the players to improve. It’s a little different thought process when you’re working with so many young ones. There are certain things you’ve got to keep hammering home that when you’ve got a veteran crew, you know you talk about other things. So these guys, I think, did an outstanding job of that. We have not won enough football games, and I know that’s the way this thing works. But in our situation, I see improvement, and I’ll leave it at that. The rest of it, going in depth to all that, I think that’s a discussion for after we play Pittsburgh.”
Shurmur’s top lieutenants, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron and offensive coordinator Brad Childress, insisted they’re not concerned about what’s going to happen.
“Dick, he deserves the right, some consideration to stay in the building,” said Jackson, the defense’s captain. “He’s a great coach. He understands the game. He’s given me the keys to the defense. He trusts players that put in the time. Not to have him in the building, it will be a tough adjustment at first. But I don’t even want to think about Dick not being here. I honestly don’t.”
Still, the exodus of Shurmur, Heckert and at least most of the assistant coaches is likely on the brink of becoming a reality everyone must face.
“A lot of my coaching friends say you haven’t been a coach until you’ve been fired, but if that’s the case, I don’t want to be a coach,” running backs coach Gary Brown said. “So I anticipate myself being here. I anticipate coach Shurmur [being here]. I guess I’m being optimistic, but coach Shurmur and his staff, we’ve tried to do the best we can.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at https://ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.