An honest survey of Cleveland Browns fans probably wouldn't yield many, if any, self-proclaimed Pat Shurmur fans, but we are just seventeen games into the process. This is simply his second first year, so give it time. (Relax, I'm kidding.) All jokes aside, the Browns second year Head Coach probably doesn't have too many friends in the pubs and gin joints of Northeast Ohio, with his 4-13 record in his one season plus a game. Beyond the tally of wins and losses, Shurmur just doesn't pass the eyeball test of what these fans want in their leader on the sideline.
That's not a plan. It's a statement made out of blind frustration, one that provides no more direction for the future than the unheard pleas to retain or extend the former St. Louis Rams Offensive Coordinator. It's okay to believe that something different will automatically be better. It isn't true; the Browns have been throwing darts at random ideas for the ideal Head Coach for over a decade now. Chris Palmer, a successful offensive assistant, was the perfect candidate because he was willing to take the job. Butch Davis was a winner that deserved autonomy because knew how to build a football program from the ground up; he did it at the college level. Romeo Crennel was perfect because he was a Belichick disciple, then Eric Mangini was perfect because you couldn't possibly whiff on two consecutive branches from the mighty Belichick Coaching Tree.
Butch Davis quit after deteriorating physically from the pressures of the job, but, to the pleasure of at least some fans, the rest were fired. None were fired because upper-management had a replacement in mind, only that "someone else" would be a better option. After Eric Mangini didn't win enough for Mike Holmgren, the Browns appointed President landed on Pat Shurmur, a family friend that wasn't on anyone else's Head Coaching RADAR as a viable candidate. My initial reaction, knowing nothing more than the Wikipedia bio the local media outlets were sharing, was optimistic. After all, winning a press conference doesn't win you football games, not at this level.
For Pat Shurmur, the nephew of Holmgren's former colleague and dear friend Fritz Shurmur, the problem was that he lost in such ways that "not winning the (introductory) press conference" was such a distant memory and secondary concern. All things considered, I opine that the 2011 season was the worst season the Browns had since their 1999 reincarnation. Of course, Shurmur wasn't losing with a roster similar to the '85 Bears or the '72 Dolphins, but I refuse to let anyone excuse how poorly Shurmur led the 2011 Browns as their Head Coach.
Sure, he didn't have a complete off-season or spectacular talent at many positions. Hindsight tells us that he many not have had a viable option at quarterback either, but let's not go out of our way to pin Shurmur's problems on Colt McCoy either, especially considering that McCoy was the subject of the most visible demonstration that the CEO of the sideline lacked any type of "institutional control" on the field in Week 14. You could pin the PR disaster that followed Colt McCoy's concussion in Pittsburgh on "Uncle Mike", but the bottom line is that Shurmur's mishandling of the situation and subsequent refusal to own the mistake led to the unmitigated disaster presented to the media, blogosphere, and loyal fan base.
Look, Browns fans are tired of the excuses; they don't want to hear them any more. Eric Mangini found ways to win, both the 2009 and 2010 versions managed victories that offered promise. He did it with Colt McCoy; he did it with a team that wasn't engineered for his style of football. For the record, I don't have a problem with Holmgren and Tom Heckert forcing Colt McCoy on the Head Coach du jour, and I so much wanted Colt McCoy to be "the guy". I can't say enough about how much better things would have been if McCoy would have been the answer, but he isn't, and I won't put that on Pat Shurmur, even though he was the one that was hand-picked to lead Holmgren's middle-round choice of quarterbacks.
In the present tense, I'm a "Brandon Weeden guy", which isn't to say that I scribble with any type of agenda to necessarily sell one quarterback over another, but I do want to see the Browns do what's in their best interest to see the Browns, going forward, win as many games as possible. I think I like Colt McCoy, and I know I want a winner like him on the roster, but I just don't the physical abilities that he obviously lacks to have to lead the Browns out of the sub-mediocre holding pattern, in which they seem to be stuck. It may be unfair to McCoy that his replacement was given more to work with, but it appears as though measures were taken to eliminate or reduce the issues that warranted such a dreadful rookie season for the Head Coach.
His defense is actually somewhat of a bright spot. True, the 2011 Draft provided many of the weapons that made it so successful, and Dick Jauron, Shurmur's Defensive Coordinator, deserves a large part of the credit for that, but it all happens under Shurmur's watch, so why not offer credit there? But, I'm not going to stare at the TV, and tell you that it's not on; Jauron's defense isn't immune from the long arm of Shurmur's incompetence, as demonstrated in the Opening Game debacle where Pat was bested by Bruce Gradkowski on the quick snap in his 27-17 debut loss to Cincinnati. The good news is that we can take the 2011 Cleveland Browns season, and give it back to the Brits.
To prepare for 2012, the Browns stocked up on young offensive talent, which should go a long way to help an offensive-minded coach. Enter Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, Josh Gordon, and Travis Benjamin. The exercise of hiring an offensive coordinator, even if it's the disgraced former Head Coach Brad Childress was a necessity, but we keep an eyebrow raised high when we learn that it will still be Shurmur calling the plays. To the naive eye, it appears to be too much for a young head coach, especially one that has struggled so mightily. However, it's a sign of leadership, and it's promising in a way that our fearless leader isn't afraid to drive the boat his way, even with that iceberg looming ahead.
Of course, we don't want to refer to Mr. Haslam, the soon-to-be majority owner of the Browns, as disaster on the horizon, but the sudden sale of the Browns has turned everyone's world upside down. It's certainly put Mike Holmgren into a lame-duck status as Team President, but perhaps a fire has been lit under rear ends to win now. It's clearly sink or swim time for those who hope to continue to remain on board with Mr. Haslam's Cleveland Browns. The on-going auditions promise to provide a small sample size, nothing beyond this season, and the Head Coach is no exception there.
One game into his second season, what do we see in Pat Shurmur? We didn't see any quick snaps lead to easy opponent touchdowns, but to commend that is to set the bar way too low, even by Expansion Browns standards. We saw a team that wasn't expected to compete with the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday come very near taking down a team that proclaimed themselves a Dream Team just a year ago (before finishing 8-8). I understand the back-up quarterback that made that proclamation is gone, but that defense actually is stacked, and the Browns almost won the game. In this case, almost doesn't count. In fact, almost basically never counts in the NFL.
As I've stated, I don't have any hidden agendas here, but I want Pat Shurmur to succeed, if only because he's the current Head Coach of the Browns. It's worth pointing out that he knows the Eagles very well, considering he spent ten seasons on Andy Reid's staff before taking the Offensive Coordinator position with the Rams in 2009. That's a year more than Eric Mangini spent under the wing of Bill Belichick with the Jets and Patriots before routing his mentor with a depleted Browns roster in his second season as their Head Coach. This is just to point out that he wasn't game-planning in the dark, even though Reid's offensive philosophy is obviously going to be different with Mike Vick than it was for Donovan McNabb. His familiarity with Sam Bradford and the Rams didn't lead the Browns to victory a year ago either, but I'm done talking about 2011.
Can we put the poor execution of the offense versus the Eagles on Childress, and ultimately Shurmur, or do we simply need to expect more out of the talent on the roster? I'm actually going to offer Shurmur and the offensive staff a bit of a pass here. If this was a high school team, I'd say it's a failure on the part of the coaches for not having the players motivated, but these ranks don't leave any room for that "rah-rah" stuff. It looked like the right personnel on the field, and no back-up Tight Ends were taking hand-offs. The play-calling didn't appear to be questionable, but we are evaluating that with very low standard.
I don't what can be said about the running game; it's hard to fault Trent Richardson's 19 for 39 yard performance on anything by the cheese cloth type of protection, which could be inadequate blocking schemes, but quite possibly poor execution. The passing woes obviously fall mostly on Weeden...mostly. From where I sat, other than the ill-fate sideline routes, the receivers were running decent routes, occasionally getting separation on a top notch secondary, but the Browns haven't remedied their issues with drops that's plagued them on the whole since the 2008 season. On the whole, Brandon Weeden's 5.1 rating, a record-low on many levels, would let Shurmur off the hook, and the offense would get an average or incomplete grade. But, by not having his starting quarterback prepared to start the season (people who watch pre-season football tell me he got fewer practice reps than he should have), the offensive-guru gets an "F" for how the offense was coordinated.
Above all, Shurmur's gameday track record with decision making is what scares us the most about him. I understand that being an NFL Head Coach isn't easy, and it's probably made to be more difficult by trying to call 100% of your offensive plays, but the decision making is just such an important part of the job. On the whole, Shurmur didn't have any serious clock management issues, but Brandon Weeden's fourth interception of the day didn't give him the chance to screw up in the last 78 seconds. He did give the ball back to the Eagles with a minute to go in the first half, but that speaks more to the offense's lack of execution than his ability to manage the clock; if Owen Marecic catches Weeden's pass on third down, the Eagles don't get the chance to take a 10-3 halftime lead.
If memory serves, the replacement officials (who were satisfactory in Sunday's game) didn't grant Shurmur any replay challenges, but not for his lack of trying. On television, the Browns defenders knocked the ball loose from Mike Vick just short of the line to gain, as he attempted to run for a first down. Vick appeared to have recovered the ball, and my eyes told me that he pulled it over the digital yellow line that unofficially indicates that first down line. Browns defender Billy Winn stood up with the football, but it didn't appear that the Browns had any legitimate claim to the football.
I actually thought they'd caught a break on the spot, it having been marked short of the first down, but the Browns mysteriously attempted to challenge the call. I could only imagine he was seeking a more favorable spot, but fortunately, the replay rules do protect Shurmur from himself, and only allow for pass/fail on the line to gain. This prevents that awkward scenario of the officials awarding an even more unfavorable sport to the challenger in evidence revealed by their own challenge. As it turns out, Shurmur was trying to review possession, which cannot be reviewed. It's just a relief that Head Coaches are not penalized for attempting to challenge plays that the rules do not allow to be challenged, except in the case of plays that are automatically reviewed. That's a bit of a blurry line, if you ask me.
You can't really evaluate a Head Coach for what ends up being a non-Challenge, but you can cite the Keystone Cops competency demonstrated when your fearless leader can't appropriately interpret the rules of replay challenges. It doesn't bode well with me, and I can't imagine Mr. Haslam thinks much of it either.
One decision that fans are hammering Shurmur for is the choice to kick the extra point early in the fourth quarter to put the Browns up 16-10 in a defensive struggle. Yes, hindsight tells us that a successful two-point conversion in that situation prevents the Browns from losing 17-16, but what did anyone see out of the offense that led them to believe it would have been successful? Was there a magical page in the playbook that guaranteed Brandon Weeden could get three positive yards on one high pressure play? It might not be popular among the angry masses, but I immediately agreed with Shurmur's decision to take the single guaranteed point from Phil Dawson.
The Eagles did have a field goal attempt after D'Qwell Jackson's interception return, and point after, put the Browns up 16-10. The fact that Alex Henery missed the 45 yard attempt is irrelevant in this hypothetical situation. The point is that the Eagles had more than one scoring opportunity, so a five-point lead meant the Eagles could beat the Browns without scoring a touchdown. Even a successful conversion, and a 7-point lead with 14 minutes to go still meant the Browns lose 20-18, if Henery hits that field goal with 9 minutes left, and they later score a touchdown. Henery had connected on his last seventeen kicks before the fourth quarter miss; the fact that it sailed wide left in this case blurs the argument, but it's still a valid point. There are plenty of reasons to shoot Shurmur down, but that scenario doesn't provide the requisite ammunition to do so.
Here we stand, at the very beginning of the second (and perhaps the final) chapter of the Shurmur Chronicles. Putting the misery that was his first season behind us, this small one game sample is not exactly a rave review by anyone's standards. We already know what's behind us, and we can slouch in our chairs, and accept that it will be the "same old, same old" going forward, or we can look forward to some progress. Personally, I'd rather keep the glass half full, at least until the north coast's first wintry mix, so allow me to point out what I hope to see in Shurmur in the week's ahead.
Finally, there's some Kool-Aid worth drinking, as long as Shady McCoy isn't invited to the party. The defense looks good, but they do need to keep their foot on the gas. If Jauron has autonomy over what happens on that side of the ball, great, but I'm not too narrow minded to give a General credit for the work of his lieutenants. You have to wonder if the return of Scott Fujita might gum up the works, and ditto for Sheldon Brown. The pending doom that awaits Joe Haden must not be ignored, and that could prove to be a test for Shurmur. This is a unit that made me proud to be a fan, Shurmur cannot allow backward progress with this group.
There's nothing to smile about on the other side of the ball. Shurmur has that background coaching quarterbacks and coordinating offenses; it reflects badly on him that his starting quarterback looks so un-coached and that his offense looks so uncoordinated. With the bar lowered, we just need to see baby steps out of Weeden. The good news is that he's not facing the Eagles secondary or their pass rush next week, so maybe he can showcase that arm that the passionate Colt McCoy supporters are so desperate to dismiss. The poison of a controversy is a dark cloud that somehow continues to hover over the facility in Berea, and no one really wants that, so progress in the week ahead is imperative.
While Weeden is a big problem today, he isn't the only problem. A few inexcusable drops made Weeden's performance even more difficult to stomach. I don't know what Shurmur and Childress can do to coach professional pass catchers to, you know, catch the football, but we're probably discussing what went right in the Browns first season opening win since 2004 today, if Owen Marecic and Greg Little make crucial catches in key spots on Sunday. The reality is we're discussing a 17-16 loss, and trying not to think about how LJ Fort came so close to bringing home victory in a game the Browns really had no business winning.
It's time for Pat Shurmur to turn the page, and get the Browns into that business of winning. That has to start with him and his coaching staff, and that's exactly what Mr. Haslam hopes to see out of the man that leads his billion dollar investment. At the end of the day, that's all the fans want to see.
It's Pat Shurmur and the Browns. Can those things be combined in a sentence with the term "winning cultutre" someday?