BEREA (AP) — As Browns coach Pat Shurmur spoke to the media following Sunday’s 17-16 loss to Philadelphia, an interested observer slipped into the back of the room.
Incoming owner Jimmy Haslam III took a seat. And although he didn’t ask Shurmur a question, Haslam’s presence spoke volumes.
The new boss is already working.
It remains to be seen if that’s good or bad news for Shurmur, who went 4-12 in his first season in Cleveland. But it’s safe to assume that Haslam, the truck-stop magnate and former minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers who bought the Browns for $1 billion, will be examining his new investment very closely over the next few months.
For Shurmur, it’s a 16-week audition to keep his job.
“I really like Jimmy, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know him,” Shurmur said, “and I know Jimmy wants to win.”
Shurmur doesn’t have time to worry about his future beyond Sunday’s game at Cincinnati. With a young roster that includes 15 rookies, including the starting quarterback, running back, right offensive tackle and a defensive tackle, Shurmur’s primary objective is to get his team ready to play a team looking to bounce back from a drubbing at Baltimore on Monday.
A year ago, the Browns opened with a 27-17 loss to the Bengals, who took the lead in the fourth quarter when they caught Cleveland’s defense napping and threw a 41-yard touchdown pass. It was an embarrassing moment for the Browns and first of several rookie moments in a trying season for Shurmur, who also served as the club’s offensive coordinator.
It didn’t help that the labor lockout deprived Shurmur of a full offseason to prepare his club. That was reality, not an excuse and Shurmur’s problems were complicated by injuries, controversies involving running back Peyton Hillis and Colt McCoy and playing in the rugged AFC North, where every team but the Browns made the playoffs.
Shurmur came out on the other end a bit battered, but unbowed.
In his second year, Shurmur is more confident, more assured, more himself.
“He’s more seasoned,” linebacker Scott Fujita said. “He’s had a lot thrown at him in his first couple years on the job. But he’s come in, he’s steady and he’s got a little fire to him right now, which I enjoy.”
Shurmur has indeed undergone something of a makeover, but not an intentional one as much as one that happened naturally through experience.
He’s more vocal at practice, maximizing teaching moments to instruct his young players, 27 of whom have less than three years of pro experience. He’s also different during press conferences. Last year, he often joked about needing a medical degree to be able to discuss injuries. These days, he says as little as possible.
“I don’t think it’s important for us to just tell the world about where we are at,” he said. “That’s just my feelings on that. Maybe that’s just me in Year 2.”
There’s no guarantee Shurmur, who recently joked he’s “a bit of a hothead” will be around for a Year 3, but he believes he’s maturing as a coach.
“I think the more you do things the more confident you become,” he said. “We start winning games, that would help. I do see the progress behind the scenes and then it becomes quantifiable when you win. I get that and that’s what we’re pushing for.”
Shurmur has surrounded himself with quality help. Offensive coordinator Brad Childress and defensive guru Dick Jauron are former NFL head coaches, who have a great appreciation for what Shurmur went through last season.
Childress coached in Minnesota from 2006-10. He recalled the challenge of being a first-year coach with the world spinning a million miles per hour.
“It’s very tough, very difficult,” Childress said. “We all put books together and manuals for job interviews and things you think somebody wants to hear about. But I know this, I could have five things that I wanted to get done first thing when I walked in the office way early in the morning, and in five minutes I could be going 180 degrees away from those five things even being close to being addressed.”
Jauron, who was a head coach in Chicago and Buffalo, has observed Shurmur evolve in two years of on-the-job training.
What was new last season, isn’t as difficult the second time around.
“I believe he’s more confident,” Jauron said. “He certainly understands game-day situations. Of course he always did going in, but he’s had a year’s worth of experience dealing with all the issues that can happen. As we know in football there are always going to be things that surprise you.”
Shurmur got a big shock on the first day of training camp when Haslam’s intention to buy the Browns from Randy Lerner was announced. In the days that followed, Shurmur seemed rattled. He was edgy, even testy with reporters whose questions got short responses.
Shurmur, though, has been at ease lately. On Thursday, he was asked about tight end Alex Smith being used as a lead blocker. One of Shurmur’s more forgettable moments last season came when Smith went into the game as a fullback in fourth quarter, took a handoff and fumbled on his first career carry.
The Browns recovered, but Shurmur’s reputation took a major hit.
“As you know last year I handed it to him once,” Shurmur said. “You remember that right? We’ve practiced that numerous times since then, so if it ever happens don’t be surprised, all right?”
Shurmur waited for the laughter to die down.
“See,” he said smiling. “I told you I was a fun guy.”
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