The postgame handshake with Steelers counterpart Mike Tomlin often comes with a pink slip for Browns coaches.
Romeo Crennel was fired after losing in Pittsburgh to end the 2008 season. Bruce Gradkowski came off the street to start at quarterback and was overmatched in a 31-0 loss. He went 5-for-16 for 18 yards, two interceptions and a 1.0 rating.
Eric Mangini was fired after losing to the Steelers to finish 2010. Rookie Colt McCoy was overwhelmed in the 41-9 loss. He went 20-for-41 for 209 yards, a touchdown, three interceptions and a 41.6 rating.
Pat Shurmur is the latest Cleveland coach to meet the Steelers with his fate seemingly sealed. Owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner are expected to fire general manager Tom Heckert and Shurmur on Monday.
Shurmur’s two-year tenure would end with quarterback Thaddeus Lewis in an NFL game for the first time. His final move on the field would be a midfield handshake and quick conversation with Tomlin.
Shurmur, who is 9-22, tried to deflect the focus from his future during the week, but allowed himself to reflect for a moment.
“I think we’ve made improvements,” he said. “Some may say not fast enough, but I think we’ve made improvements.
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. 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.”
The Browns (5-10) conclude their season against the Steelers for the third straight year and fourth in five. They’ve lost the previous three.
None of the numbers are good for the Browns in this series. They have won only twice in Pittsburgh since 1990, have lost 16 of 18 overall and are 5-23 since returning in 1999.
“When are we not in a rebuilding process?” receiver/special teamer Joshua Cribbs said. “You can talk about how many quarterbacks we go through and coaches since I’ve been here.”
Cribbs, who’s set to become a free agent, arrived in 2005 and has had three coaches. If he is re-signed, he’ll likely have a fourth.
“It’s not a good recipe for successful football,” he said of the instability. “A lot of people don’t get a fair shake in this business, whether it be the quarterbacks or the regime.
“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 and a sweep of Pittsburgh would do a lot for this city and might do a lot for the coaching staff as well.”
Many people inside Browns headquarters held out hope against what seems like the inevitable. Cornerback Sheldon Brown, defensive end Frostee Rucker, left tackle Joe Thomas and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson gave their support to Shurmur and Heckert in recent weeks.
“He definitely is (the right guy),” Jackson said of Shurmur. “He orchestrated this team that’s here, along with Tom Heckert. You look at our schedule, you look at how young we are, from where we started to where we are now. The record doesn’t indicate that, but we were in a ton of ballgames.
“I think if you keep the core guys here, you set a foundation and you build off that. The only direction to go is up.”
“I like both of them,” defensive tackle Phil Taylor said of Shurmur and Heckert. “Nobody really likes coaching change. For us to get another coach next year, it will be like starting all over again.”
“Certainly, I like the direction we’re headed, but it’s not my decision,” Thomas said. “(Change) is never easy, but it’s part of being in the NFL.”
Much of the attention has already turned to possible replacements. Coaches mentioned range from Alabama’s Nick Saban and Oregon’s Chip Kelly on the college level to Indianapolis’ Bruce Arians, Denver’s Mike McCoy and Cincinnati’s Jay Gruden among NFL assistants.
The general manager candidates are harder to identify because many have worked behind the scenes for their entire careers. But San Francisco director of player personnel Tom Gamble, Baltimore assistant GM Eric DeCosta, NFL Network analyst and former Browns personnel executive Mike Lombardi and Atlanta director of player personnel David Caldwell are expected to be hot commodities for teams making a switch.
The rumors and the reports couldn’t crack running backs coach Gary Brown.
“A lot of my coaching friends say you haven’t been a coach until you’ve been fired,” he said Friday. “But if that’s the case, I don’t want to be a coach. So I anticipate myself being here. I anticipate Coach Shurmur being here. I guess I’m being optimistic.
“We’ve worked hard. I think it’s proven that this team is going in the right direction. So I anticipate positive things.”
Jackson avoided the topic when he was around Shurmur, coordinator Dick Jauron and linebackers coach Bill Davis in preparation for the finale.
“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,” Jackson said. “It hasn’t been talked about, but you can tell it’s a sense of urgency there.
“And 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. It’s something we can’t control, so we might as well just make the best out of it each and every day.”
The next coach could try to retain Jauron to maintain some stability and continue the development of a young defense with a lot of potential. The players like that idea.
“Dick, he deserves some consideration to stay in the building,” Jackson said. “He’s a great coach. I don’t even want to think about Dick not being here. I honestly don’t.”
The changes at the top will likely come soon enough. Until then, the Browns will try to go 3-3 inside the AFC North and win six games — each for the first time since 2007.
The upset would allow Shurmur to walk off Heinz Field with more than just a sense of impending doom.
“We’re well aware of the rivalry between the Browns and the Steelers and it’s always good to finish the season with a win,” he said.
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