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Shurmur stays upbeat as Browns slide

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BEREA, Ohio (AP)

Not long after he was named Cleveland's coach, Pat Shurmur went unrecognized in local restaurants. These days, he doesn't go out very often.

"My wife Jennifer is an outstanding cook so I have no problem being home," he said, smiling.

In the middle of a season sliding the wrong way, Shurmur limits his public appearances to Sundays.

These are tough times for the first-year coach, the Browns and their passionate fans, many of whom have grown so tired of the losing that their anger has turned to apathy. On Thursday, an upper-deck seat for Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars could be purchased from an online ticket brokerage for just $5.

This is Cleveland, where football and faith are intertwined but where the local team has been breaking hearts for decades.

The Browns (3-6) shattered a few more last week when Cleveland's dependable field-goal unit botched a snap and kicker Phil Dawson, who had made four field goals, hooked a 22-yard attempt in the final minutes of a 13-12 loss to St. Louis. For a few Browns loyalists, whose devotion was already hanging by a thread, losing to a one-win Rams team was the final straw.

Sports talk radio shows have been filled all week with calls from irate fans venting about Shurmur, whose conservative play-calling in the fourth quarter was perfect fodder for Monday morning quarterbacks. The Browns ran the ball six straight times - once with third-string tight end Alex Smith carrying and fumbling - in the red zone to set up Dawson's ill-fated try.

Shurmur staunchly defended his strategy.

"I'll go to the well with what I did," he said.

There's a segment of Browns fans who wish he'd jump in, too.

Shurmur, the club's fifth coach since 1999, said he understands what Cleveland fans have endured since the Browns returned as an expansion team. A fellow Midwesterner, he appreciates their passion and pain in rooting for a team that has gone 67-134 and made just one playoff appearance in 13 years.

When he ventures out now, Shurmur encounters fans who support him and others who aren't as comforting.

"There are people that are encouraging and then there's also folks that may be a little bit frustrated," he said. "It's just part of it. I think I understand it. I think I do and I appreciate everybody's passion. I think I get it."

The negativity outside the Browns' headquarters may be growing, but Shurmur has insulated himself to block out the criticism. His job is to build a young team into a consistent winner, and he can't fall back on injuries, inexperience or rotten luck as excuses for failure.

Following Sunday's loss, Shurmur, who was an assistant in Philadelphia and St. Louis before coming to Cleveland, took exception to one question and pounded his hand on the podium to emphasize his point. Don't think for a second he's not frustrated, and don't confuse any outward anger with disappointment.

He needs time, and Shurmur hopes Browns fans - and the media - will give it to him.

"I'm very competitive," he said. "As you get through this you get a little bit calloused up to it. I probably fibbed just a little bit early on when you say you don't read it or hear it. Now, I'm not. I don't read it, I really don't. I just stay away from it because I think what's important is you keep your focus moving forward. We've got very smart coaches and very willing players and we believe in what we're doing so you push forward.

"I understand when people get upset. But, on the other side we're all competitive so if you don't like hearing it, try not to listen. That's how you push through it. That's kind of how I do it."

Everyone in Cleveland who roots for the Browns is finding their own way of coping with the losses, and with a daunting schedule - they'll play Baltimore and Pittsburgh twice each in December - ahead, patience could be pushed to the limit.

With running back Peyton Hillis out with an injury, cornerback Joe Haden has become perhaps the Browns' most popular player. Haden likes to be seen around town, and this week he has heard his share of fury from Cleveland fans who swear they're not going to go to another game.

"They do that every time we start losing. They say, 'I can't believe I'm still watching this team' but at the end they still do," Haden said. "I understand where they're coming from. Of course when you have a team that you've been supporting your whole life you want to have them to win now.

"But they're sticking with us and I'm still feeling their love even though we're losing."

Shurmur's been met with difficult challenges in his first season in Cleveland. The Browns have been clobbered by key injuries, losing three starters for the year. He's also dealt with off-the-field issues, including Hillis' contract mess and a motorcycle accident involving defensive end Marcus Benard.

It's been tough, just as he expected.

"I anticipated there would be some bumps in the road," he said.

Shurmur has seven more weeks to ride out.

Notes: RB Montario Hardesty ran outside for the second straight day and Shurmur said it's possible the second-year back could play Sunday after missing two games with a calf injury. Shurmur said the Browns will be cautious with Hardesty. "It's important that we make sure he's right before we put him out there," he said. "If he's ready to go we'll use him. We'll try to get him back in the flow." ... Shurmur said Hillis may practice "as soon as next week" after missing five straight games with a hamstring injury, something the coach can't relate to. "I was never fast enough to pull a hamstring so I don't know how it feels," he joked. ... DL Jayme Mitchell missed practice for personal reasons.

Tagged: Browns, Phil Dawson, Peyton Hillis, Joe Haden

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