Shurmur’s turn to cure Browns

As the NFL’s lockout dragged on, Pat Shurmur often went

unrecognized when he ventured out in public. At one local

restaurant, the Browns’ first-year coach was approached by a

flustered waitress who apologized for not realizing she was serving

”the coach.”

She thought he was Jim Tressel, Ohio State’s exiled coach.

”Nobody knew who I was,” Shurmur said, cracking a smile.

He can’t hide any longer. Not in this football-freaky town,

where the man in charge of the Browns is under constant watch and

scrutiny.

Hired in January, Shurmur is Cleveland’s fifth coach since 1999,

a loathsome 12-year stretch in which the Browns have been nothing

but brutal. They’ve made the playoffs once, had two winning seasons

and lost 10 games or more nine times. There has been almost

constant change in the front office, coaching staffs and players

have cycled through at an exhausting pace and nothing has been

permanent besides the club’s plain orange helmets and the

unwavering loyalty of Cleveland’s fans.

”It’s been nuts,” said four-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Joe

Thomas, who begins his fifth season under a third coach and with a

seven-year, $84 million contract extension. ”But there’s now a

very solid plan. A couple years ago, there were a lot of questions

about the future of this franchise, a lot of instability. Right

now, everybody in this organization is rowing the ship in the same

direction – for once.”

And Shurmur has the wheel.

This is his first head coaching gig – at any level – but the

46-year-old Shurmur, who is succeeding Eric Mangini after two 5-11

seasons, built an impressive pro resume by developing quarterbacks.

As an assistant under Andy Reid in Philadelphia, Shurmur helped

Donovan McNabb blossom into one of the game’s top QBs, and as St.

Louis’ offensive coordinator, he molded rookie Sam Bradford, who

turned the Rams around last year.

Shurmur’s new project is Colt McCoy, who was impressive last

year after being thrown to the Steelers and Ravens as a rookie

starter because of injuries. McCoy has flourished during the

preseason in Shurmur’s new West Coast offense, which puts a premium

on accuracy, timing and smarts.

Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown played eight seasons with

McNabb, and has seen enough of McCoy to believe he has what it

takes to succeed. In fact, Brown feels McCoy’s ability puts him at

another level.

”Second to none,” Brown said. ”You can see his poise. You can

see he’s never flustered in the game, no matter the situation. He

runs the offense efficiently. You can tell he’s a guy that’s been

groomed to be a quarterback. His demeanor, he never panics, you

always see him calm, even when he was thrown in those situations

last year. No one gave him a chance. He was cool as ice. On the bus

ride to the stadium, you never could tell. That’s just him.”

McCoy went 2-6 in eight starts, completed 60 percent of his

passes and threw more interceptions (9) than TDs (6) last year. But

he showed he toughness, leadership qualities and insatiable drive

to get better. During the lockout, McCoy sought out Brett Favre for

some advice on running the West Coast on Ohio’s North Coast.

McCoy understands to be considered among the game’s best will

require work.

”I’m always impressed by other quarterbacks, whether it’s Tom

(Brady) or playing against Aaron (Rodgers). Just in the short time

that I’ve been a starting quarterback, I realize how hard it is. I

realize the time commitment, I realize you have to be a little

lucky at times and so for a guy like Aaron or Tom or anyone who can

go out and win successfully year in and year out and play well. I

have all the respect in the world for them. This is not an easy

thing to do.”

The Browns are hoping battering ram running back Peyton Hillis

can build off his breakout season (1,177 yards), which earned him

acclaim and the cover of Madden ’12, the popular video game. Hillis

isn’t one dimensional either. He had 61 catches and became the

first back in Cleveland history to rush for 1,000 yards, catch at

least 50 passes and score 10 TDs.

Take that, Jim Brown.

On defense, the Browns are switching to a 4-3 scheme under new

coordinator Dick Jauron, the former Chicago and Buffalo coach who

can draw on 27 years of NFL experience. The Browns will start two

rookies – first-round pick Phil Taylor and second-rounder Jabaal

Sheard – up front, and they’re counting on D’Qwell Jackson to

bounce back after missing last season with a chest injury.

Cornerback Joe Haden could be the Browns’ best player. He had

six interceptions in just seven starts as a rookie, and the

gregarious 22-year-old, who spent the offseason endearing himself

to Clevelanders with appearances at Cavaliers games and charity

events, has superstar potential.

Linebacker Scott Fujita has already taken the uneven road to

success that the Browns are attempting to travel. Fujita spent

three difficult seasons in New Orleans before everything fell into

place, capped by the Saints’ storybook run to a Super Bowl title.

Fujita can sense the tide turning for the Browns.

”It’s all very professional,” he said. ”We do have a lot of

guys who have been in the league for a long time. Guys like Dick

Jauron and (senior assistant) Ray Rhodes. I like the way Pat goes

about his business. It’s about doing the right thing. If we have a

meeting, we don’t meet just to meet.

”They know what they’re doing.”

And that’s welcomed news to kicker Phil Dawson.

The only player remaining from Cleveland’s ’99 expansion team,

Dawson left after last season thinking his days in Cleveland were

over. He said his goodbyes and prepared for the next phase of his

career when the Browns placed their franchise tag on him and signed

him to a one-year deal.

He’s back with the Browns, and Dawson, the team’s career leader

in field goals and one of the most accurate kickers in league

history, believes it’s somehow meant to be. He’s seen it all in 12

rollercoaster seasons.

”I’ll tell ya, it’s surreal being back,” he said after a

recent practice. ”I thought last season was it. But here I am, and

here we go again.”