The ownership change in October that re-shaped — again — the ever-changing Cleveland Browns sealed the fate of head coach Pat Shurmur, who was officially fired on the final day of 2012.
Nine wins in two seasons certainly didn’t help, either, but the truth of the matter is Shurmur never had a chance — to survive, to succeed or to do anything but become the latest guy to collect a series of very nice paychecks from the Cleveland Browns for a long time after turning in his keys to the facility.
The NFL is a high-speed, high-dollar car race, and the Browns are changing again in large part because Mike Holmgren took the keys and essentially went on a casual, country-road sightseeing tour. The Holmgren as team president experiment started as then-owner Randy Lerner’s last attempt to get it right, and it officially ended Monday with Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert being dismissed by new owner Jimmy Haslam and new honcho Joe Banner.
Those two looked at Shurmur and saw a coach who would be easily replaceable. In the 22 months or so they were together in Berea, Holmgren didn’t do a lot to help that.
Shurmur was a first-time head coach, at the time an NFL head-coaching candidate only in the minds of Holmgren and Heckert. His learning on the fly process included multiple missteps and mistakes in game-management and short-yardage situations, and it was clear this season that he let previous failures cloud future decisions. This administration found neither a singular nor unified voice to spin it all forward — either with words or significant wins — and find the right message, the right way to make anybody believe that the right coach and right system were in place. They were unified by big, long-term contracts paid for by Lerner and finalized by Bob LaMonte, the agent for Holmgren, Heckert and Shurmur.
Shurmur didn’t win enough games, but in the larger picture the Browns never convinced anybody that more and bigger wins would be coming. The biggest loss probably came last March when the Browns’ bid came up short in the Robert Griffin III sweepstakes, leaving the Browns to reach for Brandon Weeden late in the first round late April and eventually to start four rookies on an offense that never truly found an identity.
The announcement of the impending sale of the team coming on the first day of training camp meant even the energy and optimism that comes with those first sunny and optimistic days was clouded, and a new administration sizing up real estate and office space meant storm clouds formed over everyone associated with Lerner and Holmgren. Just a couple of games into what became an 0-5 start, Shurmur essentially knew that Dec. 30 would be his last day of work. Lerner’s been long gone, and Coach Holmgren — his name around the office at team headquarters — was asked to leave a month earlier.
In the big-money, big-ego, big-business that is today’s NFL, there are myriad reasons that having two people in the same building answering to the name “Coach” is a horrible idea. When the actual head coach is the second-best and less qualified of those two, it’s even worse.
Holmgren could have coached the team in 2011, the Browns could have traded for Griffin and built a timeline for success in early 2012, and Shurmur could have scored momentum-changing wins against Indianapolis, Dallas and Baltimore this season, too. None of those could-haves became reality, and reality is the Browns are starting over again.
It was Holmgren’s insistence on running his West Coast Offense that led to Shurmur’s hiring, and in two seasons that offense never really got off the ground. In his first year the Browns had no running game, a subpar (to put it mildly) receiving corps and a quarterback who was average on his good days. In the second year the Browns had a rookie quarterback who was best and most comfortable in the shotgun, a rookie runner who was best in power sets and a receiving corps that showed marked improvement in the second half of the year. That was led by rookie Josh Gordon, who was acquired via an uncharacteristically aggressive move in last July’s supplemental draft. That looks like a good gamble right now; at the time, it was driven by Shurmur and the coaching staff screaming for much-needed help.
The next coach takes over an immature team with some nice young talent Heckert drafted, but the roster still has a bunch of question marks — and still a very big question at the game’s most important position. Gordon was completely lost early before undergoing a complete transformation. Trent Richardson never got healthy but showed flashes of being really good, and Weeden showed a much better arm than the previous year’s starter but was still just OK.
In today’s NFL, your head coach and your quarterback are your ceiling. Today, the Browns are again in the market for both.
A head coach who insists on calling his own plays is taking a risk, and a first-time head coach being allowed to do it is another bad idea. The Browns added Brad Childress with the title of offensive coordinator before Shurmur’s second season, but Childress taking that job without being the actual play caller says a lot about his job prospects otherwise. That Childress, too, was a LaMonte client pretty much says it all.
This buddy-system style of groupthink meant only that these guys were going down as a group, too.