BEREA, Ohio — The Cleveland Browns end their season Sunday with the same feeling that surrounded the team when the year started: doom.
From day one of training camp, when Randy Lerner announced the sale of the team to Jimmy Haslam, the season was in deep trouble. Yes, doomed. That coach Pat Shurmur held it together as long as he did is a credit to him, and the players. It really could have collapsed at any point.
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That’s what happens when a team plays with the cloud of uncertainty following it. The team fights, struggles and works, but it does so against impossible odds prompted by the reality that nobody knows who will be with the team the next season.
At some point the weight is too much, and the foundation crumbles.
This may sound overly dramatic for a team that plays a game for a living, but it’s the situation. No team can keep things together for an entire season with these circumstances, especially one fighting to gain its identity.
The Browns’ circumstances were especially tough. They started the season with optimism over a new quarterback and a new running back and a new wide receiver. These guys needed time to grow, but when the sale was announced, the season became not about growth but survival.
It collapsed, starting with the second half against Washington.
And it fell in in Denver.
In the last six quarters the Browns have been outscored 62-19 — and looked like a bunch of kids trying to play the big boys. Is that how far the team is from contending against the NFL’s best? New CEO Joe Banner might think so, and if he and Haslam do believe it, then that foreshadows yet another re-start for a team that has had re-start after re-start after re-start since 1999.
Now the Browns stagger into the finale in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers are out of the playoffs and the Browns have to cobble together a lineup that might be without the starting quarterback and starting running back.
Quarterback Brandon Weeden has gone from progressing to regressing the past two games to injured. He left Denver with a sprained throwing shoulder.
Running back Trent Richardson has gone from the franchise back to getting nine carries in Denver on a day when he averaged almost six yards per carry to hurting his ankle on the second-last play of a blowout loss.
Shurmur would not rule either out for the finale and said they’d play if healthy. But that has to be determined.
In Denver’s final series, Shurmur used his timeouts to stop the clock. Rather than just end the game with Denver running out the clock, Shurmur got the ball back with 1:55 left.
The Browns ran four plays and threw four times when they were down by 22 with less than two minutes left and no timeouts left.
Colt McCoy scrambled once and was sacked twice — and Richardson was hurt blocking on one of the sacks.
“What are we going to do, just stop playing?” Shurmur said.
The Browns finished the game as well as they’re finishing the season, which was dismally. Denver was expected to win, but the one-sided nature of the game left a lot of people angry.
Josh Cribbs, a guy who has been as loyal to Cleveland as anyone, reacted angrily and profanely to fans who, obviously, got on him for his fumbled punt that led to a Denver touchdown.
Twitter gives fans license to be over-the-top rude, and Cribbs didn’t appreciate it. Some athletes put up with so much that they delete their Twitter accounts. Cribbs vented. He later backed off but didn’t deny his frustration, which was as understandable, as his response was out of place.
“Yea I had a moment,” he tweeted. “smh….. man I 4got each day there are a new breed of haters out there disguised as fans!”
Said Shurmur: “Of course that’s not acceptable. We had a little conversation about why he shouldn’t do that. I think he’s remorseful. I added to that he shouldn’t be reading tweets after the game, as well.”
Obviously, many are frustrated with this team — from the players right through the fans — and, no doubt, the new front office.
As for the next game, the very real possibility exists that McCoy will start in Pittsburgh, which is the last place he started a game. In that game, James Harrison gave McCoy the concussion that changed NFL rules.
In Denver after the game, McCoy told reporters he was “just trying not to get knocked out” on the last possession.
As the Browns head to a place where they’ve lost eight in a row, they are hardly the picture of togetherness.