First and Ten - A question of prisms

December 18, 2012

1) NFL seasons are about prisms. The prism of expectation. The prism of age, experience, past success, future growth … all that stuff. Depending on the prism, a record of 7-9 can be one to celebrate, or one to wail over. It’s that simple. So it was that Pat Shurmur and Brandon Weeden and Tom Heckert’s prism changed the first day of training camp, the day that Randy Lerner officially announced the sale of the team to Jimmy Haslam. From the day the sale was announced, the Browns season stopped being about growth and improvement, but instead became a referendum on jobs. Because no owner is going to spend $1 billion on a team and not bring in his own guys -- unless he’s forced not to change. Shurmur spent the offseason no doubt thinking he’d have two years to develop a rookie quarterback and be competitive. He’d try to win in 2012, but no doubt he figured barring catastrophe he had some security. That changed when the prism changed.
2) Haslam didn’t take over until mid-October, but the day he did he announced a change that further changed the prism: The departure of Mike Holmgren and the arrival of Joe Banner. A front office and coaching staff and player group hired and/or brought in under Holmgren had suddenly lost their air cover. That is why most folks seem to feel that Sunday’s loss to the Redskins was more damaging than your average loss. For one, it was a bad loss. For two, it came when the Browns had a chance to validate the improvement they believed they’d shown in the previous three wins. And for three, the prism of expectation demanded a competitive game. The new ownership will certainly deny it, but the loss had to hurt the future chances of Shurmur -- and even Weeden -- with the Browns.
3) Here’s another way to look at it: The previous three games Shurmur was removing excuses not to keep him. With every win, Haslam and Banner lost an excuse to make a change. It’s tough to get rid of a coach who ends on a winning streak, which Holmgren proved when he first took over. But with this loss, Shurmur gave management the excuse it needs, if it decides to make a change. The front office can justify any decision now.
4) Shurmur didn’t have to beat Washington keep his job. But losing the way he did hurt. That’s the main issue with that loss. It wasn’t competitive. The Browns didn’t play smart. And the defense was pitiful, giving up 22 minutes of possession in the second half -- it’s always interesting when people say the defense got “tired,” as if they do not have a say in stopping the other team. Losing the way the Browns did was about the worst thing that could happen for Shurmur, and by extension Weeden, who played a very poor game.
5) One game shouldn’t decide a person’s fate, but that’s the prism behind which Shurmur has had to work. He’s had a tough climb from the day the sale was announced. And in many ways it’s a shame. Shurmur is an excellent man, the kind of guy Cleveland would embrace -- provided he provided some wins. He makes some shaky decisions on game day, and he makes some decisions that do not help him, but every coach in history has made down-and-distance decisions and calls that can be second-guessed, even the successful ones. Shurmur’s values are an excellent place for any coach to start, and nobody works harder than he has. And he’s worked with a lockout and an ownership change. Sunday he had the courage and perspective to recognize the terrible sadness in Connecticut after the loss to the Redskins. He’s a good man, and no matter what happens he’ll be fine. But you can’t help but think that no matter who coaches the Browns in 2013 will benefit form the work Shurmur put in this season. And that the coach deserved better than the two years he wound up leading the Browns.
6) Meanwhile the “Road Tested” series continues. Yes, the sideshow/publicity vehicle for the team and the owner will have its third episode tonight. This week: Go behind the scenes as Haslam works out before everyone else gets in the building. What’s that? That was last week? Oh. Never mind. Perhaps this week we’ll see how Haslam starts his car. If you miss it live, there’s no doubt the DVD series will soon be available at all local stores, in BluRay and, of course, driven by Liberty Ford.
7) Tom Heckert’s decision to go public with his desires to maintain final say in personnel matters last Friday was curious given he was asked to comment on the same issue the previous week by two other reporters. He declined comment, but felt it was OK to comment a week later when called, and the next day to the general media. Evidently no comment became comment to everyone in the space of a few days. … Whatever. … Heckert’s “informal” meeting with the media sounded like a desperate attempt to stake out some ground with Banner. It also sounded like it might not work. Because if Banner is insistent that he and not the present GM has final say over personnel and the draft, then it would seem likely the present GM would use the cache he’s built in Cleveland to find a job with another team as a real and true GM.
8) Of course all these changes mean yet another in a series never-ending re-starts for the Cleveland Browns. Which means another losing season, probably double-digit, in 2013. Which means an angrier fan base. And all that stuff we’ve been dealing with the last 13 years with this team. That’s the continuity argument, and if the Browns don’t have a proven, credible head coach ready and waiting they might take a step back and understand that continuity does mean something. Were it not for this prism change with the sale, the Browns would be looked on as a team that made (no joke intended) progress in 2012, and would be better with growth and experience in 2013. With the old prism, the Browns might on schedule. With the new prism, the vision changes.
9) Some facts: The Browns have nine losses with two tough games remaining. New England has gone 12 seasons without losing nine games in a season, and they have lost nine games total the last three seasons. … The Browns are about to have their fifth double-digit losing season in a row. Since 1996, the Ravens have had four double-digit losing seasons, total. … The Steelers have had one double-digit loss season in the last 13, and of course the next season they went 15-1 and made the AFC Championship Game. … Like Pittsburgh, Denver has had one double-digit loss season since 2000. … Those are all stories of how much the Browns have struggled recently.
10) But then there’s Dallas, which this season is sitting pretty at 8-6. Three of those wins came over the Browns in overtime, against Cincinnati on the last play of the game and against the Steelers in overtime. Three wins on the last play of the game, three plays that separate Dallas from feeling good about themselves and sitting at 5-9, with the exact same record as the Browns. … Whoever coaches the Browns next season will take over a team that is far ahead of the one Shurmur took over. Whoever coaches will benefit from the work done this year.
For the rest of the story, including thoughts on Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson, head with care to the blog.