And so the Browns begin again.
Eric Mangini out. Pat Shurmur in—through a revolving door that Friday welcomed its third head coach since 2008 and fifth since the team rebooted in 1999.
In that time, the Tennessee Titans have only known Jeff Fisher as coach.
Tom Brady—who the Browns ignored in the 2000 NFL Draft to select Spergon Wynn—has won 111 football games and three Super Bowls during a stretch in which Cleveland’s fans have endured nine seasons with six or fewer wins and a growing sense of purposelessness.
As each losing, demoralized leader of men is shipped out of town, a new coach strides in and, in his introductory press conference, trumpets his respect for the great tradition of the Cleveland Browns.
Images in grainy black-and-white depicting heroes long gone—many dead.
For fans under 30, the deep history of a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since January 1995 is irrelevant.
Young football fans throughout Ohio have grown up watching their half-baked hometown roster of hobby horses dismantled and embarrassed repeatedly by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, two teams that look a lot more like the Browns of old than the Browns themselves.
The team is on the brink, risking the departure of its great fan base. If not the older, long-suffering obsessed fans, at least the young, who have no visible reason to root for the team minus familial pressure and hand-me-down Bernie Kosar jerseys.
For those old enough to remember watching the 1964 championship, there’s a deep-seated concern that the team might not win another in this lifetime.
Yet, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Browns fan who jumped ship for another. The suffering, the misunderstood rage, the sense of always being on the outside looking in—it’s just part of rooting for Cleveland.
“You dream of the opportunity to be a part of an organization such as this and then be able to provide the vision for a team with such great tradition,” Shurmur told reporters Friday—the words Mangini must have advised him to open with, after Mangini was told the same by Romeo Crennel, as messaged by Butch Davis, who heard it from Chris Palmer.
For many Browns fans, the excitement that should rise as president Mike Holmgren introduced his hand-picked coach is buried beneath a tide of malaise.
Seems like just yesterday we were Googling the transcript of Mangini’s opening presser—here we are again.
Same orange-helmet press-conference cardboard backdrop, same Plain Dealer reporters in the crowd, same promises about building the team—but Friday’s event came and went without much fervor.
To be fair, few Browns fans had even heard of Shurmur a month ago. There was a collective assumption that Holmgren’s league-wide moxie would lure Jon Gruden or, possibly, Bill Cowher to town.
In the end, no big-name candidate even interviewed, as Holmgren found his man in the form of a system-bathed West Coast Offense disciple who knows and works well with Browns general manager Tom Heckert. On paper, sound thinking.
Shurmur appears to be a solid, high-character teacher and leader with a bright future. The 45-year-old, offensive-minded coach cut his teeth with Andy Reid in Philadelphia and showed some ability in working with Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford while serving as St. Louis’ offensive coordinator.
Still, despite the Holmgren-friendly pedigree, Shurmur is yet another untested head coach taking the reins in Cleveland, and the fans are weary, having seen all this before.
All Shurmur needs to do is win.
“I do know this. As you talk about our team and the goals for this team, it’s very simple. We’re trying to win football games,” Shurmur said. “Our goal is to win the AFC North, to compete in the playoffs and win Super Bowls. … We will make all of our decisions based on winning.”
It’s all words to Browns fans. If next season opens 1-5, and the bars are emptying out after a 35-3 drubbing at the hands of Big Ben and Hines Ward, with Colt McCoy knocked out for the year with a broken fibula, it will just be another left hook absorbed in a long, bloody fight that seems destined to end in anger and heartache.
“There are a lot of pieces in place,” Shurmur said, ensuring fans that Holmgren’s precious West Coast Offense wouldn’t nullify the hard-running Peyton Hillis, who won over Cleveland with his battering-ram style in 2010.
It would be a mistake to go away from Hillis, who delivered rare joy by barreling over Ray Lewis and the Ravens, and rampaging for 1,000-plus yards while singing sweet words about his love for the people of Cleveland.
Hillis gets it, and he’s genuine—and he bruises opponents—and that’s what Browns fans hunger for.
Reporters voiced a measure of concern about showcasing the more finesse, pass-leaning WCO in the physical AFC North—as if the Browns need to commit to less-physical play after being pushed around since Clinton was in office.
Shurmur made it clear the Browns will not abandon the run, but work to improve a bone-dry passing attack and cut a terrifying string of failure at the quarterback position.
“The quarterback in this league is so, so important,” he said. “I would anticipate the vision for this football team will be seen through the eyes of the quarterback.”
There is collective hope that McCoy is prepared to be the team’s starter for many years to come, and while it’s hard to get an idea where management stands on McCoy, there’s no question they see a light burning in him.
“We’ve talked about that,” Heckert said. “I think he’s on the right track, let’s put it that way. He had some good games for us this year, he showed poise and all of the things you’re looking for in a quarterback. ... I think he’s proven that he belongs here, and we will just have to wait and see.”
Barring drastic change, McCoy will open the 2011 season as the starter, with Jake Delhomme likely gone and Seneca Wallace the clear backup.
“I’m very impressed with Colt McCoy and I think he has the skill set,” Shurmur said. “The skill and ability to be a fine player in this league. I’m really looking forward to working with him.”
Browns fans have witnessed too many losing franchises turn things around while Cleveland sits in park in the garage with the ignition on.
Case in point: The Browns opened the 2010 season against Tampa Bay and Kansas City, and many hoped a 2-0 start against 2009′s garbage would pad the record for a tough schedule ahead. Instead, Cleveland dropped a pair of excruciating nail-biters, sending the Bucs and Chiefs on their way to winning seasons.
Still, the Browns managed to stay competitive in almost every game, and the thought of starting over at square one is bewildering to many fans.
But with an aging roster that’s produced 10 wins in two years, there’s little mandate from above to retain existing parts while a new machine is put in place.
“There’s going to be some turnover here,” Heckert said. “We knew that, regardless of the situation, there was going to be turnover here. We have some age on the team and obviously we have to get younger."
Holmgren knows the start-from-scratch routine has run its course. He will see his legacy with the Browns defined by Shurmur’s ability to bring Cleveland to the threshold.
“We cannot keep changing around here every two or three years,” Holmgren said. “You can’t do that and expect to be successful, you can’t do that. My hope and why this was so important and why I’m very excited, I see these two men (Shurmur and Heckert) working together.
"My hope and prayer is that now the changes stop."
For Browns fans, despite understandable cynicism, a shred of hope remains that the pairing of Shurmur and McCoy will lead this star-crossed but proud franchise out from darkness to the hilltop, where it ruled so long ago.