The turnaround of the Browns this season has been nothing short of extraordinary. After starting 0-5, the Browns are now riding a three-game winning streak and sit at 5-8 with faint playoff hopes.
Even if the Browns don’t make the playoffs — let’s face it, the odds are astronomical — there is no denying that the team looks completely different than it did back in September.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the Browns have only gotten healthier as the season has progressed. When CB Joe Haden was serving his four-game suspension and DTs Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin were recovering from injuries, the defense was gashed.
Now? It has been one of the most dominating units over the last three weeks.
Of course, an easy schedule never hurts. During this three-game winning streak, the Browns have defeated the likes of the Charlie Batch-led Pittsburgh Steelers, the plummeting Oakland Raiders, and the hapless Kansas City Chiefs.
There is no denying, though, that the Browns are playing as a complete team right now. That is something that eluded the Browns for much of the season; when the offense was clicking, the defense was porous. When the defense clamped down, the offense was stuck in the mud.
But through it all — the voracious calls for Shurmur’s job, the 0-5 start, the inconsistent play, the agonizingly close games that didn’t go their way — the Browns have managed to become a respectable team in the NFL.
For that, HC Pat Shurmur deserves a lot of credit. He has made his mistakes, that much is certain, but it would be wrong to overlook his ability to keep the team focused and motivated during its rough stretch.
In fact, the demand for his immediate firing has been replaced by a simmering call for him to be retained. Fans are noticing an improvement and are currently pleading with owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner to keep some consistency in the organization for once.
But Shurmur’s run at keeping his job isn’t over yet, not by a long shot.
The last three games of the Browns’ season may be as tough as the previous three were easy. The team faces the Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers again, who might need a win in Week 17 just to get into the playoffs.
How different would the overall fan sentiment be if the Browns lose all three of those games? We would be right back to where we started, and the Browns would enter the 2013 season with a new head coach.
If you recall, Eric Mangini was in a similar situation in 2009. The Browns were 1-11 going into Week 14 and rattled off four straight wins, including one against the Steelers. As Mike Holmgren took over as president in 2010, he was essentially obligated to give Mangini another season at the helm, going against his better judgment. Holmgren knew Mangini wouldn’t be around in the long-term, but had to at least appear to give him a chance.
Pat Shurmur desperately needs wins against quality opponents in order to stay in Cleveland at least one more season. But does the Browns’ new front office actually believe in Shurmur?
Sticking with Shurmur half-heartedly only keeps the Browns from truly progressing into a contender. If Haslam and Banner want to move on, it will have to happen immediately in order to give the new coaching staff as much time as possible with a young, improving roster.
But if the Browns keep winning, the front office is put in a difficult situation. What was once an easy decision (i.e. firing Shurmur) could become a move that shuts the Browns’ window of opportunity before it even opens.
Only in Cleveland does winning get this complicated.