The conventional wisdom outside Berea these days is that it probably doesn't matter what Browns coach Pat Shurmur does from now until the end of the season for him to keep his job. Depending on whom you ask, it's just a matter of time before new owner Jimmy Haslam III and CEO Joe Banner make sweeping changes within the organization and relieve Shurmur of his duties. Granted, there is no evidence to support this theory other than rumblings around league circles and the premise that typically, when a new regime takes over a football organization from the top, they will likely want their own people below them to run the show.
In addition, Haslam could choose to lean on the experience of outgoing president Mike Holmgren who, if he had to name his one big mistake during his time with the Browns, it would most likely be his choosing to keep Eric Mangini as head coach for a extra year instead of citing the philosophical differences between the two and letting him go right away. Though Holmgren hand-selected Shurmur to be Mangini's replacement, if he was being honest, he might advise Haslam to just make the change now instead of hesitating, as he did, to pull the trigger. For what it's worth, I personally feel that the decision as to whether or not to make a change at head coach (and possibly General Manager) has already been made and Shurmur has basically been relegated to lame-duck status.
But I have to admit there is a part of me who wants to take Haslam at his word when he says that he intends to wait until after the season to evaluate every aspect of the organization. After all, he did spend the last four years as a minority owner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, an organization who knows a thing or two about continuity. And just maybe, if that‘s any indication, the jury may still be out on Shurmur and GM Tom Heckert. If so, there is reason to believe that Shurmur might have a legit shot to keep his job. His team has won two of the last three games, both of which came at home, and there is a distinct ‘no quit' attitude emanating from inside the locker room.
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After the Browns narrowly defeated the San Diego Chargers last Sunday, before Shurmur could even reward the team for its efforts with the standard ‘Victory Monday' day off to relax and recoup, the players announced that they would be showing up to work on Monday in order to prepare for the divisional showdown against the Baltimore Ravens. Actions speak louder than words and the actions of the Browns players the last few weeks speak highly of Shurmur and his ability to get his team to buy in to his plan and block out all of the distractions from the outside. Haslam, if he's being objective, has to see that.
I also feel that the presence of Haslam around the facility has injected a sense of excitement and accountability to the team that has been absent since the franchise returned to the league in 1999. Not even Phil Dawson, who has been around since the new Browns were born, has seen an owner with the passion and the visibility that Haslam brings. While some fans may be scared off or taken aback by Haslam's instant all-in approach, it's hard to see how it doesn't bring a breath of fresh air and an understanding reverberating throughout the organization that the culture is changing. Finally!
Of course, wins and losses will ultimately be the judge of Shurmur, assuming Haslam hasn't already made up his mind. And nothing would be bigger for Shurmur, the Browns players, or the fans, than for the Browns to get their third win of the season, at home, against the hated Baltimore Ravens. There is a sense around the fans and hopefully, the players, that this could very well be ‘the turning point' we've all been waiting for that signifies this team is really on its way toward contention. While the Browns would still need a miracle to make the playoffs and are still a long way from being mentioned in the same sentence as the NFL's elite teams, beating the Ravens would confirm the needle on this young team is pointing up. And if the team can parlay two straight wins into some much-needed momentum going into the Bye, then there will be a renewed sense of optimism surrounding Shurmur and the organization as a whole.
Beating the Ravens (5-2) is a lot easier said than done, of course. The Browns haven't beaten the Ravens since November 18, 2007. For those counting at home, that's almost five calendar years! The last time the two teams squared off, on Thursday Night Football in Baltimore, the Browns gave the Ravens everything they could handle, before falling 23-16 in the waning moments. Critical dropped passes and an interception on an errant throw by Brandon Weeden, which was returned for a touchdown, doomed the Browns on that night in September. Since that Week 4 showdown, however, the Ravens have lost crucial players on the defensive side of the ball in linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb. The Ravens defense currently ranks 30th in the league against the run, which is quite unprecedented for the black and purple, who have a proud tradition of winning with great defense. Add to that the fact that Browns QB Weeden passed for over 300 yards against the Ravens secondary in their first meeting, and there is reason for some optimism in Cleveland.
The Browns also happened to be without the services of cornerback Joe Haden, who was in the middle of his four-game suspension the last time these teams played. During Haden's four-game suspension the Browns went 0-4 and were giving up 30.5 points per game. With Haden this season, the Browns are 2-2 and are giving up only 16 points per game. Needless to say, his return has been paramount to their recent success. In addition to Haden, the Browns will see the 2012 debut of defensive tackle Phil Taylor who has been out since May with a torn pectoral muscle. The Browns plan to work Taylor in a rotation and monitor him closely in his first game back. I wouldn't expect Taylor to make the same impact right away as he had late in his rookie season, but he will be a crucial cog in the defensive line rotation going forward, and will help to keep other guys along the line fresh by giving them a break. His availability could pay big dividends late in the game when guys would normally be wearing down from fatigue.
The keys to a victory for the Browns on Sunday will likely involve running the ball with a heavy dose of Trent Richardson, who is coming off a career high 122 yards rushing on 24 carries against the Chargers, the continued development and maturity of Brandon Weeden and his young receivers led by Josh Gordon and Greg Little, and another stout defensive performance against one of the league's better offenses. The Ravens have similar tools on offense as the Browns in Ray Rice, the wrecking ball running back who can get the tough yards both on the ground and through the air, the strong-armed quarterback Joe Flacco and his stable of receiving weapons like deep threat speedster Torrey Smith, sure handed possession receiver Anquan Boldin and athletic tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson.
Talent wise, the Browns believe they have finally closed the gap in the AFC North. It's up to them to put their money where their mouth is and go out and prove it. They proved last time that they can hang with one of the best teams in the AFC. Now, they have to prove they are capable of beating those teams. This is the logical next step in a team's progression toward relevance. With the Ravens' struggles lately and a young, healthy team clearly still fighting alongside their embattled head coach, anything is possible. For Pat Shurmur's sake, he better hope that remains the case. A win on Sunday will go a long way in ensuring that it is.