By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
Updated at 7:41 p.m.
The runaway train that became of this 2013 Browns season crashed and burned on Sunday – even before the annual season-ending loss to the Steelers.
The day started with hard-to-believe rumors of coach Rob Chudzinski’s possible firing – less than 12 months after he was named the first coach of the Jimmy Haslam-Joe Banner-Mike Lombardi era. They escalated as the day wore on.
Before the team buses had made their way back home to Cleveland, national “insiders” were reporting the deed would be done on Monday or later in the week.
Chudzinski, native of Toledo, lifetime Browns fan, three-time Browns employee, would become the first one-and-done head coach in the history of the franchise. A 4-12 record and seven losses in a row to end his first season would be his epitaph.
The closer the buses got to Cleveland, the national reports hedged, “It’s not a done deal.”
When Browns spokesman Zak Gilbert was contacted for an update, he stood by the team’s official statement, which was emailed to reporters in the fourth quarter of the 20-7 loss to the Steelers.
The statement read: “Our focus is on the game today. We will not discuss any evaluation of the season until this upcoming week.”
After the game, Chudzinski stood and projected an air of calmness and satisfaction with his status – totally unfazed by the speculation swirling around him.
“We haven’t had any of those type of discussions,” he said. “This next week we’ll look and start reviewing the season and looking at every aspect of the program and doing those evaluations.”
Asked if he expected to be back, Chudzinski said with a wry grin, “As far as I know.”
Would he be surprised if a change were made?
“I’m not even getting into any of that. Like I said, we’ll talk this week,” he responded.
Does he feel he is on the same page with Haslam and Banner on the direction the team is going?
“Definitely,” Chudzinski said. “No question about that.”
According to a source, Haslam angrily left Heinz Field on Sunday with about six minutes to go in the game. He made a comparable hasty exit last season before firing Pat Shurmur, Chudzinski’s predecessor.
In the locker room, players with the tag of “team leaders” reacted with disbelief and anger to questions about Chudzinski’s expected dismissal.
“That’s ridiculous. That’s ridiculous,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said, raising his voice. “There’s reports saying that he won’t be back? Chud’s gonna be here for as long as wants to. He’s a great head coach. That’s all I’ve got to say about that. I’m not answering any questions like that. That’s foolish, in my opinion. That’s not going to happen.”
Left tackle Joe Thomas said, “I’m happy to be a Cleveland Brown and I’m not going to speculate on what might happen. I would be very surprised if they made a change and I’d be very disappointed.”
Asked if firing Chudzinski would be unfair to him, Thomas said, “Absolutely. Yes.
“Because he’s done a good job. We had tremendous changes philosophy-wise, offense and defense, and so many different players that we brought in. We traded away a lot of draft picks in spring with looking forward to the future to build a consistent winner, doing all those things to build a consistent winner, and to get that consistent winning is by having consistency in the coaching staff and philosophy of management. To me, that’s how you become a winner. I’d just be really surprised. It would be devastating.”
Tight end Jordan Cameron said, “Rumors are rumors, I don’t believe it till I see it. I like Chud. I like everything he stands for and I hope he’s still around.”
Chudzinski certainly coached the game like his job depended on a win – but it’s more probable that a decision on his departure was made prior to the Steelers game. A source said that Haslam was furious with the team’s performance in the 24-13 loss to the New York Jets and felt the players quit on their coach.
Later in the evening, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network -- Lombardi's former employer -- reported Browns’ management felt players regressed, rather than progressed, under Chudzinski and his staff.
On Sunday, despite added hardships to his cause – cornerback Joe Haden was out, and then cornerback Buster Skrin was lost; at times, the guards were Garrett Gilkey and Oniel Cousins – Chudzinski gambled three times on fourth down with the Browns in scoring range. He lost each one.
Haslam & Co. may have been put off by the one time Chudzinski didn’t go for it – with 1:10 to go in the first half and the Steelers ahead, 14-0. On fourth-and-18 from the Steelers’ 33, the Browns punted.
The Browns finally got on the scoreboard with 2:46 left in the game on a Jason Campbell swing pass to running back Fozzy Whittaker, on which Whittaker raced to the left edge and ran 35 yards for a touchdown.
The touchdown averted the Browns’ first shutout loss since Nov. 16, 2009.
The Pittsburgh (8-8) victory kept alive the Steelers’ faint playoff hopes because Baltimore and Miami each lost in their games. The Steelers' improbable run to the playoffs after an 0-4 start finally was dashed later in the evening when the Chargers defeated the Chiefs, 27-24, in overtime. San Diego qualified as the AFC sixth playoff seed with a 9-7 record.
The Steelers’ win was their 10th in a row at home against the Browns and improved quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s record vs. his home-state team to 17-1.
Campbell, meantime, dropped to 1-7 in his emergency role as Browns’ backup quarterback. Thus, Brian Hoyer’s two wins in September stood as the most of any of the three quarterbacks who started for the Browns this year. Brandon Weeden was 0-5. One other victory was shared by Weeden in relief of Hoyer in the Buffalo game.
One of the few bright spots in the season was receiver Josh Gordon, who blossomed into one of the league’s most fearsome playmakers under Chudzinski and the offensive staff. Gordon, who suffered stomach flu symptoms during the day, had seven catches for 82 yards.
He finished the season – 14 games for him – with 87 receptions for a league-high 1,646 yards.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to email@example.comFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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