The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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December 27, 2012

Changes coming for Browns after Steelers game

BEREA, Ohio — Phil Dawson’s locker looked ready to host a Hawaiian luau.

Following practice, Dawson returned to his dressing area and found it decorated with a poster of two pink flamingos, inflatable parrots, flowered leis and the word “Aloha” draped across the front. After 14 seasons, the Browns’ kicker made his first Pro Bowl.

Time to celebrate.

Might as well. There won’t be much else to enjoy. Change awaits.

Following Sunday’s finale in Pittsburgh, the Browns (5-10) are expected to undergo another radical makeover. That might begin with coach Pat Shurmur’s firing after two seasons and could include general manager Tom Heckert being replaced. Although his fate seems sealed, Shurmur is doing all he can to keep his team focused on beating the Steelers (7-8).

Shurmur understands he hasn’t won enough.

“Listen, I get this,” he said Thursday, addressing the uncertainty ahead. “My concerns are for my team and making sure that we do all the right things during the game to give our guys the best chance to win. That’s where I’m at. At some point after that, I’ll begin to think about what goes on from there. I’m not worried about it.”

It’s more of the same for the Browns, who just two weeks ago were still in the playoff hunt. But a pair of lopsided losses to Washington and Denver and a slew of injuries pushed them to a familiar place – the brink of change.

During what may have been his final formal news conference, Shurmur reflected on what he and his staff accomplished with one of the NFL’s youngest teams that includes 17 rookies.

“I think we’ve made improvements,” he said. “Some may say not fast enough, but I think we’ve made improvements. I think we came into a less than ideal situation when we got here. Every situation is different and I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the work that the guys that I hired did in terms of inspiring the players to improve.

“We have not won enough football games and I know that’s the way this things works, but in our situation I see improvement and I’ll leave it at that. The rest of it, going in depth to all that, I think that’s a discussion for after we play Pittsburgh.”

New Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner may have already decided to dismiss Shurmur, who is 9-22 with one game left. If he’s fired, Shurmur will join Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel, Butch Davis and Chris Palmer as coaches unable to build sustained success in Cleveland.

Browns return specialist Josh Cribbs can’t take any more turnover.

“I hate that we rebuild every year,” said Cribbs, who has been with the Browns since 2005. “It’s not a good recipe for successful football.”

Cribbs’ contract expires after this season. He believes it would be a shame if Shurmur and Heckert aren’t retained.

“A lot of people don’t get a fair shake in this business, whether it be the quarterbacks or the regime,” Cribbs said. “They came in during the lockout, now the owner decided to sell the team. It’s just so unfortunate the way the nature of the business is.

“But I’ll tell you one thing, we’re geared up to win this last game, to give it our best shot because this win, a sweep of Pittsburgh would do a lot for this city and might do a lot for the coaching staff as well.

“Finishing strong is the biggest thing at this point.”

The Browns haven’t swept the Steelers in a season since 1988. A win Sunday would make the Browns 3-3 in the AFC North after going just 3-21 inside their division the previous four seasons combined.

Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson had hoped this would be the season where change wasn’t necessary. However, he understands it may be unavoidable.

“With a new owner comes new changes and new obstacles, new challenges,” he said. “I hope it’s for the better, I hope so. Mr. Haslam, he seems like a passionate guy. He enjoys what he’s doing and he wouldn’t have bought this team if he didn’t think about being successful doing it. Just because it’s change doesn’t mean it can’t be a good change.”

Dawson has seen every alteration made by the Browns since 1999. The soon-to-be 38-year-old has remained while hundreds of players and dozens of coaches have come and gone in Cleveland. He may be more practiced at change than others, but it’s still as difficult now as when he was a rookie.

“Change is never easy. I don’t know anyone that enjoys it,” he said. “But with all the unknown right now, if I have any advice for my teammates it’s deal with the known. What we do know is we get to play the Steelers this week. What we do know is we get one last chance to go out, this group with these coaches, everyone together and try to win a football game, and it’s not just some game. This is the Steeler game. ‘’

Notes: Dawson was voted the team’s player of the year and Jackson was selected the “Good Guy” award winner by the local chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America. It was Dawson’s first win. “Didn’t know that,” the Texan said when informed after practice. “Ya’ll are desperate. Golly.” Dawson has made 28 of 29 kicks this season and all six attempts from 50 yards or longer. He’s made 84.2 percent of his career kicks, the highest percentage of the 25 kickers with 300 or more field goals. ... Browns safety T.J. Ward spoke for the first time since suffering a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago. Ward sustained a bone bruise and said he will not need surgery.

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