By TOM WITHERS
CLEVELAND — The Browns are about to change owners. That may not be good for their coach.
Unless he gets a win, Pat Shurmur’s days could be dwindling.
With his team riding a franchise record-tying 11-game losing streak, Shurmur enters today’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals needing a victory to help reinforce that the Browns are headed in the right direction under him. As the league’s only winless team, the Browns (0-5) are in jeopardy of having another of those seasons that ends with a head coach being fired.
On Tuesday, truck-stop magnate Jimmy Haslam III’s $1 billion purchase of the Browns from Randy Lerner is expected to be approved by NFL owners. It may not be long after that before the new boss begins putting his stamp on a franchise seeking end more than a decade of mostly deplorable football.
Haslam has said he won’t make any personnel changes until after this season, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t already considering some.
Shurmur is 4-17 with Cleveland, including an 0-8 mark inside the pitiless AFC North. Shurmur’s tenure has been hampered by the labor lockout, close losses, injuries, an inexperienced roster and the ownership switch, which was announced on the first day of training camp and has served as a distracting undercurrent for him and his staff.
Shurmur’s young team — the Browns have 27 players with less than two years of experience — has shown steady improvement, but not enough to result in a win. With Cincinnati coming in, Cleveland has a chance to begin a turnaround.
“This is a division game, so it is kind of a double-whammy there,” Shurmur said. “Winning a division game at home would be great for our young team.”
And for Shurmur, who in recent weeks has begun to show signs of stress. Last week, a frustrated Shurmur cursed and stormed away from reporters after he was pressed on why rookie running back Trent Richardson was absent from practice. Richardson had been excused to be with his girlfriend when she went into labor, but Shurmur would not address the topic on the record, creating an awkward situation.
Then, following last week’s 41-27 loss to the New York Giants, Shurmur was defensive as he was questioned about a third-and-1 play in the first half when rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden threw a costly interception. Shurmur was irritated he was being second-guessed on calling a pass play instead of a run and seemed bothered by the line of questioning.
Earlier this week, Shurmur was asked by Cincinnati reporters about his “chippy” relationship with Cleveland’s media.
“I don’t know that,” he said on a conference call. “I would say that I’m a very competitive guy and I make all of my decisions on what’s best for our team. I don’t know about ‘chippy.’ That may be one person’s opinion. I try to answer the questions. I try to be honest and up front about my thoughts and opinions. At the heart of it, I’m trying to make all of the decisions based on what’s best for our team.
“I do think it is fair to say that I’m very competitive.”
Shurmur has admitted being “a hothead” and that fire has served him well in inspiring the Browns, who have been competitive in four games against a tough schedule. If not for a play here or a play there, the Browns would have that first win and Shurmur would not be under attack.
This week, the Browns play a Cincinnati team that beat them 34-27 on Sept. 16. But Cleveland’s defense will have a different look with the return of cornerback Joe Haden, who missed the past four games while serving his suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Haden admitted taking the stimulant Adderall, and his return will certainly boost Cleveland’s secondary.
“It’s great to have Joe back, there’s no doubt about it,” said Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. “We’ve talked about it almost every week since he’s been out, it’s just never good to have a starter out of your lineup. Call-wise or scheme-wise it helps us a little bit, but doesn’t change a lot of stuff significantly. It does change some things.”
Haden will be matched up with Bengals star wide receiver A.J. Green, who had seven catches for 58 yards and a touchdown when the teams met last month.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis knows getting the ball to Green could be much tougher with Haden back.
“He’s a very good player,” Lewis said. “He’s a guy who you could say is almost bred to be a cornerback. He’s got speed, he’s got length, he can play the football in the air, he has great ball skills. He’s not cumbersome around receivers. He has a real feel around receivers. You like the way he plays the game. He’s not afraid to tackle.”
Tackling was a big problem last week. The Browns gave up 243 yards on the ground to the Giants. Ahmad Bradshaw, who fumbled on the first play, gashed the Browns for 200 yards — 135 after Cleveland linebacker D’Qwell Jackson went out with a concussion.
“We couldn’t stop the bleeding,” said Jackson, who returned to practice Wednesday and is expected to play. “Hopefully, with me coming back we can cut that down because we haven’t been doing a great job stopping the run, that’s no secret. Last week is last week. This week is a new week where we can show we can play a solid game.”
Shurmur needs one badly.