The NFL is a funny business.
Last year, Steve Spagnuolo led his Rams into Week 17 with a chance to defeat the Seahawks to claim the NFC West title. The Rams failed to get the job done, but with Sam Bradford under center, expectations seemed high heading into the quarterback's second season.
Last year, Raheem Morris led his Buccaneers to a ten-win season with a group of players who were virtually unknown. It looked like they would get a playoff spot, but there just happened to be one-too-many wildcard teams who shared the same record and owned a tiebreaker over the Buccaneers.
Today, neither of them are head coaches anymore, having had their teams put on pitiful displays during the 2011 campaign. Spagnuolo's Rams finished the year with just two victories, one of which came against the Cleveland Browns. Morris' Buccaneers started the season shaky, and then completely gave up. The Buccaneers finished the season on a ten-game losing streak. In their final eight games, they gave up the following point totals: 37, 35, 23, 38, 41, 31, 48, and 45. Ouch.
One coaching change that won't be happening as the offseason begins involves the Cleveland Browns. Whether we like it or not, Pat Shurmur will 100 percent be the team's head coach heading into next season.
How do we evaluate the job Shurmur did in his first year? I like to ask myself if there are any redeeming qualities when it comes to keeping a head coach. In other words, "is there something I can look back at on this season and say, 'Shurmur did [this] well.'?"
The Browns played well defensively, but I don't see how you can directly attribute that to the "offensive-minded" Shurmur. Shurmur was brought here to install the West Coast Offense. After 16 games, I don't see how anyone can say they were encouraged by the offense this year. The Browns scored 218 points all season. The only two teams who scored less were the Chiefs and the Rams, and they are both undergoing coaching changes.
Shurmur came under fire during the 2011 season for play calls in short yardage situations, the team's clock management, the manner in which he spoke during press conferences, his utilization of guys like Evan Moore, Jordan Norwood, and Peyton Hillis, and more.
The one thing you can attribute in Shurmur's favor is that he was dealt a bad hand to begin with. Forget the fact that he took over a team that did some positive things under former head coach Eric Mangini. When the front office decided to move on from Mangini, they knew they would be losing Rob Ryan and Brad Seeley in the process. That means the continuity from the previous season would be pretty much nil. The NFL lockout was projected to have a negative impact on teams like the Browns, who would be forced to install a new West Coast Offense and a new 4-3 defense.
The special teams unit took an immediate hit this year without Seeley. "Aces" like Blake Costanzo and Nick Sorensen were gone. Joshua Cribbs was banged up most of the season. Ryan Pontbriand went from Pro Bowler to head case. Reggie Hodges suffered a season-ending injury in training camp.
Shurmur inherited a group of receivers that were not up-to-par for NFL standards. The team drafted Greg Little, but the front office made it clear they would not seek a veteran receiver to help strengthen the unit. Shurmur was forced to work with receivers who either couldn't get separation (Brian Robiskie), had terrible ball skills (Mohamed Massaquoi), were still raw (Greg Little), or were banged up / only average (Joshua Cribbs). The best weapons provided to him for the West Coast Offense were Peyton Hillis and Brandon Jackson. Shurmur couldn't control the Hillis fiasco (to no fault of his own), and Jackson, who I would've projected to be the offensive MVP, went on injured reserve in the preseason.
Are all of these things just convenient excuses for Shurmur? I'm not trying to turn a blind eye to the negatives and sugar coat the job Shurmur did, but he could have lost the locker room numerous times this season in a worst-case scenario, especially with the "Hillis" situation. Instead, even with a backup quarterback under center for the final three weeks, I saw a team that finished the season fighting. We shouldn't have to accept mediocrity and make "battling" the new standard for success as a Browns fan, but I also appreciate the fact that I never thought, "man, this team has mailed it in," during a game this season. Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown reflected on the season on Monday by offering his vote of confidence for Shurmur heading into next season:
"I think [Shurmur] did a tremendous job dealing with being a head coach for the first time," Brown said. "Everybody thinks it’s an easy job. Everybody wants to sit in a room and say, 'I can do this better. I can do that better.' He dealt with the situations to the best of my knowledge the best he could, and he kept this football team fighting. And for me, that's how I judge a head coach. If a football team goes out there and competes their tail off week in and week out through thick and thin, which it was very thick this year, but we didn’t quit. So that tells me the leader is in place, and the guys believe in him, and they will fight for him."
This will be Shurmur's second season coming up, but it will be his first true offseason. Maybe you don't believe offseason programs make a big difference, but they could. And while the defense was the focus of the draft and free agency this past season (Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard, and Dimitri Patterson), the offense will likely be the focal point this offseason. Let's see how Shurmur does with a couple of new playmakers, an offensive coordinator, and how else he improves upon his first season. If the offense looks just as bad a year from now, then we'll talk about a change at the head coaching position. Until then, we have to accept that Shurmur is "the guy" and hope for the best.