Pat Shurmur walks from the field to a mob of media, poised with cameras, recorders and questions. He’s quickly surrounded.
After a two-hour practice in the 90-degree humidity, this stop isn’t at the top of his wish list. The sun beats down, the breeze can’t be found and the sweat streams down his face and neck as the questions keep coming.
Some would look for a metaphor in the scene. The vultures (media) are circling as Shurmur begins his second season as coach of the Browns. He’s feeling the heat (the perspiration) with Jimmy Haslam about to take over as owner.
Shurmur sees the scene for what it is. A daily job requirement made a bit more uncomfortable by the temperature and the redundant queries. Those on the outside, or even in a different part of Browns headquarters, can worry about the future. Shurmur’s focus is narrow: his team and today’s opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.
“You want to play well and you want to win,” he said.
Shurmur is acutely aware of the low expectations for the Browns everywhere but on his practice field. They’re nearly double-digit underdogs at home today against a team the Browns are trying to become.
Shurmur was trained by Eagles coach Andy Reid for 10 years, and general manager Tom Heckert spent nine in Philadelphia. The connections between the franchises are everywhere.
The season outlook is even worse if you listen to the national experts. No one has the Browns anywhere near the playoffs and many have predicted a 1-15 record.
“I don’t put much stock in that because they don’t know our team — or my team — the way I do,” said Shurmur, who went 4-12 in 2011. “I just can’t see that happening, because I know we’re improved in a lot of areas and I just know that, in my heart of hearts, it’s not the right thing.”
Shurmur in Year 2 isn’t exactly Microsoft 2.0. No overhaul, not many conscious changes, just a higher-definition image of the 47-year-old former college center who has taken ownership of the team.
“Everything is more comfortable for him. That’s good,” Heckert said. “Now it’s normal.”
“I think what makes me different is I know my team better and it allows me to coach them better,” said Shurmur, who was robbed of his first offseason by the lockout. “It’s just like being in a classroom, once you learn who they are and how to push their buttons. I feel I’m able to say things to ’em, I really feel like they’re listening.
“There’s certain things where I’m willing to say, ‘Hey, listen, we’re not going to do that.’”
Perhaps this is where the difference in his second year is revealed. Shurmur threw cornerback Joe Haden — arguably his top defender — out of practice for a pattern of unsafe play. It’s a rare occurrence in the league and showed Shurmur’s emotion, conviction and authority. (It should be noted the dustup didn’t last and they’re on the same page.)
Shurmur has carried that attitude to his news conferences. After repeatedly joking last year that he was going to go to medical school in the offseason to be better prepared for all the injury questions, he changed his policy — he’s not going to answer them unless there’s a good reason.
“I don’t think it’s important for us to just tell the world about where we are at,” he said. “That’s just my feelings on that. Maybe that’s just me in Year 2.”
Shurmur has tweaked his relationship with the media in the leadup to the season. He’s more himself, which doesn’t always mean friendlier. He called himself another name for a jerk during one exchange and has challenged the premise of several questions.
“I’m a little bit of a hot head. I try to keep it from you,” he said.
Just when Shurmur appeared to be getting his footing, the ground shifted beneath him. The impending sale to Haslam altered the entire landscape of the organization. He has no ties to anyone and hasn’t revealed his plan for personnel changes.
“I think from a day-to-day standpoint, when I walk around the building and see people doing their jobs, it’s not an issue,” Shurmur said. “I would imagine for some people in the building, in the back of their minds, in their quiet moments, they think about it.
“We as coaches always live with the uncertainty and having to perform every year. We’ve dealt with fighting for your existence. We’re used to that.”
Shurmur and his family were in Philadelphia for 10 years, then St. Louis for two before coming here. With his son a sophomore at St. Edward High School and on schedule to be a star quarterback, it reaffirms that real-life issues are involved when jobs are at stake.
“My family and I are very real,” he said. “We’ve coached in a lot of great places, been involved with teams that you wonder what’s going to happen at the end of the year.
“I think you just learn to deal with it and don’t worry about it, make today the best you can and know everybody’s working as hard as they can to do it right.”
Reid was Holmgren’s first hire years ago when he became a head coach. Reid’s now the longest-tenured coach in the NFL as he begins his 14th season in Philadelphia.
When Holmgren hired Shurmur, he proclaimed him the last coach he would ever hire. That was supposed to mean continuity and victories were coming to Cleveland. The former is out of Holmgren’s hands with the arrival of Haslam, but he remains confident in his choice of Shurmur.
“He’s more involved with everybody than he was a year ago,” Holmgren said. “I like when he calls the guys together, they listen to him. He has their attention.”
For Shurmur, he can’t be a success without the personal connection.
“It really comes down to having to work with people, because you’re counting on so many people to do good work and so you try to inspire them and direct them,” he said. “That’s a huge part of my job.”
Shurmur has a season-long job interview in front of him. The odds seem to be stacked against him if Haslam’s only criterion is win-loss record.
The Browns play one of the toughest schedules in the league, including the Eagles, and open the season with 15 rookies. The youth is at a number of critical positions, including quarterback Brandon Weeden, running back Trent Richardson, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and receiver Josh Gordon.
Shurmur steels his jaw and points to those players as reason for optimism. The Browns needed to improve the talent level and believe they did.
“I love my team and I cannot wait to see them compete,” he said. “If you don’t sense my enthusiasm, then you’re missing it.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or email@example.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.
• WHERE: Cleveland Browns Stadium
• TIME: 1 p.m.
• PRESEASON RECORDS: Browns 2-2; Eagles 4-0
• LAST SEASON: Browns 4-12; Eagles 8-8
• SERIES: Browns lead 31-15-1, including 17-6-1 in Cleveland
• LAST MEETING: Eagles won 30-10 on Dec. 15, 2008, at Lincoln Financial Field
• COACHES: Pat Shurmur is 4-12 with Browns and overall; Andy Reid is 136-90-1 with Eagles and overall
• TV/RADIO: Channel 8, with Dick Stockton and John Lynch; WMMS-FM 100.7
• NFL RANKINGS (2011 SEASON): Browns – offense 29th (28th rushing, 24th passing), defense 10th (30th rushing, 2nd passing); Eagles — offense 4th (5th rushing, 9th passing), defense 8th (16th rushing, 10th passing)
• BROWNS UPDATE: K Phil Dawson will play in his 200th career game, all with the Browns.
• Five rookies are expected to start — QB Brandon Weeden, RB Trent Richardson, RT Mitchell Schwartz, DT Billy Winn and LB L.J. Fort. Rookie WRs Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin and DT John Hughes will also see a lot of playing time.
• WR Greg Little ranked second in the league in catches by a rookie last year with 61.
• LB Scott Fujita is eligible to play after his three-game suspension was overturned Friday, at least temporarily. But Fujita had a knee injury in the preseason and didn’t practice all week because of the suspension, so his status is uncertain. He could be inactive, a reserve or start in place of Fort.
• WR Joshua Cribbs will return kickoffs and punts.
• RB Brandon Jackson and P Reggie Hodges will appear in their first regular-season games since 2010.
• The Browns are opening the season vs. the Eagles for the first time since 1969.
EAGLES UPDATE: QB Michael Vick is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher at his position with 5,219 yards. He also owns the league’s highest average per carry at any position at 7.2 yards.
• RB LeSean McCoy has scored 28 rushing touchdowns in his first three years and is seeking his third straight 1,000-yard season.
• Reid has led the Eagles to the playoffs in nine of 13 seasons.
• Eagles are 6-7 on opening day under Reid.
• Rookie third-round pick Nick Foles is the backup QB.
• The Eagles’ plus-18 sack differential in 2011 was third in the league. They got 50 and allowed 32.
• Set a team record with 6,386 net yards in 2011.
• S David Sims spent the entire preseason with the Browns before being traded to Philadelphia.
• K Alex Henery has made 16 straight field goals.
BROWNS INJURY REPORT: Out: LB James-Michael Johnson (ribs, oblique); Doubtful: T Oniel Cousins (right ankle); Questionable: TE Jordan Cameron (groin), OL John Greco (calf), QB Thaddeus Lewis (right thumb), RB Chris Ogbonnaya (ankle), RB Trent Richardson (knee), TE Benjamin Watson (thigh); Probable: S Eric Hagg (illness), CB Dimitri Patterson (knee), S Ray Ventrone (hamstring), S Usama Young (thigh)
EAGLES INJURY REPORT: Out: S Colt Anderson (knee), WR Riley Cooper (collarbone); Questionable: RB Dion Lewis (hamstring); Probable: S Nate Allen (hamstring), DE Jason Babin (calf), LB Jamar Chaney (hamstring), DT Fletcher Cox (knee), LB Casey Matthews (ankle), T Nate Menkin (shoulder)
• THE PICK: The Browns show signs of life on offense, but can’t keep up with the high-flying Eagles and drop another opener.
Eagles 27, Browns 17.