A year later, Rucker is getting a crash course on how things work in Cleveland at this time of year. No playoffs, plenty of complaining and the probability of change quickly following the finale Sunday in Pittsburgh.
The difference is obvious.
“I’m sure everyone in this locker room is broken-hearted as we go down these last couple days of practice and we know after the Pittsburgh game it’s going to be a long time until April until we get back together as a unit, and there’s a lot of stuff that possibly could happen around here,” he said Thursday.
Rucker signed with the Browns in March and named general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur as two of the primary reasons. Rucker paused, then chuckled ruefully when asked how he would feel if they’re fired as expected Monday.
“I came here because of both of them obviously, because they really wanted me and the team we have and we know the potential of this team,” Rucker said. “If something happens like that, I made a commitment, I signed a five-year contract here and I’m going to play until they kick me out the door.”
Rucker believes the Browns are headed in the right direction under the current leadership.
“Yeah, by far,” he said.
The playoffs weren’t expected for a Browns team among the youngest in the league. Neither was another total upheaval, but that changed when Jimmy Haslam agreed to buy the franchise from Randy Lerner.
Uncertainty has been the backdrop since the sale was announced at the opening of training camp in July, and it’s reached a zenith. CEO Joe Banner said recently he expected to make personnel decisions quickly after the season.
The entire football personnel department and coaching staff could be replaced. The roster could also face an extreme makeover depending on any other changes.
Shurmur said he doesn’t know what will happen Monday as far as meeting with Banner and/or Haslam.
“I know what I want to do with the players on Monday from a scheduling standpoint, but nothing has been set as far as any official communication or what-not,” Shurmur said. “My thoughts right now are playing this football game. Getting our team to Pittsburgh, playing the game and then getting our team back.
“At some point after that, I’ll begin to think about what goes on from there. No, I’m not worried about it.”
The players are also trying to deflect their worry. But they know new decision-makers could mean a new way of life inside Browns headquarters, and that few jobs are secure.
“Change is never easy,” said kicker Phil Dawson, who is set to become a free agent. “I don’t know anyone that enjoys it. But with all the unknown right now I think 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 with this group, with these coaches, with everyone together and try to win a football game. And it’s not just some game. This is the Steeler game.”
The mood of the locker room has turned sour in the last two weeks. A three-game winning streak that brought hope has been replaced by a two-game skid in which the Browns were outscored 48-16 in the second half against Washington and Denver.
With the playoffs out of the question and changes expected at the top, the complaining has increased. That’s a regular December occurrence for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2002.
“Everything (stinks) a little bit more when you’re losing and people aren’t happy with that, and it’s disappointing when you try your best and you don’t get the outcome you want individually and as a team,” Rucker said.
“Just like anybody else who is disgruntled at their work, when stuff isn’t going well for them at the office, they still got to go into the office,” tight end Benjamin Watson said. “So at this point, stuff hasn’t worked out how we like it, but we still got to go into the office.”
Watson, who’s at the end of a three-year contract, wasn’t a fan of Shurmur’s decision Sunday to call timeouts and throw the ball in the final minutes of a 34-12 loss to Denver. Running back Trent Richardson sprained his ankle and quarterback Colt McCoy sprained his shoulder in the last minute.
“That’s the thing with football, the more you’re out there, the more chance you have for injury,” Watson said. “It’s the end of the game, the game’s pretty much over.
“I could understand you want to get reps and all that type of stuff, but we do what the coaches tell us to do — whether we agree with them or not. The coach says go out there and play, our job is to go out there and play.”
Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas was one of many players to endorse Heckert and Shurmur.
“I think they’ve done a nice job,” he said. “It’s tough to get everything you want done in only two seasons, but I think they’ve done a nice job.
“I think Tom has done a great job of putting together young talent and Pat’s done a good job of coaching them. I think we’ve shown improvement. We’ve shown growth, but like I said, it’s none of our decisions. Those decisions happen over our heads.”
Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is on his third coach in seven seasons. He wants continuity but is trying to remain optimistic regardless.
“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.”
Offensive coordinator Brad Childress is part of the staff expected to be sent packing, but he’s maintained a sense of humor.
“We don’t even spend time worrying about it,” he said. “What will end up happening is what will end up happening.
“I know since the Mayan calendar has proved to be false, I think we’ll make it to next Monday, and we’ll make it to next Tuesday and next Wednesday. What will be, will be.”