Pat Shurmur’s eyes glistened during his postgame news conference, while Joshua Cribbs’ voice wavered as he stared at his jersey. Frostee Rucker even had to force a smile, though it was obvious he wasn’t the least bit happy.
Pro football may be a huge business played and coached by millionaires, but at its core, it remains a team game full of raw emotions — many of which were on display Sunday inside the Browns’ locker room at Heinz Field.
Cleveland’s 24-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers not only marked the conclusion of the regular season, it brought down the curtain on the franchise’s latest rebuilding effort.
Shurmur’s coaching tenure will almost certainly end today, along with Tom Heckert’s employment as the Browns’ general manager, casting an aura of sadness over their entire traveling party.
“We prepared well all season and had great game plans, but it came down to us on the field not doing our jobs as well as we needed to,” Rucker said softly. “We can compete with anyone, we just need to pay more attention to detail.
“No one around here is going to duck and dodge (responsibility), but it’s rough because there are so many little things that could have gone differently.”
Though Cleveland finished 5-11 and will have the sixth pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, its players genuinely believe that the team is headed in the right direction.
Yet, they also recognize that direction is about to abruptly change because they were unable to win close games all season.
“It was like a moment of silence when we got in here,” rookie wide receiver Travis Benjamin said. “Everybody was hugging and shaking hands with each other. We were wishing we could play another game together or another season together, but we already know how that goes.
“We came to the game, and we just wanted to play our best performance and send guys out on a good note. It’s a tough way to end the year.”
Actually, the start to the Browns’ season was even tougher as it created the storm cloud that continues to linger over 76 Lou Groza Ave.
When Randy Lerner put the team up for sale as training camp opened, it short-circuited Heckert’s well-crafted plan to add talent through the draft. And when Jimmy Haslam III was introduced as the new owner, it sealed the unpleasant fate of everyone in Cleveland’s management team.
“Change is never fun, and it’s been a difficult season from Day One,” kicker Phil Dawson said. “When the team gets sold on the first day of training camp, that’s adversity.
“Like I’ve said all along, I’m very proud of how well everyone here has handled change. That includes Pat, who handled himself with class, as usual, today. I’m not going to get into what he told us after the game, but it was emotional for all of us who have been here with him the last two years.”
Just minutes later, Shurmur was unable to hide his anxiety and disappointment when addressing the media. When he revealed that Haslam and Browns CEO Joe Banner haven’t spoken with him in “quite some time,” one could almost feel his heart breaking.
“When I look at the game, once again, the Browns played extremely hard today,” Shurmur said, subconsciously trying to distance himself from the situation.
“The future is bright for that group of guys. I think the coaches that work with them are outstanding. That’s what my thoughts are as this team gets ready for an offseason, just like the 19 other (non-playoff) teams.”
Shurmur, however, won’t be around to work with them. The “group of guys” also probably won’t include Cleveland fan favorites — and Browns for life — Dawson and Cribbs, who are headed into unrestricted free agency.
With one-third of Cleveland’s roster now done with their contracts, and a new coaching staff and front office either here or on their way, 2012 has indeed ended with an exclamation point.
Unfortunately, that also means 2013 will begin with an enormous question mark for the Browns.
“Any time you put your soul and your heart and all your emotions into it, it hurts when you don’t accomplish your goals,” wide receiver Greg Little said.
“There are a lot of what ifs and if so’s, but everyone knows that we’re right there. It’s also quietly being said around the league that we’re on the cusp. We just didn’t make enough plays to take that next step right now.”
Contact Brian Dulik at email@example.com.