NEWARK, N.J. — Coach Rob Chudzinski changed the practice schedule for the first time all season and put the players in shoulder pads for the first time since midseason.
The final two Browns games are meaningless in the playoff race, but don’t try telling Chudzinski they don’t matter. He’s 4-10 in his first season and needs a win to match last year’s total of fired coach Pat Shurmur.
“We’re very focused on these last two weeks of the season, and we want to close out this season the right way,” Chudzinski said. “Our guys will be excited and ready to play.”
The Browns have lost five straight and eight of nine to fall out of playoff contention. The players’ disappointment is obvious, but the skid also serves as motivation for the final two weeks.
“It’s important to win them,” nose tackle Phil Taylor said. “You don’t want to end the season on a bad note. You go out there and get these last two W’s, that’s just a good look going into the next season.”
It’s debatable whether the end of one season has an impact on the next. Coach Eric Mangini won the final four games of 2009 to keep his job, only to go 5-11 in 2010 and get fired. But winning can’t hurt, and Chudzinski is trying to build a culture where success is expected.
“We’ve just got to keep fighting and understand that we’re building something and there were teams that had four wins last year or five wins last year and a year later they’re fighting for the playoffs,” quarterback Jason Campbell said. “So when you’re in these situations, it can tell a lot about your character, your attitude and your team. What you do now can pay dividends later.”
A win Sunday vs. the Jets (6-8) and/or next week in the finale at Pittsburgh would prove something to the players — they aren’t chokers and can close out a win. The Browns have blown three straight fourth-quarter leads, and a young team with a rookie coach must prove it can finish games before it can take the next step to contention. A two-game win streak to end the year would cross an item off next year’s to-do list.
“We’re making the right steps in the right direction, we’ve just got to finish these close games that we’re in,” Taylor said. “We could’ve won a lot of these games. We’ve got to finish. As soon as we get that, learn how to finish, we’ll be moving.”
With the long losing stretch, the Browns are in danger of taking a step backward in the win column. The progress praised at the bye is tougher to identify, and the front office’s goal of improvement by the end of the season unfulfilled.
But Chudzinski remains resolute as he heads into the matchup with Rex Ryan, whose future in New York is in doubt.
“I’ve said all along I believe in our plan that we have, and that’s a long-term plan for sustained success,” Chudzinski said. “I see progress, and although the outcomes and the wins and the losses aren’t what I or anybody else wants them to be, I see the progress, and it’s internal progress. It’s the things in developing what I believe is a backbone for success and future success. I’ve seen player development. I’ve seen growth from them in our system and systems. Those things give me the feeling of excitement, hope for the future.
“I believe we will win here. We have the right people. I feel our best days are ahead of us, and it is a bright future here in Cleveland.”
The locker room has bought in. From Joe Thomas to Joe Haden, the players are convinced the optimism that swept the city at 4-5 wasn’t false hope. They insist the talent’s in place and that the victories will follow.
Even if they almost never do. The Browns are only the second franchise (Tampa Bay) to lose at least 10 games in 10 of 11 seasons.
“We have a lot of great players on this team and we’re only going to build on that in the offseason through the draft and free agency,” Thomas said. “We definitely have the coaching staff to do it. We’ll put a couple more pieces together under the same offense and defense and we’ll be all set.
“If you look at it, if we would have won one or two more games that were close at the end we could still be in the playoff picture.”
Haden also believes the future will be better.
“It has to,” he said. “What else are we going to do? Keep letting this (crap) happen? We’ve got to start eventually making things happen. This is not the same old Browns.
“We know we can make it happen, so we’re really having conversations with the leaders, with the coaches, the coaches are talking to players, they’re asking for our input and we’re legit having interaction like, ‘All right, this is not going to be like this for long. It’s going to change, how are we going to change it?’ So between the players and the coaches and everybody, we’re really trying to figure out ways to make that change because something has to shake basically and we’re trying to figure out what that’s going to be.”
The reasons for the slide back to irrelevance will be further dissected after the season. The lack of a running game, insufficient talent at receiver (besides Josh Gordon) and special teams breakdowns from constant turnover at the bottom of the roster will make the list.
The failure to fix these deficiencies, along with the Week 3 trade of Trent Richardson and the accumulation of draft picks for 2014, suggest to some the front office had a different priority than winning this year.
“That’s a tough question to answer,” Thomas said. “That would be better served to ask those people that are in charge. The players are doing everything they can and the coaches are doing everything they can. That’s the way it has been and the way it’s going to be.”
Many argue the Browns would be better off losing the last two games to improve draft position as they search for their franchise quarterback. Without a win, the Browns would likely have a top-five pick. They could slide out of the top 10 with two wins.
Don’t count linebacker D’Qwell Jackson among those already obsessing over mock drafts.
“The players on the field are trying to win, I don’t care what they’re doing upstairs,’ he said.
For the guys in the helmets, there’s another basic reason to finish on a strong note. They haven’t celebrated a win since Nov. 3 against Baltimore. November to the season opener next September is a long time.
“It’s very disappointing, very disappointing,” Haden said. “Especially when you have a team that you know can win.
“We don’t want to go into next offseason with this bad a taste in our mouths. At least go into it going up. So we’ve just got to basically try to finish off strong, everybody do their job, just try to win these last two however we can.”