BEREA — Coach Rob Chudzinski has lost six straight and nine of 10. His team is drawing unfavorable comparisons to the 2012 edition led by Pat Shurmur. He needs a win Sunday against Pittsburgh in the finale to match the 5-11 record Shurmur recorded before he was fired.
After a slightly longer honeymoon period than some Cleveland coaches get, Chudzinski has begun to receive his share of the blame from fans and media. The questions have gotten more difficult to answer as the losses have mounted, and the bags under his eyes have grown deeper.
He insisted he’s not surprised his first season as a head coach has been this hard.
“I expected it, I understood the challenges that we had and I know what it takes here, specifically,” Chudzinski said Monday. “I’ll go back to the plan that we have overall as an organization to establish the type of success long term that we want, and that that would take some time to get to. I know what I signed up for.”
Of course, he was hoping for better, especially after a win over the Ravens on Nov. 3 moved the Browns to 4-5 at the bye and put their playoff destiny in their hands. They haven’t won since and have been passed by division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh, who overcame uncharacteristic slow starts to remain in playoff contention with a week remaining.
Chudzinski remains resolute that the Browns will figure it out.
“There is hope and we’ve made strides in some areas,” he said. “Certainly after yesterday’s game I’m not happy, nobody is happy with the outcome. But overall there is a group of guys that’s going to be the foundation for the future.
“Again, I’m very confident in our future and the success we will have in the future. We have a lot of work to do and there’s no doubt in that. I’m not immune to what our record is. It’s not good enough and it needs to be better and we’ll improve on that.”
Chudzinski was here twice before as an assistant, so he knows losing and the toll it takes on coaches. He watched Butch Davis get fired in 2004 and Romeo Crennel after 2008. He has an even better grip on how the passionate fans process a nearly two-decade stretch without a playoff win. The last came after the 1994 season.
“I grew up as a Browns fan,” he said. “I know the frustration, I understand the frustration, I’ve lived it. I can only say that there’s nothing more that I want than for this place to be a winner and for us to turn it around, and we’ll get that done.”
Chudzinski said the most troubling part of the skid is the inability to hold leads. The Browns have led five of the six games, including three in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve played well and have had good starts, and we haven’t been able to maintain those leads,” he said. “Each week, it’s for different reasons. So that’s the difficult thing is to pin one thing down. When you can pin it down to one thing, you can fix it. Sometimes you fix one thing and something else pops up. But overall, that’s the thing that we need to get better at to grow as a team because if we do and are able to protect those leads or score and continue to build on those leads and win those games, that’s the difference.”
On Thursday coordinator Ray Horton said his defense had tightened up in the game’s big moments. On Sunday, veteran quarterback Jason Campbell said he and the offense started to press and unraveled when they faced adversity in the 24-13 loss to the Jets.
Questions about a team’s mental toughness are never good.
“We’ve talked a lot about having a mindset of when the game is there, when there’s that time to take the game, of stepping up and making those plays,” Chudzinski said. “And we have to — and I have to do a better job — and continue to do a job of building that mindset.”
Chudzinski said his staff has stressed “the last five” so the players understand the importance of winning the final five minutes of each half.
“That’s been a huge point of emphasis,” he said.
Yet blown leads at the end of the second and fourth quarters continued to haunt the Browns against the Jets. Another problem area Chudzinski hasn’t been able to fix is slow substitutions that have led to numerous wasted timeouts.
“Some of that from an offensive standpoint comes from the multiple-personnel-group team that we are,” he said. “Those things can happen at times. When they do, that’s not an excuse and that’s not acceptable.”
Chudzinski made it clear following the game Sunday the buck stops with him. But the hand he was dealt was short on aces. He inherited a team with a lack of talent and depth, has been forced to start three quarterbacks — never one for more than four straight games – and doesn’t have a No. 1 running back.
Aren’t those legitimate reasons for all the losses?
“I don’t think that way. I don’t function that way,” he said. “I’ve always felt like whatever situation you’re in, whatever you’re doing, whoever you have, you have to figure out a way to make it work. It’s a puzzle that you have to figure out how you can put that puzzle together. And obviously we haven’t been able to do that this year well enough.”
WHO: Cleveland vs. Pittsburgh
WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.
WHERE: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
TV/RADIO: Channel 19; WKNR 850-AM, WKRK 92.3-FM, WNCX 98.5-FM