ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
PITTSBURGH — Cleveland Browns coach Pat Shurmur addressed his team a little longer than usual after it closed its season with a 24-10 loss to the rival Steelers.
One player said he thought Shurmur was fighting back tears. Another said he had a personal message. Many reported that the second-year coach told the players how proud he was of them.
None would acknowledge, directly, that they expect Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert to be fired today.
But as receiver Joshua Cribbs said, the players on the 5-11 Browns aren't entirely oblivious, either.
"It's the NFL, this is business," Cribbs said. "It's not necessarily the feel. ... You just know."
Cleveland's third-string quarterback, Thaddeus Lewis, passed for 204 yards with a touchdown and an interception in his first NFL start. But the Browns dropped their third straight in what is likely Shurmur's final game on the sideline.
Shurmur insisted he had not spoken to owner Jimmy Haslam or CEO Joe Banner "for quite some time" and that he planned on conducting routine season-ending meetings and exit interviews with his players today.
But the second-year coach also was somewhat emotional and defiant in what very well could end up his final postgame news conference as Cleveland's head coach.
Shurmur pointed and said, "The future is bright for that group of guys," at one point. He later dismissively told reporters, "You need to call your league sources," when asked about his job status.
"I'm looking forward to this team next year if that's the case," Shurmur said. "If not, then what I'm going to do is help coach and help inspire a team to win games in some role. I have kids in college, I have mouths to feed — and this is my profession, and this is what I choose to do. That's it. That is how simple it is in my mind."
Ben Roethlisberger threw three short touchdown passes, denying Cleveland its first sweep of the AFC North rival Steelers since 1988. Pittsburgh won for only the second time in its last seven games to avoid its first losing season since 2003.
Antonio Brown, Leonard Pope, and Plaxico Burress scored for the Steelers (8-8), whose top-ranked defense forced four turnovers.
Pittsburgh will sit out the postseason for the first time since 2009, but the Browns extended their run of nonplayoff seasons to 10.
The overhaul in Cleveland is already under way. Haslam, who took over as owner in late summer, pushed out team president Mike Holmgren last month, and it appears Shurmur and Heckert could soon follow Holmgren out the door.
"We really didn't win enough games, and we're not competing next week [in the playoffs]. I was never really worried about [job security], and I have no regrets," Shurmur said.
The Browns are 9-23 under Shurmur, the lone highlight a three-game winning streak spanning late November and early December that had some in Cleveland doing the complicated math necessary to put the Browns in the playoffs.
The optimism died just as quickly as it arose. Cleveland came back to Earth in a 38-21 whipping at the hands of the Washington Redskins two weeks ago, followed by a blowout loss in Denver. Given a chance to sweep their biggest rivals for the first time in 24 years, the Browns instead lost to the Steelers in the regular-season finale for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
"You just wish you could go out with a win for him," linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said.
Shurmur, injecting a bit of risk-taking in a tenure filled with playing it safe, called a fake punt from the Cleveland 25 early in the third quarter that Ray Ventrone turned into a 35-yard gain, equaling the team's longest run of the season.
The Browns tied it at 10 a few plays later when Lewis hit Little for a seven-yard touchdown pass.
That about did it for Cleveland. The Steelers responded with a 12-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Roethlisberger hitting Brown for a nine-yard score that put the Steelers back in front.
"I think it was important to end our season the way we wanted to end it," Pittsburgh running back Jonathan Dwyer said.
The Browns failed to do so, though not for a lack of trying. Wide receiver Travis Benjamin fumbled while trying to fight for extra yardage in the fourth quarter. Six plays later, Roethlisberger found Burress for a 12-yard TD.