"I don't know. I think we can all say that we've experienced things in life and we've learned how we're going to handle things when we have it happen again. I mentioned to you before, that I've developed a list of ‘nevers' from this year that I'll never do again. Okay. You can only experience things to help you as you move through it. Younger players have to experience some things, but that's no excuse. You have to experience and win and that's the task."
-Pat Shurmur – 12/26/11
Shurmur's list of "nevers" could fill an entire playbook – or at the least make for a truly comprehensive how-to guide regarding coaching an NFL football team. In most respects, Shurmur's first season as a hand-picked head coach will likely end this Sunday in a fashion that has come to be expected from Browns' faithful. For most of 2011, Shurmur's Browns have given a solid effort and played their way into several close games – only to falter as the result of overmatched talent on the field, poor decision making from the sidelines and from an inexplicable sense of sinister fortune that has characterized the expansion era.
In his defense, Shurmur has inherited an overtly youthful Browns roster – one filled with the remnants of past coaching and management schemes. Add in the lack of an offseason training program, a string of injuries and the eternal trend of the Browns constantly trying to recover from system-wide rebooting efforts during the expansion era and perhaps it's appropriate to suggest that Shurmur "never" had a true chance for success in 2011.
As such, Shurmur's words earlier in the week serve as a sort of validation of these ideas. With the Browns headed for a likely 4-12 finish, all Shurmur can now do is reflect on how to improve. Call it either a New Year's Resolution or simply an embracing of reality, but as for those "nevers", let's hope the following are considered for inclusion.
In a season void of highlight reels, Shurmur's Browns have been better defined through exhibitions of ineptness. From botched special teams snaps to shoddy kick return coverage and endless dropped passes, Shurmur's Browns have continually short-circuited even the most modest of success. However, the signature play of Shurmur's rookie season is best represented by the Browns' blunder against Baltimore last Saturday.
In an embarrassing display reminiscent of the Chris Palmer days of 1999-2000, the Browns squandered a scoring opportunity against a tough Baltimore defense simply by running out of time. Instead of killing the clock through a spiked ball or running a play towards the sidelines, the Browns executed a clock-draining running play.
Shurmur defended – or at least acknowledged – the blunder by admitting that two plays were called consecutively, yet didn't clarify the intent behind such a decision. In doing so, Shurmur revealed volumes about his progress as a head coach – which sadly can only be measured in terms of his growth as an offensive coordinator. For much of 2011, Shurmur has appeared buried behind his offensive play calling sheet, which makes the novice head coach appear removed from the constantly changing realities of the game played in front of him.
Assuming that his players – or at least his injury-plagued offense – are capable of executing his plays is a bit of a reach for Shurmur. Simply put, Shurmur is still fairly inexperienced as an offensive play caller, which makes his assuming a role as a game day head coach even more problematic. In this sense, Shurmur serves as more of a robotic messenger than actual hands-on coach. To assume that a seldom-used Seneca Wallace can expertly flesh out a last second decision is the mark of a wildly inexperienced head coach.
It's obvious that the Browns are a work in progress in terms of overall talent and depth. After two drafts helmed by a combination of Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert, the Browns appear to be slowly shaping their roster into a successful unit. The likes of Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard and Greg Little are an encouraging sign for the future of the franchise.
Of course, there have been some draft misses – many of which have been framed within the team's stunted development over the past decade. Because of the weak system of management allowed by owner Randy Lerner, the Browns are razor thin at several key areas of the roster. Further complicating matters is a puzzling allegiance to specific schemes by the Browns' coaching staff – despite the team's misshapen roster.
Perhaps no better example of how Shurmur's Browns have tried to pound a square into a circle can be found than by looking around the league. In Cincinnati, rookie quarterback Andy Dalton was given a skeletal offensive system to learn in the preseason, then gradually assumed more responsibility as the season wore on. In San Francisco, Alex Smith was presented with a run heavy offense designed to hide his weaknesses, while Denver crafted an offense specifically suited to Tim Tebow's unique skills.
But in Cleveland, Shurmur's West Coast offense runs counter to the idea of a scheme fitting talent. Throughout 2011, the Browns' offensive talent has had to assimilate into a scheme that demands precision. Yet, the Browns can only offer erratic wide receivers, a shaky offensive line and a quarterback whose talents seem to exist outside of a West Coast offense.
However, Shurmur's confidence – or stubbornness – in his offensive system has resulted in some overwhelming predictability. Each week of the 2011 season has seen opposing defenses rush the Browns up the middle, box McCoy in the pocket and contain receivers within a ten-yard radius. Yet, each week Shurmur offers an offensive game plan that seems completely ignorant of these realizations – or of the idea that players such as Evan Moore, Josh Cribbs and Carlton Mitchell feature talents that lie beyond the offense's current design.
Finally, after nearly one full season with Shurmur in charge of the Browns, it's still difficult to determine just what motivates the former St. Louis offensive coordinator. It's hard to figure out if Shurmur is simply the most stoic head coach in Browns' history, or perhaps the most overmatched. Perhaps Shurmur is simply overmatched as a dual offensive coordinator/head coach, or maybe the Browns' lack of talent is too much for any coach to overcome.
Still, it's quite possible that Shurmur is simply experiencing the kinds of growing pains that will ultimately spur the Browns' growth into the future.
Or, Shurmur's passivity is nothing more than a reminder that the Browns' immediate destiny is tied to a head coach whose team completely self-destructs in the late stages of games.
If so, another hallmark of the Browns' season came a few weeks ago in Arizona, when Shurmur decided to go the conservative route in an ill-fated attempt to preserve a win. Or, in a flashback to midseason, Shurmur tightened up against the Rams, before losing on a botched Ryan Pontbriand snap. Even in a Browns' win over Jacksonville, Shurmur's reflexive conservatism was only saved via a Jaguar play calling meltdown.
And as the Browns wrap up another disappointing campaign this Sunday, it's likely that Shurmur will again cling to what is familiar to him.
And the "never" list will grow.