Halfway through his second season, Browns coach Pat Shurmur sees dramatic changes in his fledgling team.
The mistakes are fewer. The practices are crisper. The injuries are healing.
With two wins in their past three games, the Browns, yes, the Cleveland Browns, who have spent most of the past decade wallowing in defeat, are starting to build something. One of the NFL's youngest squads is growing up, and the Browns (2-6) are beginning to believe they can do much more than compete on a weekly basis.
Shurmur has his team feeling it can win — with him.
"Obviously, record-wise we're not where I want to be right now," Shurmur said Monday. "But I see a team that's improving. I see a team that's battling. I see a team that's with me every step of the way. And they believe in their coaches. And I see a team that's improving. I'm hopeful we're going to continue to make those improvements and win a heckuva lot of games."
Battling brutal weather conditions on Lake Erie, the Browns did just enough Sunday for a 7-6 win over the San Diego Chargers, who seemed as if they couldn't wait to get out of the cold and rain and back to the West Coast. With their passing attack grounded by high winds, the Browns turned to running back Trent Richardson and the rookie piled up a season-high 122 yards on 24 carries and scored the game's only touchdown on a 26-yard, tackle-busting romp in the first quarter.
It was a game where points were precious, where every inch, foot and yard had added meaning. And unlike a week ago, when rookie Josh Gordon's drop of a certain touchdown pass cost the Browns in a 17-13 loss at Indianapolis, the Chargers made the game's biggest mistake as wide receiver Robert Meachem let a TD pass slip through his wet hands.
"The football gods looked down on us," Shurmur said. "It wasn't pretty, it wasn't perfect, but it's something that we can build on."
The Browns showed some signs of maturity in winning their second straight game at home. They handled the nasty conditions, were called for just four penalties and did not commit a turnover, recovering two fumbles.
Shurmur has been criticized for pointing out progress following losses, but there's no denying the team made positive strides Sunday.
One of the biggest improvements came after the game. As Shurmur was about to announce, "See you Wednesday" and give his players a "victory" Monday off, he was interrupted by some of the Browns who told him they wanted to come to work and begin preparing for Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens.
For Shurmur, that was a sign of his team's evolution.
"The fact that they wanted to do it the last week in October says a lot," Shurmur said. "I've been around a lot of other good teams that will do whatever they can to get a 'see you Wednesday.' That shows me that there's a level of maturity there. It shows me that these guys understand the importance of work."
It was a welcomed development for many of the Browns, including kicker Phil Dawson, who has been with the club since 1999. Dawson has seen it all — the good, bad and ugly — during his time in Cleveland and the fact that so many players wanted to build off the win was proof that this group of Browns may be different that previous ones.
When Shurmur gave the Browns an extra day off following their win over Cincinnati on Oct. 14, they had a poor practice on that Wednesday and finished the week with the loss to the Colts. Dawson senses players learned their lesson.
"It's a good sign that guys recognize what's required," Dawson said. "Everybody would like a day off, but we know where we are right now and guys want more wins, and when you have the new owner say he wants to get greedy with wins, guys stepped in line and want do that. And so today was productive and hopefully it will kick start a good week of preparation so we can go out and get another 'w'."
The win over San Diego was the first for new owner Jimmy Haslam, who after being presented with a game ball from Shurmur in the locker room, stepped forward and challenged the Browns "to get greedy" and want to win more.
Tight end Alex Smith said Haslam's words made a big impression with everyone who heard them.
"It was kind of an awakening for everybody that hey, it's go time," Smith said. "Of course we're aware of that, but to hear that from the big guy just puts a little more into it. He said you know what, 'Let's get greedy and get another win.' That was his final message to us and that's where everybody is right now."
The Browns reached the season's midpoint with a one-point win. It began in September with a one-point loss to Philadelphia, one of several games the Browns would like to have back.
Shurmur, though, is looking forward and sees a team growing in many ways. Things are falling into place and there's even a chance his defense may have injured starting defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor in time to face the Ravens.
It's getting better for the Browns, and with a few more wins it could be much better for Shurmur, just 6-18 in two seasons.
"We function better as a team," he said. "Our young skilled players on offense are better and we're getting production. We've won two games in the last three weeks. So let's call it for what it is. We're getting some defensive players back that will help us. If you function better and you're playing better and you win a couple games and you're getting some players back that can help you win, that helps me stay positive."
NOTES: Shurmur said Richardson is "no worse for wear" after starting his second game with a rib cartilage injury. ... Smith started at fullback over Owen Marecic, who was inactive and hasn't helped his status with at least four dropped passes this season. Smith did a nice job helping open holes for Richardson. He was also involved in an animated conversation with one of the officials after he noticed the Chargers had 12 players in the huddle. "Stanford guy," Shurmur joked about Smith. "He can count." ... The NFL moved the trading deadline from 4 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday because of Hurricane Sandy.
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