|Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press|
|Since opening the season with five straight losses, Pat Shurmur's Cleveland Browns have won five of eight.|
General manager Tom Heckert and head coach Pat Shurmur weren't going to say it. So I'll do it for them:
It'd be a shame for the Cleveland Browns to break up the young group they've put together.
In fact, for a once-proud franchise that's fallen into a state of continuous tumult in its second NFL incarnation, continuity is just what the doctor ordered.
Now, new owner Jimmy Haslam might want to bring in his own guys, and the prior relationship between new club president Joe Banner and Heckert could complicate things. But after what's happened over the last two months, staying the course is the right thing to do.
"Time will tell," Shurmur said from his office earlier in the week, when asked if it'd be wrong to break up the band now. "But these young guys are getting better. There's a lot to be excited about around here. But, again, time will tell."
Heckert laughed, a little nervously, saying, "In a perfect world, yeah, that'd be great. Not a perfect world, though."
And the current Browns regime hasn't created a perfect team, either. But this group has done enough to engender some hope in a place that's been largely devoid of it since Marty Schottenheimer bolted after the 1988 season.
Poor drafting did a number on the early-1990s Browns, even with Bill Belichick as coach. Zero starters from the Super Bowl XXXV champion Baltimore Ravens -- the franchise that left Cleveland in 1996 -- were acquired by that group, and only the first (Eric Turner) of the 41 players drafted by Browns brass from 1991 to '95 ever made a Pro Bowl. Similarly, the "new" Browns' first general manager, Dwight Clark, drafted 40 players in four years, and zero Pro Bowlers. Butch Davis and Phil Savage only did marginally better.
Conversely, the focus of Heckert and Shurmur to make the roster younger over the last few years is, now, starting to show.
"We talked to Pat about it when he got here (in 2011) -- we had to get younger," Heckert said. "We committed to going at it in the draft and being more selective in free agency. We knew we'd have hurdles, being so young. Things are starting to change, and who knows what'll happen now, but I still feel like we did 100 percent the right thing. The team's built for the future, no matter who is here."
Going into Heckert's first year, the transitional 2010 season with Eric Mangini as coach, the Browns were the second-oldest team in the league, and had 18 players over the age of 30. In Sunday's 30-7 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, 20 starters (and 33 of the 36 players who got snaps on offense or defense) were in their 20s. Nineteen of the 36 were 25 or younger.
"I saw a stat where we had 72 starts by rookies this year, and the next team was at 44," Shurmur said. "That tells you about the massive amount of youth we have here. And that's OK."
Lately, it's been better than OK.
Following an 0-5 start, the Browns have gone 5-3 in their last eight games, with wins over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and near-misses on the road in Dallas and Indianapolis. And even with the bad start, the young group hasn't been blown out all year. Even better, as to the plan of Heckert and Shurmur, 17 of the team's 22 starters were drafted by the team, and nine of those came from the last two classes.
And maybe the best part: They've grown together. Consider that, for the 2011 rookies, their first two offseasons were marked by a lockout and an ownership change. With that in mind, you can see why those in the building are pretty encouraged by a young group that, to a man, enjoys coming to work every day and getting better.
"I think that's underrated," Heckert said. "All these different guys know, after all they've gone through, when things go bad, they can trust each other. And having seen each other do it and have confidence to lean on each other is huge. Pat's done a phenomenal job with that. When our record wasn't good, guys were still fighting their asses off. And now, they've gotten through that, and being young, they don't know any better. They don't care that Pittsburgh and Baltimore owned the division. They just play."
Shurmur deflects credit to his core of veterans that includes Phil Dawson, D'Qwell Jackson, Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Ahtyba Rubin and Sheldon Brown. With the knowledge that four of those guys are still short of 30, the coach jokes, "They're ancient around here."
But those guys have contributed to a gym-rat culture that the brass here is proud of. It helps foster the development of core players like Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon, Greg Little, Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard, Joe Haden and T.J. Ward. Heckert calls this the best locker room he's been around. Shurmur says the drive of the individual players is showing up now as they learn how to finish.
On his own future, the coach says, "My concern is on doing my job. At some point, someone's gonna make a decision. I have no control over that, I don't focus on it. I'm focused on the Redskins. If I didn't do that, how could I ask my players to? We'll see what happens with the rest of it."
Indeed, the club, under new management, has plenty of questions going forward. Yet, in a few years' time, the guys running the football side have provided some answers for Haslam and Co. to work with.
Will they get to see it through?
"I don't know," Heckert responded. "A lot goes into this thing. Trust me, I enjoy this team and I love this city. We'll see."
Were it not for the change in ownership, there probably wouldn't be much of a question that this particular regime should be afforded another year to progress. And even with the ownership change -- for the good of the team, the franchise and a place that might be more of a football city than any of the other 31 NFL locales -- Shurmur and Heckert deserve that chance.
Players on the spot
Indianapolis Colts OG Mike McGlynn: Indy's biggest problem against Houston is the battle in the trenches, and there's no Texan who will create more headaches for the Colts than J.J. Watt. As one AFC scout said of Watt, "There aren't guys with his size and talent that play with his temperament." And that will be ratcheted up after the embarrassing loss in New England. McGlynn will have help, but this has mismatch written all over it.
Chicago Bears WR Brandon Marshall: When Chicago went to Green Bay in September, Tramon Williams and Co. held Marshall to two catches and 24 yards in a Packers win. With the Bears suffering four losses in their last five outings, and suddenly in danger of missing the playoffs, Marshall needs to come up big in a spotlight game. This is the kind of week the Bears took the risk on Marshall for.
Dallas Cowboys WR Kevin Ogletree: After a promising start, Ogletree has just 11 catches in the team's last nine games, putting the Cowboys in a difficult spot at receiver, depth-wise. The issue is magnified with Dez Bryant's situation. Yes, Bryant wants to play through his finger injury, but if he does, there's always a chance he could be limited by it. And that means Dallas, again, needs more from Ogletree.
New England Patriots OT Nate Solder: One of Bill Belichick's biggest strengths is his ability to take away the strength of a foe. Thus, in the words of one AFC executive, "It'll be interesting to see how they protect and scheme to negate Aldon Smith, similar to what it was with Watt." Watt didn't sack Tom Brady on Monday night, but he knocked him down a bunch. Preventing Smith from doing the same will fall largely on the improving Solder.
Coaches in the spotlight
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Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell: The Ravens should be fascinating to watch this week. One reason Caldwell was considered a big hire in January as Baltimore's quarterbacks coach was his experience with developing Peyton Manning and helping run the no-huddle in Indy. The promise this year was there'd be higher tempo and a better Joe Flacco. With Caldwell taking over as OC, maybe we see more of that on Sunday.
Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt: It might not have been the coach's decision alone to fine Darnell Dockett $200,000 last week, but that kind of organizational move can reverberate in a locker room and make it more difficult to keep players on board. And that seemed to show in last weekend's debacle. It'll be interesting to see if Whisenhunt -- a good man and a good coach -- can rally the troops against the Detroit Lions on Sunday.
Something to spot on Thursday night
A big night for A.J. Green. No sugarcoating it: The second-year stud had a couple inexcusable drops that cost the Cincinnati Bengals big time in their tight loss to the Dallas Cowboys. And with the AFC wild-card race heating up, missteps like that can grow in magnitude as time goes on. Thursday night, with a national television audience watching, Green has a chance to make up for it in a big way against the messy Philadelphia Eagles.
Atlanta Falcons' offensive line. Before last year's wild-card playoff game, New York Giants DL Justin Tuck called out the Falcons' O-line, claiming the group had a rep for employing questionable tactics. Then, Tuck and Co. proceeded to shut out Atlanta's offense in a 24-2 thumping. With the Falcons looking shaky over the last four weeks, and Eli Manning getting hot last week, it's imperative that Matt Ryan be in the best spot to go shot-for-shot, which starts with keeping his shirt clean.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.