By Tom Withers | Associated Press
BEREA -- Browns coach Pat Shurmur has already developed thick skin. Now, he's bulking up his record.
With two straight wins, the Browns are showing major signs of improvement in their second season under Shurmur, whose future in Cleveland could hinge on how his team plays in its final four games -- if it hasn't been determined already.
On Sunday, the Browns (4-8) snapped a 12-game road losing streak with a 20-17 win over Oakland, putting the Raiders away with a clutch, 94-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, when Shurmur made a gutsy fourth-down call.
The Browns have gotten better and so has Shurmur. He has been harshly criticized by some Cleveland fans for his game management and play calling, and there's a chance he won't be around for a third year once new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner finish their postseason assessment.
Shurmur won't predict what's ahead.
"I don't want to talk about my future, OK?" he said. "I'm trying to make this the best Monday of the year, and I'm trying to get our team ready to play the Chiefs and then after that and so on and so forth. I don't look at it that way. I'm not taking any half-swings here. We'll just play it out and see what happens."
There's no denying that the Browns, with 17 rookies on their roster, are growing up.
They've been competitive since Week 1, but in back-to-back wins over Pittsburgh and Oakland, they've finally shown the ability to finish games.
It's an important step in the development for any team, even more so for one starting a rookie quarterback, running back, wide receiver, right tackle -- and with a coach under fire.
Shurmur acknowledges his team's evolution, but he knows the Browns are far from a finished product.
"I feel good about where we're going, we've just got to keep going," Shurmur said. "It's easy to let that momentum stop. That's what I'm guarding against, and I think our locker room understands that it's important you jump right back in the process.
"You'll get tired of hearing me say that. As long as I'm here, you'll get tired of hearing me say, 'jump back in the process.' Because I think that's most important. Initially for the season it's 16 processes and how well you get that right. Because that gives you the best opportunity to be successful on Sunday. And that's where we all want to be, at our best."
Shurmur may be down to his last four Sundays, but he's committed to making the most of them.
Last week, Haslam said in an interview with the Plain Dealer that he believed the Browns were "very close" to being a playoff contender. He was noncommittal about Shurmur's future and reiterated that he and Banner would wait until after the season before making any personnel decisions.
Shurmur was pleased to learn his new boss sees progress. That doesn't mean it's time to stop.
"It's always good to hear good things," Shurmur said. "I do know this. What's important to me -- and it's very narrow-minded -- is this next game, period. And then whatever gets determined gets determined, but what I can control right now with this football team is what happens this week."
On Sunday, the Browns will host the Kansas City Chiefs (2-10), who pulled together and beat Carolina one day after linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his 22-year-old girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, before driving to Arrowhead Stadium, where he committed suicide in the practice facility's parking lot.
After facing the Chiefs, the Browns will host Washington before closing out the season with road games at Denver and Pittsburgh. Cleveland has already matched its win total from last season, and if Shurmur bumps up his resume with another win or two or three, he could make it very difficult for the Browns not to bring him back.
He's made his share of mistakes, but Shurmur appears to be learning from them. Earlier this season, he was slammed for electing to punt on a critical fourth down against Indianapolis. Two weeks later, his gamble on a similar play against Baltimore backfired in a loss. On Sunday, Shurmur chose to go for it on 4th-and-1 after quarterback Brandon Weeden was stuffed on a sneak.
Following a timeout, Shurmur had Weeden run the same play and the Browns converted to keep alive their game-winning drive.
"Any time you do something more and more, you get better at it," Shurmur said when asked if he's improved. "It becomes clearer. There are things I see better now. There's other things that come in to this now. I know my coaches and players better. I understand how everybody on our team is going to respond in most situations. Yeah, I think there's things we're doing better -- me included."
Browns defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin sees a difference in Shurmur from last season, his first as an NFL head coach.
"He's getting more comfortable and he knows the players more," Rubin said. "He's getting acclimated and has a feel for our opponents. Coming in and playing the Steelers and the Ravens and the Bengals is pretty difficult every year, so this conference and division is hard to get acclimated to."
With a youthful, talented nucleus, the Browns have a promising future. What's unclear is who will coach them after this season.
Shurmur has his fans and critics, who even find faults when he wins. He's managed to block out the personal attacks and remains focused on winning.
It's not always easy.
"I really believe in this group we have and I really believe this is the foundation of something that could be really good," he said. "Even though I say that and believe in it, until we start winning football games, that's what shows it. That's really my concern. Some of the other stuff about me personally -- what more can they say about me?
"I don't listen to it, but I'm told frequently about it. That's where the thick skin part comes in."