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By Tom Withers | Associated Press
BEREA -- The Browns are still mathematically alive in the AFC playoff hunt. It's a longshot, but they haven't been eliminated with three games remaining.
But with every win, Pat Shurmur's odds of returning as Cleveland's coach improve.
He hasn't been eliminated either.
With his team riding a three-game winning streak -- the Browns' longest since 2009 -- Shurmur feels good about the progress of his young team, which is finally showing an ability to finish games after so many close losses earlier this season.
But despite the good vibes emanating from one of the NFL's youngest teams, there remains uncertainty about the future.
Swirling around Shurmur are rumors and reports, one on the weekend involving Alabama coach Nick Saban, that the Browns intend to make a coaching change. The clock seems to be ticking on Shurmur, who insists he's not focused on anything but getting his team ready to play their next game.
"Listen, I'm not worried about any of that," Shurmur said Monday. "I'm not worried about saving, I'm worried about doing my job and that's it. I just want to do my job."
Shurmur will have at least three more games to strengthen his case to return, starting Sunday against the Washington Redskins, who won't know until later this week if they'll have rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. He sustained a mild sprain of a ligament in the right knee against Baltimore and it's too early to know if he'll be ready.
After starting 0-5, the Browns (5-8) have turned their season around, and Sunday's 30-7 blowout win over Kansas City was Cleveland's best all-around performance. The Browns gave up an 80-yard touchdown run to Jamaal Charles on the game's opening play, but responded by scoring 30 unanswered points and posted their most lopsided win since 2003.
It was another positive sign for Shurmur, who seems to be improving in his second season along with his roster of rookies, first- and second-year players.
Shurmur was quick to point out during his news conference that Cleveland's rookies have combined to make 72 starts -- a league high. Indianapolis is second with 44.
"That's good for the future because we're finally starting to find how to win football games with these young players," Shurmur said.
There's progress on both sides of the ball. Cleveland's offense is showing better balance behind rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, who is learning to manage games and not forcing as many passes as he did earlier this season. The defense, anchored by a deep line, is showing signs of becoming a dominant unit and playing with a nasty attitude.
The Browns, who lost at least 11 games in each of the past four seasons, are beginning to blossom.
"I want to override my boundaries with, 'We're the best team,' or say stuff like that, but we're putting something together here and it's going to be beautiful," said rookie running back Trent Richardson, who scored twice in Sunday's win to tie Hall of Famer Jim Brown's franchise rookie record with nine rushing touchdowns.
"We haven't arrived yet, but we're just trying to win to get to the next level and be an elite team."
It remains to be seen if Shurmur will be around to coach the Browns once they move to a higher tier.
Owner Jimmy Haslam paid $1 billion to buy Cleveland's franchise, and he and new CEO Joe Banner may have already made up their minds to hire a new coach. If that's the case, the Browns' record over the final three games -- home against Washington and road games at Denver and Pittsburgh -- may not matter.
But if the Browns run the table, finish 8-8 and somehow make the playoffs, it would be difficult to explain not bringing Shurmur back for a third year.
Incredibly, the playoffs are still possible, but Shurmur said he has not raised any postseason possibilities with his team.
"I'm not going to focus on that," he said. "Our energy, our efforts are all going to be directed toward the Redskins and that's where we need to be. It's a little bit easier to be shortsighted and narrow-minded with three games to play and I think we have to make sure we stay in the moment.
"We all know the math changes if you don't take care of business this weekend, so that needs to be our focus."
In recent weeks, Shurmur has displayed more outward support toward his players. On Sunday, he kicked himself for pulling backup running back Montario Hardesty after he fumbled at the goal line. On Monday, Shurmur explained that he challenged a ruling that Josh Cribbs was down at the 1-yard-line because "I wanted Josh to have a touchdown and I thought that was worth it."
Shurmur is fighting for his players, and they're fighting for him -- with every win.
It's all gelling for the Browns, and now it's a matter of whether it can stay that way.
"I've always been fond of our team," Shurmur said. "What I like is they're tough, they play hard and when we ask them to do things they respond. They're a very coachable group. There's a mixture of young guys and older guys that have been around here a long time and when you see it all come together and they have success, that as a teacher or a coach, that's where you get your joy."
Shurmur was convinced RG3 would transform whatever team drafted him. He praised the Redskins for maximizing the QB's strengths. "There was no doubt in my mind that he would be a success in this league," he said. "No doubt. It doesn't surprise me the success, and I credit their coaching staff because they have incorporated things in their offense that utilize his skill and ability and that's smart." ... Weeden made an awkward slide on a scramble in the first quarter Sunday, ripping up a huge chunk of turf in the process. "That was the hardest, roughest looking slide I've ever seen," Shurmur joked. "I thought they were going to stop the game and bring out a dump truck." ...The Browns signed TE Brad Smelley from the practice squad to the active roster and waived DL Ronnie Cameron.