By Tom Hardesty | Assistant Sports Editor
What to make of the Cleveland Browns?
For the first 10 games, they were a team that found ways to lose, which is not uncommon for young teams that start rookies at critical positions like quarterback and running back. Coach Pat Shurmur also contributed to the malaise by mismanaging games at crucial moments, leading to the team's undoing in close contests.
But the Browns suddenly seemed to have found themselves and turned a corner, winning their last three games over Pittsburgh, the Raiders and the Chiefs -- their first three-game winning streak since 2009. They've done it with a tough, physical defense, a smash-mouth running game led by rookie running back Trent Richardson, and the continued growth of rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden -- along with the steady maturation of the receiving corps, especially rookie Josh Gordon.
And maybe -- just maybe -- the maturation of Shurmur as a head coach in the NFL.
The question is, has new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III already bid "bon voyage" to the Good Ship Shurmur?
It's very possible that Haslam has already made up his mind that a coaching change is necessary, that this late-season renaissance is due solely to the fact that the Browns are playing pressure-free football after falling out of contention by October and have yet to win a game with something meaningful on the line.
Or perhaps Haslam believes that he is witnessing a young team on the rise that is playing with confidence and believes in its coach.
At 5-8, the Browns still have an opportunity to break even at 8-8 with three games remaining -- but it's a grinder of a three-game finale starting with the Redskins at home on Sunday, a trip to Denver and the season-ender at Pittsburgh. How the team performs in these last three games might well determine Shurmur's future.
If it hasn't been determined already.
They really should stop giving out awards in college football. I have no problem with Texas A&M freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel winning the Heisman Trophy -- the Aggies phenom became the first frosh in history to do so -- but how Kent State's Darrell Hazell didn't win national coach of the year is beyond comprehension.
In only his second season at KSU, Hazell took a downtrodden program that hadn't won a league title or been to a bowl game in 40 years -- and was a doormat for the better part of those four decades -- and came within a whisker of taking the Golden Flashes to a BCS bowl. Not only that, KSU rose to as high as 17th in the BCS standings and 18th in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll before losing a double-overtime heartbreaker to Northern Illinois in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game.
The Flashes currently have an 11-2 record and are headed to the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala. on Jan. 6 -- their first bowl appearance since playing in the Tangerine Bowl in 1972. If Hazell isn't the national coach of the year, then there isn't one.
A strong case could also have been made for Ohio State's Urban Meyer to have been coach of the year nationally. In his first season at OSU, he took a Buckeyes team that went 6-7 in 2011 and turned it into perfection, finishing the 2012 season with an undefeated 12-0 record.
Considering that Meyer entered a chaotic recruiting situation when he became OSU head coach in November of 2011, and with a Buckeye team that knew it wasn't going to a bowl and would not be eligible for any championships because of a one-year postseason ban, Meyer might well have turned in the best coaching job of his career this season. That includes his two national titles at Florida, because Meyer somehow managed to keep a still-undermanned Ohio State team interested enough, motivated enough and hungry enough to find a way to win every game on the schedule.
And you get the feeling that Meyer is only just starting to get warmed up in Columbus.
It's fun to speculate how Kent State would have done against Florida State in the Orange Bowl had things turned out differently against Northern Illinois in Detroit.
It's pure speculation at this point, but it's doubtful that the Seminoles would have taken the Flashes very seriously, and you can bet that Hazell would have had his team breathing fire for that game with a shock-the-world mentality a la Boise State against Oklahoma in the January 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
I think the Flashes have the offensive weapons to put some points on the board vs. FSU in this mythical game, but they would have had their hands full against the speedy Seminoles defensively. My prediction for this fictional contest: talent wins out and the Noles pull away in the second half, but the Flashes earn national respect for making FSU work for it. Final score: Florida State 41, Kent State 24.