By Will Graves | Associated Press
PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- Cleveland Browns coach Rob Chudzinski lasted one season in his dream job.
Chudzinski was fired Sunday night, hours after a 20-7 loss to the archrival Steelers. The Browns didn't exactly provide a ringing endorsement in a lifeless finale at the end of another lost season.
Cleveland's feeble defeat to surging Pittsburgh on Sunday did little to quell speculation Chudzinski could be on his way out. He was.
The Browns (4-12) lost seven straight to end the year and 10-of-11 after a 3-2 start. Not exactly the kind of forward momentum new owner Jimmy Haslam was hoping to build.
“We appreciate Chud’s passion for the Browns, and we have great respect for him both personally and professionally,” the team said in a statement not attributed to any person. “We needed to see progress with this football team. We needed to see development and improvement as the season evolved and, unfortunately, we took a concerning step backward in the second half of the year.
“Our fans deserve to see a consistently competitive team. We have high standards, and there’s an urgency for success. When we believed we were not positioned to achieve significant progress in 2014, we knew we had to admit that a change was needed, and move forward. Browns fans are the most loyal and passionate supporters in the NFL. We’re fully committed to bringing them the winning football team they deserve.”
The Browns scheduled a 12:30 p.m. news conference today to explain Chudzinski’s shocking dismissal.
Still, Chudzinski's players did something after the game they failed to do during it: rally around their coach.
“I think he’s done a good job,” Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas said, “and if you fire coaches after one bad season, it’s not like we won the Super Bowl last year, and we were coming back with the same offense. We had tremendous changes philosophy-wise, offense, defense, and so many different players that we brought in. To get that consistent winning is by having consistency in the coaching staff and the philosophy of management, to me, that’s how you become a winner.
“I’d just be really surprised.”
"It's just absurd to me that a report would be out like that, about a good coach like that," Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said long before the move was made. "It's crazy, and that (ticked) me off when I heard that."
Perhaps, but Cleveland didn't exactly play angry.
The Steelers (8-8) scored on their opening possession and were never really threatened while keeping their postseason hopes alive for a few more hours. Pittsburgh's hopes of becoming the second team in NFL history to make the playoffs after an 0-4 start ended when San Diego beat Kansas City 27-24 in overtime on Sunday evening.
"We started 0-4 and things weren't looking so good, and we had one of the worst records in football," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "Guys continued to fight and never quit."
The Browns might not be able to say the same after a team littered with five Pro Bowlers -- three more than Pittsburgh -- lost 12 games for the seventh time since the franchise was revived in 1999.
"You can't put your finger on one thing that happened," Browns safety T.J. Ward said. "There were a bunch of things, a number of things that happened. I can't put my hand on them all right now, but it definitely wasn't just one thing."
It was more like everything. Seven of Cleveland's last 10 losses were by a touchdown or more, most of them in games that simply got away from the Browns in the second half. A quarterback situation that never really appeared settled didn't help and neither did a defense that sagged at the absolute worst time.
"Sometimes there are rough years," Cleveland quarterback Jason Campbell said. "This year was a different rough year because there was still a lot of progress. We were in every game, but we didn't get the results we wanted."
The Browns never do against the Steelers, who own a 26-5 advantage over Cleveland since 1999.
Roethlisberger passed for 179 yards and a touchdown against two interceptions as Pittsburgh won its third straight to avoid the franchise's first losing season since 2003. The victory also continued a furious second-half rally by the Steelers, who went 6-2 over the season's final eight weeks to fuel a late if futile run at the AFC's final postseason spot.
"Guys just kept fighting," defensive end Cam Heyward, a former Ohio State star, said. "Wasn't anything glorious or something beautiful, we just came out of nowhere."
Unlike Cleveland, there is no widespread panic in Pittsburgh. A season that appeared teetering on embarrassment after a 55-31 loss to New England on Nov. 3 ended up with a decidedly rosier finish.
The Steelers scored on the opening drive, a 9-yard strike from Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery, and it was more than enough. Whenever the Browns threatened, they found a way to botch it. Twice they failed on fourth-down attempts in Pittsburgh territory and didn't reach the end zone until Campbell found Fozzy Whitaker on a 35-yard pass with 2:46 remaining.
By then, most of the attention had turned to the scoreboard, where the biggest roars were saved for scores by the Bengals and Jets, who then won to boost Pittsburgh's playoff chances.
The rapid development of Bell helped Pittsburgh's remarkable turnaround. He broke Hall of Famer Franco Harris' team record for total yards from scrimmage by a rookie by combining for 96 yards in the muck at Heinz Field.
Bell's 5-yard touchdown burst in the second quarter, which included a nifty spin move in the backfield, gave the Steelers a 14-0 lead at the break. It capped an 87-yard drive in which Bell touched the ball 10 times in 14 plays.
That was more than enough for a defense that appeared rejuvenated, sacking Campbell three times in what ended up being Chudzinski's final game as Browns coach.
Just last month, Browns CEO Joe Banner praised Chudzinski, who had dealt with more than his share of obstacles.
“I’d be hard-pressed to think that in nine weeks a first-time head coach can do any better or any more than he’s doing,” Banner said on Nov. 13. “All of the measurables that you’d look to come up with, if you even wanted to create a yardstick of measuring at this moment, I just think he’s doing an outstanding job.”
But the losses began to mount, with four of them during the seven-game slide by more than 10 points. Cleveland’s front office felt as if the team was getting worse and knew a change had to be made.
Chudzinski had plenty to deal with as a rookie coach, including an unsettled quarterback situation as the Browns were forced to use three starters because of injuries. The team also traded running back Trent Richardson and never adequately replaced him. The Browns didn’t give Chudzinski much help in the draft as No. 6 overall pick, linebacker Barkevious Mingo, had a disappointing season.
So, the Browns, who have made the playoffs just once since 1999, will embark on yet another coaching search. They’ve gone through four coaches in the past six years and their next hire will be their seventh full-time coach since their expansion rebirth.
Less than a year ago, Haslam and Banner thought they had found the right guy in Chudzinski, who had two previous stints as an assistant coach with the Browns. Chudzinski wasn’t the team’s first choice as the new regime interviewed Chip Kelly, Ken Whisenhunt, Bill O’Brien, Doug Marrone and Ray Horton, whom they hired as their defensive coordinator, before giving Chudzinski his chance.
It’s over now, and it’s time to go looking again.
— Gordon's 1,646 yards receiving are the 10th-highest total in NFL history.
— Gordon and TE Jordan Cameron combined for more receptions (167) than any teammates in Cleveland history.
— Browns LT Joe Thomas extended his streak of consecutive offensive snaps played to 6,923, the longest streak in the league.