PITTSBURGH -- When Rob Chudzinski landed his dream job as head coach of the Browns, he could have never imagined it would last only one season.
Neither could his players. They were bewildered, angry and defensive when confronted with the possibility Sunday after the Browns' 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the regular-season finale at Heinz Field.
"I'd be very surprised if they made a change," seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle and offensive captain Joe Thomas said. "And I'd be very disappointed.
"You look at the great franchises. They don't fire your coach after the first season. You can't do it."
But fans should know to expect the unexpected with the Browns, especially with owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner in charge. The only thing the new regime could've done to blindside the public more severely than trading running back Trent Richardson in September was to hand Chudzinski a pink slip less than a year after hiring him Jan. 10.
And that's exactly what appears to be in the works.
Haslam and Banner will fire Chudzinski, a Toledo, Ohio, native who grew up a die-hard Browns fan, after just one season on the job, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Sunday, citing unnamed league sources. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported that Chudzinski's firing is likely.
The shocking development has overshadowed the fact that the Browns have the fourth overall pick in May's NFL Draft after finishing the season 4-12.
New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, a Canton McKinley High School graduate, and Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, a former Patriots offensive coordinator, would likely top the Browns' list of candidates to replace Chudzinski, according to several reports. Jason La Canfora of CBS speculated that Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz could also enter the mix if he is fired.
The Browns have yet to make an announcement about Chudzinski, who received a four-year contract worth slightly more than $3 million a year.
Team spokesman Zak Gilbert declined to comment when asked about ESPN's report and stood by the following statement issued during the fourth quarter against the Steelers: "Our focus is on the game today. We will not discuss any evaluation of the season until this upcoming week."
Thomas said Chudzinski's dismissal would not only be the wrong move, but it also "would be devastating" for the Browns, who have had six full-time head coaches since their expansion era began in 1999. Chudzinski is the fourth since 2008. The Steelers, who barely missed out on a playoff berth after beating the Browns to finish 8-8, have had three head coaches since 1969.
"It sets everything back," Thomas said. "You just hit the reset button. Anytime you hit the reset button, it severely damages the organization, and it lengthens the amount of time that it takes to get back to the playoffs and turn the team into a consistent winner. ... I think that this organization needs continuity and that's the only chance that we're going to have to turn this team into a consistent winner."
The Browns have never before fired a head coach after just one season. There have been five NFL head coaches fired after just one season on the job in the past 10 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
"That's absurd to me that a report would be out about a good coach like that," inside linebacker and defensive captain D'Qwell Jackson said in disbelief. "That's crazy. That pisses me off in a sense.
"I don't know how a report would get out like that about Chud. Chud's a great coach. He's had our attention from Day One. We have great coaches that are coaching us up."
Chudzinski was set to meet with the front office Monday, but he asked if he could push it up to Sunday night, Jay Glazer of Fox Sports reported. Glazer reported that Chudzinski would have a chance to fight for his job, though it's a long shot that he would be able to convince the Browns to keep him.
In his postgame news conference, Chudzinski said he talked to Haslam on Sunday before the game, but they didn't discuss his future. Asked if he expected to be back with the Browns next season, Chudzinski said, "As far as I know." He also said he was "definitely" on the same page as Haslam and Banner when it comes to the direction of the team.
"I feel the future is bright," Chudzinski said. "I look forward to it.
"I've been through situations where you have to go through some of the struggles to get things established and get the foundation built. ... We'll improve."
NFL Network's Albert Breer reported that the Browns' front office has a problem with Chudzinski because players were not held accountable and because he has shown a lack of decisiveness in big moments.
"I don't know anything regarding that at all," Chudzinski said when asked about not holding players accountable. "That's not an issue."
The Browns finished Chudzinski's first year as a head coach at any level with seven consecutive defeats, the longest losing streak in franchise history to end a season, and their 10th defeat in the last 11 games. Using three starting quarterbacks because of injuries and poor production, he guided the team to one fewer win than it earned last year, when coach Pat Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert were fired after the Browns went 5-11.
On Friday, Bleacher Report NFL columnist Dan Pompei reported that some people around the league wouldn't be surprised if Chudzinski is fired. The rumblings grew much louder shortly before kickoff Sunday partly because management was furious with the lack of effort it thought the Browns displayed in a 24-13 loss last week against the New York Jets.
But the players defended Chudzinski. Thomas, Jackson, quarterback Jason Campbell, Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron and strong safety T.J. Ward were among those who insisted that Chudzinski held them accountable and had them playing hard till the end.
"Even this week, we treated everything like a regular week," Campbell said. "It wasn't like we were getting out early and going home. We were still preparing like we were still playing beyond today. That gives him a lot of credit to not let the outside world destroy what he's trying to build."
Said Jackson: "He's a great coach. He's been good for us. It was on the players this year. We didn't win the games to let people know how good of a coach he was. It fell on the players this year."
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