BEREA, Ohio (AP) - Tom Heckert has rebuilt the Browns, infusing them with talent and adding depth to a roster with none. And now, just as the young team he's put together is reaching its potential and still in the AFC playoff hunt,
Heckert could be down to his final weeks as Cleveland's general manager. By season's end, Heckert may be replaced by new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner, who are likely to overhaul Cleveland's front office and coaching staff. "You know, it's going to be disappointing,''
Heckert said Friday when asked about the prospect of not returning. "But I do get it. It's just one of those things. There's a variety of reasons why that could happen, but I'm OK with that. I don't know how else to react. If it doesn't work out, I can't just sit around and pout about it, I've got to go try to do it somewhere else. "We'll see what happens.'' These are days of uncertainty for the Browns (5-8), who take a three-game winning streak into Sunday's matchup with the Washington Redskins.
Heckert's future is in doubt as is that of second-year coach Pat Shurmur, who can bolster his chances to stay by winning out. Haslam and Banner won't make any decisions until after the finale at Pittsburgh, and Heckert knows there's a chance they may go in a different direction. If that's the case, team captains - Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson - said the Browns would be making a big mistake in letting Heckert go. "It would be really upsetting,'' Thomas said.
"You just look at the track record he had in Philadelphia and he's been such a big part of this upswing that we're on now with all the young talent on this roster. It would be a shame if we let him go anywhere else.'' Said Jackson, "I'll be the first guy in line to support Tom to stay here with the Browns.''
Heckert doesn't know what's ahead. He expects to have an answer about his future "right away'' after the season. He doesn't know if Haslam and Banner have already made up their minds. It's possible that Heckert, who spent four seasons as the Eagles GM, could stay on if he relinquishes some power.
He said having control of the 53-man roster is essential, but that it wouldn't necessarily be a deal breaker. "I'm not going to lie. It's important,'' he said. "It's why I came here. I'm not saying it's an end-all, but it's very important to me.'' Heckert has "final say'' authority written into his current contract. It allows him to draft, chase free agents and work with the coach on training camp decisions without intervention. However, Heckert pointed out that most decisions are a collaborative.
"In my 24 years or whatever it's been, I've never had one issue on cutdown,'' Heckert said. "Now, who has the say on the draft and all the other stuff, it's written in my contract. For me, it's who picks the players and who makes the trades, all of that stuff. That's the stuff that I think is important.'' Banner is restructuring the Browns so that everyone in the front office reports to him. He spent 19 years with Philadelphia, where he worked with Heckert, who said the two still get along. "It's been great. We talk about whatever,'' he said.
"No matter what happens, Joe and I are fine.'' Heckert said he honestly doesn't have a sense about his future, and he believes waiting is best for everyone involved. "It's the right thing to do,'' he said "I can handle two weeks.'' Asked if the Browns should keep him and Shurmur, Heckert nearly came out of his chair with his response. "YES!!!'' he said, laughing. Heckert seems at ease despite the unrest around him.
Since joining the Browns in 2010 - he was the first person hired by former team president Mike Holmgren - Heckert has transformed Cleveland's roster through the draft and a few key free-agent signings. This year alone, he selected running back Trent Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden and offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz - who have each started all 13 games - in the first three rounds. In July's supplemental draft, he gambled and picked wide receiver Josh Gordon, who had been kicked off the team at Baylor for marijuana use and sat out a season in Utah. After a slow start, Gordon has developed into Cleveland's top playmaker with 18 catches in his past three games.
The Browns have turned their season around, and Thomas believes Heckert deserves the credit. "You can't point to anything he's really done wrong as far as all the moves he's made,'' Thomas said. "Bringing in talent, building through the draft, everybody he has drafted is a solid contributor and then you find your diamonds in the rough in rounds 4-7, and he's done that. He's really turned this roster over.''
Heckert has been touched by the support he's gotten from Browns fans, some of whom have begun a campaign to keep him. The uncertainty has been hard on his scouting staff and family, including his parents, who fly in from Florida for every home game.
Heckert's father, Tom, spent five seasons as a scout for the Browns in the `80s. Cleveland seems on the cusp of a long, successful run. Heckert started it, and he wants to finish it. "Of course,'' he said. "I really enjoy the city and I really enjoy this team, so that would be the ideal situation.''
NOTES: Speaking for the first time since he was hospitalized, guard Jason Pinkston feels grateful to be alive following a health scare that ended his season. Pinkston was hospitalized in October following a game against Cincinnati with blood clots in his lungs.
He said doctors told him if he had taken a hit in the game that "I could've probably died then so I'm all happy about it that I'm still here.'' He has been working out and plans to play next season. .... For the second week, the Browns did not have any players listed as "out,'' "doubtful,'' or "questionable'' on their injury report.