PITTSBURGH — For years, Jimmy Hoffa was rumored to be buried under Giants Stadium.
It’s official: Heinz Field is the graveyard of Browns coaches.
Rob Chudzinski was fired Sunday night, about five hours after a season-ending 20-7 loss to the Steelers. He became the third Browns coach since 2008 to be fired after a loss in Pittsburgh in the finale, following Romeo Crennel in 2008 and Pat Shurmur in 2012. Eric Mangini was fired after a home loss to the Steelers in 2010.
Chudzinski was caught off guard by the dismissal after one season. It officially came after a short meeting Sunday night after the team buses returned to the facility in Berea. Reports that his job was in jeopardy only surfaced Sunday morning.
Less surprising was the loss to the Steelers. The Browns have dropped seven of eight and 19 of 21 in the lopsided rivalry. They’ve lost 10 straight at Heinz Field.
“It was a difficult day. It’s been a difficult season,” Chudzinski said minutes after the game. “I thought the guys wanted this game badly. We all did.
“They played extremely hard all the way to the very end, which they’ve done all season, and I’m proud of them for that.”
The seventh straight loss sealed Chudzinski’s fate. The Browns (4-12) had never lost the final seven games of a season.
Chudzinski was praised by CEO Joe Banner after a 4-5 start, but the Browns never won again and the organization cited “a concerning step backward in the second half of the year” in the statement announcing his firing.
Chudzinski would certainly point to the difficult issues he faced as a rookie coach as factors in the poor record.
Running back Trent Richardson was traded after two games and a suitable replacement wasn’t found. Chudzinski used three starting quarterbacks. The best, Brian Hoyer, was lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament after going 3-0. He was handed a lack of depth at several positions.
The Browns were also close to having a much better record, blowing fourth-quarter leads in three straight games in December.
The skid gave the Browns the No. 4 pick in the NFL Draft, scheduled to start May 8. They will draft behind Houston, St. Louis (with Washington’s pick) and Jacksonville.
The Browns missed their chance to beat each AFC North rival in the same season for the first time. They didn’t stand much of a chance against Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
He improved to 17-1 vs. the Browns and 9-0 vs. them in Pittsburgh. He threw a 9-yard touchdown to Jerricho Cotchery on Pittsburgh’s first drive, setting the tone. The lead steadily grew from there and the Browns only avoided a shutout with a 35-yard catch-and-run by running back Fozzy Whittaker with 2:46 left.
Roethlisberger went 19-for-31 for 179 yards with a touchdown, two interceptions and a 61.1 rating.
The Steelers (8-8) rallied from an 0-4 start to the season to the cusp of the postseason. They kept alive their playoff hopes with the win, but wound up on the outside after San Diego beat Kansas City in overtime. The Chargers made it as the sixth seed in the AFC.
“I’m really proud of what has happened,” Roethlisberger said. “Guys continued to fight and never quit.”
Browns wideout Josh Gordon never stopped making catches and picking up yards despite having the stomach flu and receiving fluids intravenously.
He caught seven passes for 82 yards and became the first Browns player to lead the NFL in yards receiving with 1,646 in 14 games. The yards are a franchise record and the 10th-most by a player in a season in NFL history.
Gordon averaged 117.6 yards per game, leading the league and ranking sixth in NFL history. He paced the team with 87 catches, fourth in Browns history.
Gordon left the locker room without talking to reporters.
The Browns had a couple of chances to hang around early but couldn’t capitalize.
They put together a promising drive with their second possession, moving to the Pittsburgh 25-yard line for a third-and-9. But quarterback Jason Campbell was hit by end Brett Keisel as he stepped up in the pocket and fumbled. Chris Carter recovered.
An interception by linebacker Craig Robertson quickly gave the Browns the ball back at the Pittsburgh 35, but they couldn’t get a first down. Chudzinski went for it on fourth-and-4 from the 29 instead of trying a 47-yard field goal, but Campbell’s throw was behind receiver Josh Cooper, who was unable to make a one-handed catch.
The Browns went 0-for-3 on fourth down, all incompletions by Campbell, who went 23-for-41 for 240 yards, a touchdown, an interception and a 71.2 rating.
The Browns were 1-for-6 on third down in the first half, while the Steelers went 4-for-6.
Chudzinski tied Jacksonville’s Gus Bradley for worst record among the six rookie head coaches. Chudzinski is the only one likely to get fired.
Arizona’s Bruce Arians went 10-6, San Diego’s Mike McCoy went 9-7 and made the playoffs, Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly was 9-6 entering Sunday night, Chicago’s Marc Trestman was 8-8 and Buffalo’s Doug Marrone 6-10.
The Browns interviewed Kelly, Trestman and Marrone last season before hiring Chudzinski.
“I think our guys fought their butts off, played extremely hard, we were in every ballgame,” said Campbell, who went 1-7 as the starter. “A lot of that is because of the coaching staff we have, installing in guys not to give up, not to quit.
“We had some tough losses. I can think of three, four or five games that could have been on the other side.”
The Steelers finished with at least a .500 record for the 10th straight regular season. They have had three coaches since 1969.
The Browns have lost at least 10 games 12 times since 1999, including six straight seasons. They have fired six coaches since 2000 — Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Crennel, Mangini, Shurmur and Chudzinski.
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