The soft-spoken Hardesty, for whom the Browns traded three picks in the 2010 draft, never has publicly aired dissatisfaction with his role with the Browns, despite carries and playing time coming sporadically after fumbles in back-to-back preseason games.
Instead, as he said in a happy Browns locker room after the team’s first win of the season, 34-24 over the Cincinnati Bengals, he’s prepared to play every week.
Until Sunday, that preparation went for naught, as Hardesty didn’t carry the ball in the Browns’ next four games. But on Sunday, when top pick Trent Richardson left the game with a flank injury, Hardesty stepped in, scored his first touchdown as a pro and kept the Bengals’ defense honest enough to help the Browns’ offense recover from a dismal seven-drive stretch through much of the second and third quarters.
“It’s just like riding a bike: After I got hit the first two times, I was ready to go,” said Hardesty, who got some “Tennessee love,” he said, from Haslam in the locker room after the game. “(After the preseason), I think I lost some of the coaches’ confidence, but I never lost confidence in myself.
“I love playing the game of football, so I prepare every week like I’m going to get in there. I just knew to always be ready, and I’ve been ready all season.”
The Browns traded up for the former Tennessee volunteer in the second round of the 2010 draft, but he missed that entire season after re-injuring a knee he hurt in college. On Sunday, he recorded the most carries and yards since he was the team’s workhorse in a 6-3 home victory over Seattle last Oct. 23, with 33 rushes and 95 yards.
He first entered the game on the Browns’ first touchdown drive, with three carries for 10 yards before Brandon Weeden found Josh Gordon for a 71-yard score that tied the game. Richardson re-entered and played into the third quarter, but the team sputtered badly: In a seven-drive stretch after Gordon’s touchdown, the Browns failed to gain a first down and totaled 21 yards of offense.
“It’s football. At any given time, it could be your number called,” said Browns tight end Ben Watson, who caught the game-clinching touchdown with 8 minutes left. “You have injuries, and you always have to be ready to play. He was ready today. We wanted to be able to run the ball, which we feel can be a strength for us with the guys we have in the backfield.”
Despite all the struggles and being down, 14-13, the Browns took over at their 34 with 5:13 left in the third and flipped a switch. They moved 66 yards in 10 plays, with Hardesty punching it in from 1 yard out to give Cleveland the lead for good. On the next drive, Hardesty had runs of 14, 4 and 5 yards, and the Browns converted a third down and then scored on play-action passes — the former to Jordan Cameron, the latter to Watson.
“He’s had very few reps, but he played great,” Weeden said. “I’m excited for him. You need guys like that, your backups, to step up when there are injuries.”
What the future holds remains to be seen. Richardson said he took a helmet to his side early in the game and tried to play through it, but was clearly not himself and didn’t want to hurt the team. He expects to return next week against the Colts in Indianapolis.
Contact Joel Hammond at 329-7135 or email@example.com.