CLEVELAND — Jimmy Haslam III peeked into the postgame interview room Sunday and flashed a thumbs-up to Jennifer and Kyle Shurmur, the wife and son of the embattled coach. Haslam had just experienced his first celebratory locker room with the Browns, listening to Pat Shurmur’s first victory speech of the season and congratulating the players.
One of the biggest weeks in Haslam’s life — NFL owners will approve him as the new owner Tuesday in Chicago — started in style with a 34-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals (3-3).
“Great win,” Haslam said. “We played well.”
The Browns (1-5) hadn’t been able to talk about a win in forever. At least, that’s what it felt like to the coaching staff, the players and the fans.
More photos below.
For the record books, the drought was 11 games, spanning two seasons and nearly 11 months and tying a franchise record.
But late Sunday afternoon the sideline was all smiles, hugs and pats on the helmet. The Browns overcame seven straight possessions without a first down and the loss of running back Trent Richardson to a sore side by exploding for a series of pivotal plays and a 27-3 run in the second half. It made the 14-7 halftime deficit a distant memory.
“It feels good,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “It’s always rewarding to see the results after all the time that you put in. It’s about time.
“With a young team like this, we needed it. Hopefully we can string a few more together.”
The 16 rookies, including quarterback Brandon Weeden and Richardson, are a huge part of the rebuilding plan, yet they had never experienced an NFL win. For the first five weeks, the Browns played hard, faltered at the beginning, middle and/or end and walked away shaking their heads.
Not this time.
“It’s huge, because this is a lot of first-time everything for these young guys in the NFL,” said veteran Sheldon Brown, who had a 19-yard interception return for a touchdown to cap the run. “I’m just proud.”
The rally started with a 60-yard punt return by Joshua Cribbs that finally flipped field position. The offense couldn’t get a first down, but Phil Dawson drilled a 41-yard field goal in a swirling wind.
Cornerback Joe Haden, whose return from a four-game suspension had an obvious impact on the entire defense, followed with an interception on a tipped pass to set up a 38-yard field goal without a first down.
After the defense made its fourth straight stop of the quarter, the offense found its groove after trying to avoid the big mistake for much of the day. Weeden completed four passes and sneaked for a first down, before Montario Hardesty proved he can do more than stand on the sideline and watch Richardson get every carry.
Hardesty picked up a blitzer on a 14-yard completion to Josh Gordon (three catches, 99 yards, 71-yard touchdown), then ran for 6 yards on consecutive carries. He capped the 10-play drive with a 1-yard dive over the pile for his first career touchdown. He rushed 15 times for 56 yards, a 3.7 average.
“He’s one of the players of the game,” said Weeden, who went 17-for-29 for 231 yards, two touchdowns, an interception on a tipped ball and a 92.7 rating on his 29th birthday.
Richardson took a helmet to the midsection on Cleveland’s first series and was in and out of the lineup until he was removed for good midway through the third quarter. He touched the ball on the first four snaps and finished with 14 carries for 37 yards (2.6 average) and two catches for 17.
“I took a shot, but I’ll be back,” said Richardson, who will reportedly undergo an MRI today. “I’ll be ready for next week.”
Shurmur was forced to defend himself after a third-and-1 pass call last week turned into a game-changing interception. After mixed success in such situations Sunday, he called for a deep crossing route to tight end Jordan Cameron after Hardesty’s score put the Browns in front 20-14.
Cameron fell down, but Weeden recognized he had plenty of time to throw and waited for Cameron to get up and open. He threw a dart for a 23-yard gain to the 3-yard line. On the next play, tight end Benjamin Watson was alone for a 3-yard touchdown after a play-action fake.
Ten seconds later, Brown was strolling in with his pick-six and the crowd was going wild. The scene has been a rare one on the lakefront.
“I don’t know what it was about the day, we just felt it, and everybody felt it,” Cribbs said. “This was our day, this was our win and I think it’s going to start now. I think we’re onto something … we’re clicking on all levels now. We did what we had to do to win, and that’s most important.”
President Mike Holmgren waited outside the news conference to offer congratulations to Shurmur, who won his first AFC North game in nine tries. No other Browns coach has lost 11 straight.
“I think he needed it the most,” Jackson said. “He’s here early, he’s grinding through everything. He took some shots from you guys – no offense.
“I think it was a great win for him, just to be able to relax and move forward for next week.”
“I was so pumped for him,” Weeden said. “He was ecstatic. It was like someone took the monkey off his back.”
Shurmur appreciated the win but deflected the attention.
“I’m happy. I’m holding it back so I don’t appear sensitive. That’s a joke,” he said, before choking up a little. “You put a bunch of men together to go out and play a game so that you can feel the joy of winning, so when it happens, it’s terrific. Not so much for me, but for my family, the players, really everybody who goes to work on Monday morning.”
That crew includes Haslam, whose role will continue to grow as the $1 billion sale from Randy Lerner becomes official.
“Mr. Haslam was in the locker room and he was excited,” Jackson said. “He’s a fan. You can tell he’s going to be around. It’s going to be a good thing.”
“He’s such a great guy. He’s awesome,” Weeden said. “We’re happy for him. He’s about to take over a franchise that won a big divisional game.”
That deserves a thumbs-up.