December 19, 2014

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Brandon Weeden is a quarterback under pressure in 2nd year as Browns starter

Brandon Weeden has this year to prove whether he can be the franchise quarterback the Browns need. (AP photo)

Brandon Weeden has this year to prove whether he can be the franchise quarterback the Browns need. (AP photo)

The interview was over and the man in the crucible headed home. He wore his backpack like a 10-year-old on the first day of school, his flip-flops like a beach bum on a sunny summer afternoon.

The 29-year-old who changes into shoulder pads and cleats for work isn’t oblivious. He’s just determined to be himself.

The pressure on quarterback Brandon Weeden as he begins his second season with the Browns is almost impossible to overstate.

The front office that inherited him doesn’t trust him, but gave him the 2013 season to prove whether he belongs. It didn’t feel the need to provide a supporting cast of proven veterans or likely Pro Bowlers.

The team’s fortunes are dependent on him. If he throws more interceptions than touchdowns for the second year in a row, the Browns are headed to their sixth straight season of double-digit losses.

The fans and the media critique every move and criticize too many. Plenty within both crowds have concluded he can’t cut it and are waiting for the next great hope to arrive.

Weeden is well aware of all of the above. He simply refuses to let the circumstances overwhelm him.

“I know it is. I’m not going to shy away from it,” Weeden said when reminded once again, this time in an interview with The Chronicle, that this is a huge year for him. “I know I have to play well. I’m not 23 years old, for one. Two, we didn’t have a ton of success last year. And this league you’ve got to win now. I completely understand it.

“I’m not the only guy in the league that is playing for their … whatever. That’s the nature of this business. You’ve got to win. Winning is the cure-all. And I know I’ve got to play well. But I’m not going to put any added pressure on myself to press and try to do too much. That can be some guys’ Achilles’ heel. So I’m going to try to stay away from doing that.”

Easier said than done.

Laid-back approach

From the amateur golfer to the minor league pitcher to the NFL quarterback — Weeden’s been in all three roles — athletes have been trying forever to dismiss the pressure they feel at critical moments. The problem is, it can’t be done. Pressure can’t be ignored; it must be dealt with and thrived under.
Weeden’s approach is to always remain his laid-back self.

“That’s my personality,” he said. “My wife says I’m so easygoing, I’m too even-keel. I think it’s a good trait to have, especially when you’re in a position like I am.

“That’s just the way I’ve been since I was a kid. And it’s worked for me for all these years, so I’m not going to change who I am. And I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve gotten as far as I have.”

Backup Jason Campbell has started 71 games in the NFL and knows how bright the spotlight can be. He said Weeden’s got the right makeup to handle it.

“What I see B do is just stay level-headed,” Campbell said. “I think he has the right personality. I haven’t seen him get high or low, he’s just been easygoing B.”

Weeden better be comfortable in his skin. Not because he’s up for a Dove commercial, but because he’ll turn 30 in October. Despite the inherent struggles of learning a second offensive system in two years, Weeden doesn’t have time for growing pains.

He’s on a 16-game audition to keep the starting job for a third season and beyond. He’ll be the first Cleveland quarterback to start consecutive openers since Charlie Frye in 2006-07, and no one has started three straight since Bernie Kosar in the early 1990s.

From CEO Joe Banner challenging Weeden to demonstrate his work ethic to general manager Michael Lombardi refusing to offer a compliment to coach Rob Chudzinski delaying naming him the starter, the decision-makers set up a variety of obstacles before Weeden could earn their confidence and keep his job — even temporarily.

“It’s tough because the situation we’re in I don’t get to spend a ton of time around them,” Weeden said of the front office. “So you can’t really get a great feeling. But I think they have my back 100 percent. If they didn’t, I don’t think they would’ve made the decision to make me the guy.

“Those guys are the ones that make all the decisions as far as who to bring in and all that. So those are the guys you have to impress to stay around. I’m confident they have my back.”

Something to prove

Weeden must take that approach, or he has no chance to succeed. But it isn’t reality. He’s done all the right things, but the doubters that remain inside the organization can only be convinced during the regular season.

In the draft room on the second floor of team headquarters — the only room with no windows or glass and that can’t be looked into by a passer-by — Banner has listed the keys to building the team. Near the top: We will have a championship quarterback.

At this point, that’s a stretch to even his staunchest supporters.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we can definitely win with Brandon,” left tackle Joe Thomas said. “He’s shown that he can be our guy for sure.”

“He’s a tough guy,” tight end Jordan Cameron said. “Mental toughness is huge, especially at the quarterback position. He’s got what it takes. He’s definitely got the arm. I definitely think he can make it happen over the long haul.”

The reviews aren’t as friendly outside the locker room. He’s a popular target on talk radio and was ripped by a preacher on Twitter recently.

“I’ve always had really thick skin. Thick skin and just don’t listen to it,” Weeden said. “The old adage, if it was easy, everybody’d be doing it. You look at guys in other sports, the best in the world — the Tigers, LeBrons and the Kobes — they have people that criticize every move they make, and they’re the best that’s ever played their sport. So you can’t listen to it.

“It’s part of the nature of the business. It doesn’t even affect me one bit.”

Weeden has at least one thing in common with Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant — denial. On multiple occasions, Weeden has made references to criticism he’s received or how a story’s being played in the media. He’s not completely isolated from the haters, but he’s stopped using Twitter and avoids talk radio.

“I’ve got coaches that I depend on, I don’t need somebody telling me on the radio how to do things,” he said.

Weeden played in the Yankees’ farm system and was a high-profile quarterback in the football-crazed Big 12. The scrutiny couldn’t match what comes with starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. Nearly two decades without a playoff win has only ramped up the hostility.

“It’s definitely tougher, but it’s a challenge,” he said. “You just got to find a way to win those games and the rest will take care of itself. It helps not reading it, not having to talk about it all the time, so it is what it is.”

Receiver Josh Cooper is Weeden’s best friend on the team. They played together at Oklahoma State and Cooper has been known to crash on Weeden’s couch when he’s between leases.

Cooper saw Weeden put through the wringer in 2012.

He completed 57 percent of his passes (27th in the NFL), threw 17 interceptions (tied for 26th) against 14 touchdowns (24th) and had a 72.6 rating (29th). Weeden went 5-10 and didn’t fare well in the most pressurized situations. He ranked 27th with a 77.5 fourth-quarter passer rating, 28th with a 68.6 third-down rating and the Browns were 29th inside the red zone, scoring a touchdown only 43.6 percent of the time.

“It was his rookie season, he knew he was making some mistakes and things weren’t always going his way,” Cooper said. “But I think he had a short memory and if something happened last week he’d move on to next week and try to prepare as well as he could. It’s tough being a leader on the team as a rookie and that’s what he had to come into.

“He seems a lot more comfortable now. He’s ready to take on that.”

“Last year he was a first-rounder, it was a lot of pressure on him,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “He’s experienced it. I think now he’s settled down a little bit more, he’s comfortable with where he’s been, he knows the guys, he’s familiar with throwing the ball, so I think he can definitely pull it together this year.”

The real pressure

The amount of intangible pressure Weeden faces off the field will be determined by how he handles the tangible pressure on it.

Weeden is a tremendous passer when he has a clean pocket and can spot his target. That’s why former general manager Tom Heckert drafted him with the No. 22 pick. Like all but the best quarterbacks, he isn’t as accurate when the pocket gets dirty.

His last preseason action came against the Colts, and it wasn’t nearly as pretty as the first two games, when he threw three touchdown passes. The Colts’ pass rush was stronger and their coverage tighter, and the on-target throws suddenly sailed high or wide.

The best solution is giving Weeden the protection every quarterback covets, and the Browns have invested a lot of resources in the offensive line. Beyond that, Weeden must be quick with his reads, efficient with his movement and get the ball out fast if the pocket crumbles.

It’s a part of the game that can’t be simulated.

“They get (ticked) at those guys if they get too close to us in practice,” Weeden said. “You know you’re going to get hit, and I think it’s just having the (guts) to stand in there. You just gotta be a tough son of a gun and stand in there knowing you’re going to get hit.”

Coordinator Norv Turner is known for his vertical passing attack, but Weeden said he’s also committed to providing options underneath to avoid sacks and stockpile the completions.

“Obviously Norv is aggressive, he wants to throw the ball down the field, he wants you to hang onto those routes as long as we can,” Weeden said. “But he always brings the attention where your back is, where your checkdowns are, where your outlets are.

“I would say we’re probably more conscious about it now (than last year). Every play we watch he brings it to our attention.”

One of the most popular criticisms of Weeden is that he locks onto a receiver. Weeden disagrees it’s a problem — “You have to look who you’re throwing to,” he says — but slow eyes can lead to an interception or a delayed progression to other targets. Gaining familiarity with Turner’s offense has allowed him to speed up the process.

“I know what he’s looking for now,” Weeden said. “How, why, when, where is kind of his philosophy. How you do it, why you do it, where you’re going and when to throw it.

“If you can follow those things that he wants, this offense has the ability to be really good. I kind of abide by those rules. I’m not 100 percent where I want to be, but I’m making strides in the right direction.”

“When he’s really confident and sure of what he’s doing, he’s going a lot faster, his setups are faster, the ball’s coming out quicker,” Turner said. “It’s a matter of him being experienced with everything we’re doing, so there’s not indecision.”

A second chance

Weeden has a plethora of reasons to feel better heading into his make-or-break second season.

He spent the offseason improving his footwork and tightening his throwing mechanics, including getting rid of a pre-release pat of the ball. His motion looked smooth in camp and the preseason.

The downfield passing system suits his strong arm and gunslinger mentality. Turner, a renowned quarterback guru, likes to use the shotgun, which is a much more comfortable setting for Weeden after lining up in it almost exclusively at Oklahoma State.

Last year, coach Pat Shurmur preferred Weeden under center in his West Coast system.

“Brandon came from a spread offense and he was in the gun all the time and that’s like taking Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal) off the post and trying to make him a pick-n-roll guy,” receiver Greg Little said. “He doesn’t conform to that necessarily. It’s like taking Cam Newton and (Colin) Kaepernick and making them drop-back quarterbacks. That’s just not their game. This system fits him well and he’s adapting to it.”
Turner believes a quarterback is only as good as the people around him, and the jury is still out on how good Little, Josh Gordon, Travis Benjamin, Cameron and even running back Trent Richardson can be. But no matter what the skill guys do, Weeden will be expected to deliver victories.

He must do it in arguably the toughest division in football, and against quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton. All three have been to the playoffs, the first two have Super Bowl rings.

“This is a quarterback-driven league,” Chudzinski said. “You need good play out of that position. I expect that from Brandon.”

It’s not hyperbole to say the fate of the team will be determined by Weeden’s performance.

“I don’t think about it,” he said. “The way I think about it is, these are the 52 guys that are counting on me. And if I take that approach, that’ll keep me coming to work every day with a chip on my shoulder and working hard and keep me driving in the right direction.

“I know I have to play well. Every quarterback across the league has to play well for his team to win, and maybe even more so here. Just because we’re a young team, we’re just building this foundation and we’re building where we want to get.

“Yeah, I’m completely aware of it. And it’s hard. I’m aware of it, I know I have to do it, but you don’t want to get to the point where you try to do too much, you try to put too much pressure on yourself, because this game is so damn hard, this position is so damn hard. That added pressure is tough.”

Pressure … Weeden will hear that word a lot this year.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him @scottpetrak on Twitter.