October 26, 2014

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Dream day for Rob Chudzinski: Coach who grew up a Browns fan has chance to to end team’s string of nightmare openers

Rob Chudzinski’s career has been building toward this moment.

That’s not strong enough. His life has been building toward this moment.

Chudzinski the coach and Chudzinski the fan will run through the tunnel and onto the FirstEnergy Stadium turf this afternoon as coach of the team he grew up adoring. The emotions will be as powerful as Trent Richardson’s legs and Brandon Weeden’s right arm.

“There’s a lot of them. The biggest one is excitement and anticipation,” Chudzinski said Friday. “It’s been a long wait. You just look back to the first day I came as head coach on the job. All of the things that have happened, it seems like a long time ago, and it’s finally here. This game is finally here.

“This is why we do all of these things. This is why we work so hard. The team has prepared, as well. I can’t ask any more from them and what they’ve done. It’s going to be an exciting day for us, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Chudzinski grew up in Toledo worshipping tight end Ozzie Newsome and cheering for the Kardiac Kids. He was thrilled to work for the Browns as an assistant under Butch Davis and Romeo Crennel, but the dream didn’t fully come true until he was hired in January as a first-time head coach, the 14th in team history.

“I’ll tell you what, he’s calm, cool,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “To me, him being a head coach hasn’t been an overwhelming situation. He’s able to handle everything with flying colors.”

Jackson said Chudzinski refers to his childhood love of the Browns on occasion and had a feeling it would come up again Saturday night in the team meeting.

“I’m sure he’ll talk about it, just to let young guys know how important this game is to him and how important it was for him many years ago,” Jackson said.

The buildup to Week 1 is eight months long for teams that didn’t make the playoffs the previous season — the Browns went 5-11. The nine-day stretch from the preseason finale to the kickoff that counts feels like an eternity.

Despite the excitement and tension, Chudzinski tried to downplay the magnitude of the opener.

“Every game in this league is important. We approach this game just like we do any other game,” he said.

Chudzinski was tight ends coach under Davis the last time the Browns won an opener — in 2004 against Baltimore. It’s the only time the Browns won an opener since they returned in 1999. They are 1-13, including 1-12 at home.

“You guys are telling me I’ve never won a home opener?” Jackson said. “Get out of here.”

Sorry, D’Qwell, we’re serious. Jackson is the longest-tenured player on the roster, joining the team in 2006, and is 0-fer for the opener.

“You really want to set the tone for the season to start fast,” running back Trent Richardson said. “I know people say it’s not about how you start it’s how you finish. You still want to win that season opener. You still want to go in and get guys’ confidence up and have high hopes for the whole season. It is very important to win this game.”

Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, excluding the shortened season of 1982, teams that win the opener are more than twice as likely to reach the playoffs than losers of the opener — 266 won and made the postseason, 120 lost and went to the playoffs.

A victory might be just as important psychologically.

“Everybody can kind of sit back and exhale,” said defensive end Desmond Bryant, who will make his Browns debut. “I’ve been on teams where you don’t get that first win right away and everybody starts scrambling trying to find out what’s going on, looking for answers.

“It’s huge. One-and-0, 0-1, it sounds a lot better. Zero percent, 100 percent, come on.”

Cornerback Joe Haden thinks a win today would validate the positive vibe around the organization with its new front office and coaching staff.

“We have to get over that hump of start winning games eventually,” he said. “We always talk about it and talk about it and if we can’t come out here and win, then it’s not a step forward. Everybody’s ready, everybody wants to win this game.”

The most important question to be answered this season is whether Weeden is the franchise quarterback every team needs. He’s been given this year to show CEO Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi what he can do.

To make a strong case, Weeden must perform better than he did in the opener as a rookie last year. He was 12-for-35 for 118 yards with four interceptions and a 5.1 rating in a deflating 17-16 loss to the Eagles.

“I think I’ve gotten better,” he said. “It comes with reps. It comes with experience and it comes with seeing things for several times, because in that Philly game, it was so fast because it was my first time in the fire and you kind of get better each time you get reps. I’m excited about starting Year 2.”

Veteran coordinator Norv Turner, who’s in his first year with the Browns, is being counted on to work his magic with Weeden.

“People know I think Brandon’s got the physical ability to play, I think he’s done the things we want him to do and he’s made progress,” he said. “Obviously we want to see him go do it now.”

Weeden will face off against Dolphins second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The former Big 12 foes were drafted No. 8 (Tannehill out of Texas A&M) and No. 22 (Weeden out of Oklahoma State) last year, but were left in the dust by fellow rookies Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.

Browns outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard doesn’t think Tannehill should be left out of the group of rising stars.

“I would put him up there,” Sheard said. “He honestly looks that good to me just looking at his arm. He doesn’t have as much weapons as those guys, but once they start winning I’m pretty sure they’ll start talking about him like that.”

The Browns want to delay that at least a week.

“For these fans, we’d like to win the opener at home and just give them something to be excited about and moving forward,” Weeden said.

Chudzinski knows what to expect when he runs onto the field.

“I know it’s going to be rocking,” he said. “It’ll be great to see the fans again and get them out there. It’s going to be an electric atmosphere.”

And an emotional day for Chudzinski the coach and fan.

Roster move

The Browns promoted receiver Tori Gurley (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) from the practice squad Saturday and waived running back Dennis Johnson.

Gurley, who has been cut seven times by six teams, has never appeared in a regular-season game in the NFL. He gives the Browns size at receiver in the absence of Josh Gordon, who’s suspended for the first two games, and his presence could free the Browns to use Travis Benjamin at kickoff returner

Gurley is also valuable on kick coverage.

Johnson was claimed off waivers last Sunday.

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

TODAY

WHO: Cleveland vs. Miami
TIME: 1 p.m.
WHERE: FirstEnergy Stadium
TV/RADIO: Channel 19; WKNR 850-AM, WKRK 92.3-FM, WNCX 98.5-FM