Joe Haden always wears a smile.
It was even wider this week.
“We just want to keep this feeling and we just want to make every game be important,” he said. “Every game is always important, but if you’re first in your division and you’re striving for stuff like that, it makes it a little bit more special.”
Meaningful games in October are a big deal in baseball — as Cleveland relearned Wednesday night. They should be commonplace in the NFL, but that hasn’t been the case nearly enough on the shores of Lake Erie.
Haden, the team’s No. 1 cornerback, arrived in 2010 and hasn’t sniffed the playoffs. The Browns were 3-3 in 2011 before dropping three straight and nine of 10 to finish the season. That was as good as it’s gotten for Haden.
“We’re tied for first at 2-2, so we know just keep winning and just keep going up,” Haden said.
The .500 record — shared by Cincinnati and Baltimore inside the division — means more because it comes with a two-game winning streak and a new quarterback that’s sent a few million volts through the franchise. Brian Hoyer is 2-0 for his hometown team and has remained the starter despite Brandon Weeden’s return to health.
Rookie coach Rob Chudzinski had no choice. Hoyer is 55-for-92 for 590 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions and an 83.2 rating. He had a winning touchdown drive in Minnesota and a clinching 91-yarder last week against the Bengals – both in the fourth quarter.
“He just has that look of intensity in his eye all the time,” receiver Josh Gordon said. “We really can get behind it. That’s the great thing that we needed to see.
“Just from being a replacement guy, he wanted to prove a lot more than that. He’s definitely got our full support, and we’re looking for him to lead us to victory.”
Hoyer and Gordon, who returned from a two-game suspension, are the key changes from the 0-2 start that featured 16 points scored and a lot of frustration.
“I was very confident,” Gordon said of a turnaround. “I was never willing, coming off a long offseason, training camp, to come in here and lose games, to waste anybody’s time. That’s not what we’re looking forward to do here.
“I don’t think anybody has that mindset, a loser’s mentality, we might as well just quit. That’s not us.”
The Browns have received improved play from the secondary and offensive line during the two victories, but everything starts with the man taking the snap. The guy from North Olmsted and St. Ignatius.
“I think his approach, how he understands the game and understands what we try to do. I’d start with that,” Chudzinski said, regarding why Hoyer’s been successful. “He has a good feel for things. He’s a quick decision-maker. I think he has a knack of making plays.”
Hoyer was the first Browns quarterback with a win and two touchdown passes in his first two starts since Vinny Testaverde in 1993. He joined Hall of Famer Otto Graham as the only ones to throw at least three touchdowns in their Cleveland debut.
Hoyer refused to dwell on the fact the job is now his to lose. The only concession he made to his life changing in the last two weeks was the need to charge his cell-phone battery more often because of all the texts he’s getting.
“I really try to stay in a little bubble and I’m really just from home to work, that’s what my life consists of,” he said. “It’s a very time-consuming job and for me I want to put everything into it that I can.”
Hoyer knows how precious this opportunity is. He was undrafted, spent three years as a backup to Tom Brady, then bounced around in 2012. The chance to start was never guaranteed, even though he believed he would thrive with it.
“When I first made it my rookie year as a undrafted free agent, beating out three guys that were ahead of me just to be the backup to Tom, who was coming off of a season-ending injury, that kind of right there said, ‘OK, you can do this,’” he said. “But then I think always in your mind you’re always waiting for the chance to actually go out and do it on the field. Just to kind of reconfirm it to yourself.
“The limited time playing that I had over the years, it kind of always told me that you definitely can go out and do this. So I don’t think it’s ever a lack of confidence, it’s always you just want to go out and prove it to yourself.”
Buffalo rookie quarterback EJ Manuel can’t relate. He was drafted No. 16 and started Week 1.
The Browns worked him out before the draft and considered him with the No. 6 pick, but went with LSU outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo.
“It was tough,” Chudzinski said. (Manuel) was very impressive on his visit. He’s a guy who has a bright future. You knew it then.
“He’s extremely dangerous. Obviously, he can run and make plays, extend plays. He’s accurate. He really was intriguing and an impressive guy coming out.”
Manuel is 74-for-130 with 856 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions and an 80.2 rating. He became the first quarterback since 1960 with a rating of 89 or higher in each of his first two starts – 105.5 and 89.3.
The Bills (2-2) limit his throwing attempts and rely on a strong running game, which includes Manuel in the read option. Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton said the Browns began preparing for the unusual challenge in the offseason.
The plan includes hitting Manuel as much as possible.
“That’s the No. 1 philosophy,” Horton said. “If you want to put a $100 million Ferrari out there, it’s going to get hit. Is that what you want to do? If you do, that’s OK. We’ll hit that Ferrari and try to dent it up and kick the tires a little bit.”
The last time the Browns hosted a prime-time game, they made life miserable for Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. That was 2009. The national spotlight is back on Cleveland, so Haden had another reason to smile.
“It’s cool, definitely for sure,” he said. “To have all of your friends, everybody, knowing that it’s going to be the only game on, and just being able to play in front of everyone and know they’re watching, it’s special. It’s something that you want to go out there and play your best.”
“The whole world is watching,” nose tackle Phil Taylor said. “Every little thing you do you know everybody is going to see it.”
That’s actually been a good thing for the Browns the last two weeks.