BEREA — The Browns are 3-2 for the first time since 2001. They’re in first place this “late” in the season for the first time since 1995. They’re on a three-game winning streak and host the 3-2 Detroit Lions on Sunday.
Yet the excitement following the 37-24 victory Thursday night over the Bills has been muted – at least outside the locker room. Quarterback Brian Hoyer, cited by many as the key to the turnaround, was lost for the season in the first quarter with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The skepticism of the fans was obvious. Brandon Weeden was booed after his first incompletion upon entering the Bills game.
“We’re definitely heartbroken for (Hoyer) when we heard how bad it was,” receiver Josh Gordon said Monday. “It’s rough for him, because he was really fighting and battling.
“But I think we’re definitely going to maintain and try to stay on course with Brandon Weeden. I don’t think we lost a step at all. We’re just going to persevere through it and push on.”
In most cities, 3-2 wouldn’t be noteworthy. Cleveland isn’t most cities.
The last time the Browns were atop a division after five games was 1995, when they shared first with Pittsburgh at 3-2. That season ended with the team moving to Baltimore, followed by three years without football.
No matter how Weeden fares, this year can’t possibly end worse.
Weeden’s critics point to the first two games as reason for pessimism regarding the rest of the year. But he’s started 17 games in his two years, took all the first-team repetitions throughout the offseason and preseason and was only replaced because he sprained the thumb on his throwing hand.
“Everybody is very comfortable and confident that Brandon is more than capable and he’s going to do a great job,” left tackle Joe Thomas said.
Weeden got off to a rough start before the injury, completing 55 percent for 516 yards, a touchdown, three interceptions and a 62.0 rating. He played better in Week 2 at Baltimore than in the opener, but the Browns scored one touchdown and 16 points in the opening two losses.
Despite almost no practice time in three weeks, Weeden came off the bench for Hoyer and went 13-for-24 for 197 yards, a touchdown and a 95.3 rating against the Bills. He made clutch throws downfield to Gordon, receiver Greg Little and tight end Jordan Cameron and the team scored 37 points after he entered.
Gordon disagreed with the notion that some of the excitement’s gone with Hoyer sidelined.
“I don’t think so. We just gotta look toward Brandon,” Gordon said. “He can definitely bring it. He’s got an arm on him, we’re guys that can stretch the field and go downfield in this offense, Norv (Turner, coordinator) is going to call it up and we’ve got to make the plays as wide receivers and running backs as well.”
Veteran receiver Davone Bess agreed Weeden can keep the momentum rolling, but said he needs help.
“We’ve got to make plays for him,” Bess said. “The offensive line has got to protect. We’ve got to do this for him.”
The most noticeable difference between Weeden and Hoyer is the length of time they hold the ball in the pocket. Hoyer liked to plant the back foot on his drop and fire, while Weeden takes longer to make a decision.
Some of that could be play calls with deeper patterns to take advantage of Weeden’s strong arm, or his preference for throwing downfield. No matter the reason, Weeden’s been sacked 16 times vs. Hoyer’s six. Weeden was sacked only 28 times in 15 games as a rookie
“They’re a concern. I think we’ve been taking steps in improving in that area,” coach Rob Chudzinski said. “I think the last game, Brandon coming in without a lot of work in practice, you could see a little bit of rustiness. The encouraging thing from my standpoint is that when we needed plays, he was able to make those plays and make good throws and get the ball out on time. I think as the game went on he was better and more comfortable in that area.”
Thomas wants to see Weeden let it rip.
“It’s just a matter of trusting your receivers and trusting your arm and throwing it based on what you see coverage-wise,” he said. “For Brandon, the best thing he can do is beat the coverage, be confident. He’s a smart guy. He studies hard. He has three receivers. Throw it to the guy he thinks is going to be open and just trust him.”
Chudzinski was quick to point out the guys around the quarterback have improved since the 0-2 start. Gordon has 18 catches for 303 yards and two touchdowns since returning from a two-game suspension. The offensive line has played better and received a further boost with the return Thursday of right guard Shawn Lauvao.
“Obviously, it helps getting some of the guys back and getting them out on the field,” Chudzinski said. “We’re understanding and playing our roles better, and we’re making plays when we have the opportunities. That’s some of the things we weren’t doing early.”
Chudzinski said Hoyer planned to meet with another doctor and that no surgery had been scheduled. He said the team is discussing whether to add a third quarterback – to the active roster or practice squad.
Jason Campbell is the lone backup. Tight end MarQueis Gray, who played quarterback at the University of Minnesota, would be next in line.
“We’re looking at our options right now,” Chudzinski said. “We have a number of different options that we can go.”
Dealing with another change at quarterback is just the latest obstacle for the Browns. Their No. 1 wideout opened the year on a suspension, they traded starting running back Trent Richardson and have had a variety of injuries.
“I think it’s just the character of the team,” safety T.J. Ward said. “Nothing overwhelms us and I think that has helped us the last couple weeks, handling adversity and just keep on pushing.”
The players don’t see any reason the good times have to stop.
“I definitely think we’re just scratching the surface of what we can accomplish and what we can do with everybody we have on the team,” Gordon said.
“Everybody’s happy. The town’s happy. We’re happy,” running back Willis McGahee said. “We got this swagger going and we want to keep it going and duplicate the same thing, if not make it better.”