CLEVELAND – As Ryan Encinas neared the end zone, the loud cheers turned into bellowing barks.
He was officially a Cleveland Brown.
The 5-year-old from Cuyahoga Falls has been in remission for two years after being diagnosed with a tumor on his lung as a 2-year-old. The Browns gave him a uniform – No. 1 in a brown jersey – and handed him the ball Saturday to score a 40-yard touchdown to end practice.
Family Night officially finished with fireworks and a laser show, but Encinas’ touchdown was the grand finale at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“How ’bout that first-round draft pick there, Ryan Encinas, scoring the winning touchdown tonight?” coach Rob Chudzinski said to open his news conference.
Quarterback Brandon Weeden reached down to hand Encinas the ball, and with the entire team following him and running back Trent Richardson pointing the way, he eventually reached the end zone. Linebacker Craig Roberston picked him up and the team surrounded him.
“He couldn’t do the things he wanted to do growing up, but to have this moment in front of these fans in this stadium, I’m getting chills right now,” rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo said. “I’m sure it meant a lot to that little kid.”
The offense and downtown traffic were far from perfect, but the rest of the night was about as good as it gets in Cleveland in August.
The air smelled like summer, but the breeze felt like fall. And Northeast Ohio’s favorite team was back on its home field, in full pads, and in front of 24,131 invested fans (up from 19,412 in 2012 and 12,354 in ’11.)
“It was great to be back in the stadium,” said Chudzinski, who grew up a Browns fan in Toledo and spent two stints here as an assistant. “For me personally, it’s been a little bit of a while and the energy was great out there. The fans were awesome, we had a great turnout and we’re going to need them down the road.”
The atmosphere seemed to give a jolt to the defense. Robertson led the blitzing front seven, while cornerback Joe Haden had an interception and a breakup. Both have had camps filled with highlights.
The offense has been inconsistent throughout the first week-plus of training camp and struggled to get in sync. Usually reliable receiver Jordan Norwood dropped two passes, No. 1 wideout Josh Gordon dropped at least one and Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas had a false start.
Chudzinski agreed that the defense is ahead of the offense.
“Typically this time of year, that’s the case,” he said. “It takes a little while for an offense to gel and all the moving parts to come together. My experience is you keep working, you keep pushing them, you keep putting them in situations and it starts clicking. We haven’t got to that point yet where we’re clicking yet offensively, but it will come.”
The offense had its moments, just not a ton of them.
Pint-sized running back Dion Lewis burst through the middle for what would’ve been a long run. Receiver Greg Little made a couple of nice catches against tight coverage. Davone Bess caught a hook for a touchdown from Weeden. And receiver Tori Gurley hung on despite getting his legs cut out from underneath, then got up and revved up the crowd.
“We had a great turnout tonight, the fans really came out,” Weeden said. “I couldn’t even hear the first play because it was so loud in my helmet.
“The Dawg Pound and everybody else, it’s great to begin with, and if we win some games the roof will blow off this thing.”
Weeden is a lightning rod for fans, so each throw is scrutinized, even in July and August. He’s flashed his strong arm and big-play ability, but has been dogged by inconsistency.
“It sounds weird, but I’m still making some mistakes, but I’m learning from those mistakes,” he said. “It’s going to happen when you play against a good defense. Joe Haden is one of the best corners, he’s a great player and that makes me better.
“I feel like I’m moving in the right direction, my comprehension of the offense, my feel, my understanding of where to go with the football is getting there. I’ve got a long ways to go but I’ve got to keep working and these guys are going to rely on me.”
Chudzinski made his reputation on offense and brought along Norv Turner, one of the most respected coordinators in the league. They’re not happy with the performance of the offense, but see progress as the preseason gets ready to start Thursday.
“We’re about where typically you are a lot of times in training camp from an offensive standpoint,” Chudzinski said. “You go into the game, usually you’re going to do some good things, you’re going to do some things that are good coaching points that guys can learn from and you work to keep improving throughout the preseason and get yourself ready and be ready to play Sept. 8 against Miami.”
The games that count are more than a month away. So Saturday was the perfect time to share the spotlight with Encinas.
Chudzinski’s son Kaelan came up with the idea after watching Jack Hoffman, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor, score a 69-yard touchdown during Nebraska’s spring game. Kaelan told his mom (Sheila), who told Chudzinski. Little Heroes picked Encinas.
“This is one of the highest highs we’ve had during this entire ordeal,” said Robert Encinas, Ryan’s father. “To see him out there running with the Cleveland Browns is one of the greatest experiences of our lives.”
And a memorable moment for those fortunate enough to witness it.
“That was a cool deal,” Weeden said. “Every time something like that happens, it brings a lump to your throat.”
Or a bark.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.