BEFORE HE was the anointed starting quarterback in Cleveland, before he became the most prolific passer in Oklahoma State history, Brandon Weeden spent five years as a struggling minor league pitcher. "I got a first-rate education on getting your butt kicked," says Weeden, who toiled in the Yankees' and the Dodgers' minor league systems. "As someone who gave up a lot of home runs and had to get right back on the mound, I've developed a pretty good short-term memory."
Given what the rookie is up against in Cleveland, where the Browns are hitting the reset button yet again, the ability to quickly move on from the past will serve him well, as he leads one the NFL's boldest youth movements in recent years. The Browns could start four rookies on offense: There's Weeden, who will be the 11th Week 1 quarterback in Cleveland since 1999; first-round pick Trent Richardson at running back; second-round pick Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle; and Baylor's Josh Gordon, a second-round pick in the supplemental draft, at receiver. If Richardson recovers from knee surgery in time for Week 1, the Browns will be just the fourth team in 44 years to open the season with a rookie QB and a rookie running back in the starting lineup.
Team president Mike Holmgren traded up to get Richardson with the third pick, and the Alabama star impressed in camp with his burst of speed and brute strength. ("The power is what stands out," says coach Pat Shurmur. "At 5'9", he fools you—there's a lot of muscle in that body.") But on Aug. 9 the Heisman Trophy finalist underwent minor athroscopic surgery to repair loose cartilage in his left knee. Still, in a quarterback-driven league the most important player to the Browns' turnaround is unquestionably their new quarterback. Year 1 of Shurmur's West Coast offense was a spectacular failure: The offense averaged just 13.6 points a game as the system exposed Colt McCoy's weak arm and inaccuracy. Weeden is a better fit: a pure pocket passer with a big arm and flawless mechanics. The 6'3", 220-pound gunslinger is far from your typical rookie; Weeden, who turns 29 in October, is older than a dozen of the league's current starters, and he arrives having thrived in one of the most complex pro-style attacks in college football. "In that offense [at Oklahoma State] you have to make every kind of throw—every throw I've made here, I made in college," he says. "Most college systems, with the dink and dunk stuff, are not really going to get you ready to play at this level. I'm ready."
The biggest unknown is how Weeden will respond to an NFL pass rush—he was sacked just 12 times all last season. "The upside is that he's healthier than a lot of the players much younger than him coming into the league," says Shurmur. "He's obviously very talented as a thrower. What we've learned is that he doesn't repeat his mistakes. He's also very comfortable in his role as a guy to lead the team. All those years he spent in pro baseball really eased the transition."
Cleveland's great rookie experiment extends to the defense, where three first-year players (tackles John Hughes and Billy Winn, and linebacker James-Michael Johnson) will play prominent roles. Last year's unit, which was fifth in the league in scoring defense, did a reasonably good job of keeping the team in games—the Browns were within a touchdown in the fourth quarter in nine of their losses. But they will struggle this year with defensive end Phil Taylor (torn pectoral muscle) out until at least Week 7, a devastating loss for a defense that ranked 30th against the run. The unit also must deal with the loss of linebacker Chris Gocong (Achilles) for the season, and might be without suspended cornerback Joe Haden until October.
In other words it'll be up to the Baby Browns to lead the team in the first season under new owner Jimmy Haslam, a truck-stop magnate. It has been 13 years since the Browns were relaunched, and the franchise has been in rebuilding mode ever since. Weeden and the rest of the rookies are well aware of the team's sad recent history. "We don't expect to turn things around overnight," he says. "We know there are going to be growing pains. But we believe the pieces are in place."
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 29
(N) New acquisition
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 4--12
16 at Cincinnati
27 at Baltimore (Thu)
7 at New York Giants
21 at Indianapolis
28 San Diego
18 at Dallas
2 at Oakland
9 Kansas City
23 at Denver
30 at Pittsburgh
Brandon Weeden leaned heavily on wideout Justin Blackmon when the two were paired at Oklahoma State. Who will be the rookie quarterback's go-to receiver in Cleveland? Greg Little has the most talent of the Browns' young and unproven pass catchers. He's also the most maddening. A second-round pick out of North Carolina in 2011, Little led the team in receptions—among rookies, his 61 catches were second most in the league behind Cincinnati's A.J. Green—and in receiving yards, but his 12 drops were second most among all NFL receivers. The 6'3" Little, who lost 11 pounds over the off-season after changing his diet (he's now listed at 220), ran sharper routes in the preseason and, most important, showed good chemistry with Weeden.
"He's a lot quicker, a lot more sudden," says Shurmur of the changes in Little. "He just looks like a different guy. He's ready to make a huge jump." Weeden sees similarities between Little and Blackmon (whom the Jaguars took with the fifth pick in this year's draft). "They're both big targets, with strong hands," he says. "Greg is so strong with the football. He's going to be a lot of fun to throw to."
Touchdowns allowed by Cleveland's defense on 64 goal-to-go plays in 2011. No team had a better stop percentage than the Browns' .828 in those situations.
Red zone rushing touchdowns scored by the Browns' offense, the fewest in the league and six times fewer than the NFL-leading Panthers.
Tackles on running plays by middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, 19 more than the next-highest figure for a linebacker.
JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES
Weeden's an NFL newbie but brings valuable pro experience from his time in minor league baseball.