Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson—the only Browns player who's been with the team since the franchise was revived in 1999—is stumped. He's trying to count the number of quarterbacks he's played with. "There have been a lot," he says. "I can only think of one or two opening days where we've had a return starter from the year before, and this is year 14...."
In fact, when rookie Brandon Weeden took Cleveland's first snap in Week 1, he became the 11th opening-day quarterback for these modern-day Browns. If Andrew Luck's metaphorical challenge with the Colts is to fill some huge shoes, Weeden's is to step into a decent pair of cleats from a closet overflowing with smelly sneakers, threadbare Top-Siders and dog-chewed shower sandals. Luck's predecessor, Peyton Manning, was drafted by the Colts in 1998 and started every game for the next 13 seasons. In their 13 full seasons since returning to the NFL, only one Browns passer has made it through an entire season as the starter: In 2001, Tim Couch played all 16 games, and his rating was worse than that of 23 other starters.
That Cleveland is home to such quarterback upheaval seems wrong. The position was stable for the old Browns, and you can draw a line, with just a few breaks, from Otto Graham (10 seasons, beginning in 1946) through Milt Plum, Frank Ryan, Bill Nelsen, Mike Phipps, Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar to Vinny Testaverde in '95, the last season before Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore. Over 50 years, those eight men started 624 of the Browns' 735 games, or 84.8%.
The new Browns make Taylor Swift look like the picture of commitment. They've had dalliances with rookies (Couch, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson), past-their-prime veterans (Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Jake Delhomme), projects (Seneca Wallace) and journeymen (Ty Detmer, Kelly Holcomb)—in all, 16 starters over 13 years. Who among us can forget those heady days in the fall of 2000 when there existed in northeast Ohio such a thing as a Spergon Wynn bandwagon?
Last April the Browns went into the draft intent on finding a passer they could stick with. Unable to trade up for Robert Griffin III, they spent the 22nd pick on Weeden, a smart, rifle-armed slinger from Oklahoma State. But this being Cleveland, he came with a question mark: He was 28. "If he can play six years, I might not be here," G.M. Tom Heckert said, "so who cares?"
Heckert was kidding. But this being Cleveland, owner Randy Lerner put the team on the block three months later, and on Oct. 16 the Browns were sold to truck-stop magnate Jimmy Haslam, whose first act was to announce that team president Mike Holmgren—Heckert's patron—would be leaving at the end of the year. Chances are Heckert will be gone too. And if the architect is no longer around, then a radical and nearly unprecedented youth movement in Cleveland will be left hanging in the balance.
AT THE OPENING of Sunday's 20--14 win over the Steelers—hours before he was knocked out with a fourth-quarter concussion—Weeden lined up with another 2012 first-round pick, running back Trent Richardson of Alabama, behind him. Josh Gordon, a '12 second-round supplemental pick out of Baylor, was split to the slot left. Two months earlier, when that trio took the field against the Eagles in Week 1, the Browns became just the third team in NFL history to open the season with rookies at the three skill positions. (For good measure Cleveland also starts a rookie, Mitchell Schwartz, at right tackle, and has 30 other first- or second-year players on the roster or on IR.) "I feel like an old guy," says left tackle Joe Thomas, 27. "I went from being the youngest guy on the line a few years ago to now being the oldest guy on almost all of the offense."
Because his team was so green, second-year coach Pat Shurmur streamlined his offense in training camp. "You can't put in quite as much," he says. "You can't ask them to absorb as many concepts as maybe a group of veteran players could. You try to find ways for them to have success with what they're good at."
Of those who've found such success, Schwartz stands out. An American studies major from Cal, he has a football IQ commensurate with his book smarts. "He understands [the game] so well that I'll ask him questions," says Thomas, a first-team All-Pro in each of the past three seasons. "I can watch film with just him, and we can bounce ideas off of each other. It's like talking to another veteran."
Others have shown flashes. Despite missing most of camp following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, Richardson has three 100-yard games, one more than Jim Brown—who called Richardson "ordinary" following the April draft—had as a Browns rookie. He also has six touchdowns, his most recent being a 15-yard between-the-tackles gasher that cemented Sunday's victory. And Gordon, who sat out the 2011 season after being kicked off the Baylor team for testing positive for marijuana, overcame a slow start and ranks second among rookies in receiving yards (530) and touchdown catches (four).
Weeden has had a rockier time, which should come as no surprise for a player whose development has been atypical at every stage of his career. He was an undersized junkball pitcher at Santa Fe High in Edmond, Okla., when he had a growth spurt before his junior year, prompting the school's football coach to coax him to come out for the team. He played sparingly until his senior season, when a new coach, Dan Cocannouer, took over. "I came in, saw this guy—about 6'4", 6'5"—and I was like, Holy cow, let's go," says Cocannouer. "It took him probably eight games before he caught on to what we wanted him to do. But he caught on. He lit everybody up."
Santa Fe made the state playoffs for the first time, reaching the Class 6A semifinals, and that, plus Weeden's size, should have had recruiters salivating. But he'd already chosen baseball—by then he had a 97 mph fastball—and the Yankees made him their first pick in the 2002 draft.
One of Weeden's teammates those first two years on the Yankees' rookie league club in Tampa was Eric Hacker, another righthanded pitcher who had played quarterback in high school, and the two would drive to Clearwater Beach and throw the football around. "Brandon and I had similar paths," says Hacker, who pitched for the Giants last season. "We had conversations about how if baseball didn't work out by a certain age, we'd go back and play football."
Weeden spent his off-seasons as the quarterbacks coach back home at Santa Fe High, and by the end of his fifth season in baseball—by then he was with the Royals' Class A affiliate—his restlessness came to a head. He enrolled at Oklahoma State in 2007 as a 23-year-old freshman walk-on who hadn't played organized football in five years. Time on the scout team knocked off the rust, and by his junior season he was starting—and being reminded constantly by his teammates of how old he was. "For my 27th birthday [safety] Markelle Martin bought me a cane and some Depends," recalls Weeden.
After a senior season in which Weeden threw for 4,727 yards, Mel Kiper projected him as a top 10 or 15 pick in the draft—if he were a more traditional age. So it was no surprise that the QB-needy Browns passed on him and took Richardson at No. 3. Then came the 22nd pick, one of the five that Cleveland had gotten a year earlier from the Falcons in exchange for the pick that Atlanta used on wideout Julio Jones....
If football fans ran drafts, it's safe to presume that every first-round pick would be a skill-position player. NFL front offices tend to be more conservative, offsetting an exciting new running back with something more responsible, like a defensive tackle. Not these Browns. Rolling the dice on Weeden, they became just the second team since the advent of the common draft in 1967 to select a quarterback and a running back in the first round. (The first: the '79 Bengals, with Charles Alexander and Jack Thompson.)
After a week and a half of perfunctory open competition with Colt McCoy at camp, Weeden was handed the job. He'd racked up big numbers at OSU in a shotgun, no-huddle, air-it-out attack that was a far cry from Shurmur's West Coast offense. "The under-center stuff wasn't [a difficult adjustment] at all," Weeden says, "but the tempo was. Slowing down, getting in the huddle, verbally communicating.... If you take my offense at Oklahoma State and compare it with what I do now, there are no similarities. In college you signaled one or two things and had the whole play. Here, some of the plays are this long"—he holds his index fingers a foot apart—"and there's a lot more moving parts."
Understandably, he looked lost in his Week 1 debut against the Eagles: four interceptions and a passer rating of 5.1—this after having to be rescued from underneath a giant American flag that unfurled on the field in a pregame ceremony. The Browns dropped five games before Weeden got his first win, over the Bengals on Oct. 14. It was his 29th birthday. That day's program listed his age as 129.
The knock on Weeden (age aside) has been that he forces too many passes, leading to interceptions. "They're very aggressive and heroic," Shurmur says of rookie passers. "But there's a fine line between being aggressive and being efficient."
Few in Cleveland have been shy about examining where Weeden stands relative to that line. The local paper, for example, grades his every throw on a scale of one to five. Meanwhile, those who said that he forces too many passes also criticized him for not taking enough chances against the Ravens in Week 9, when the Browns settled for five field goals in a 25--15 loss. "If I try to squeeze the ball in there, [Ravens safety] Ed Reed picks it off; then people are ridiculing me," he says. "There's give and take."
"Most important," he adds, "don't listen."
Here's the type of thing Weeden might want to hear: He has taken too much of the blame for the Browns' abysmal record. His receivers have dropped 26 passes, third highest in the NFL. Two of those have been especially costly. Greg Little had a would-be 34-yard TD go through his hands in the fourth quarter of a 23--16 loss to the Ravens in Week 4, and Gordon bungled a potential 41-yard fourth-quarter TD in a 17--13 loss to the Colts.
Perhaps as much blame should go to Shurmur's game management and play-calling, most notably when he burned three timeouts in the second Baltimore game because his team couldn't get a play set up in time.
The Browns (and, especially, their fans) don't do moral victories, but in seven of their eight losses they have finished within a touchdown and had possession to end the game. And while Weeden's 70.9 passer rating ranks second to last among the 30 QBs who've started at least eight games, his progress compared with Manning's debut season 14 years ago leaves reason for hope. In Weeden's first 11 games as a pro, his team is 3--8, with surprise wins against the Bengals, the Chargers and, for the first time in five meetings, the Steelers. He has thrown for 2,456 yards with a 55.9% completion rate, and he has 12 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. He's had four games with a passer rating of 85 or better.
In Manning's first 11 games, his team's record was 2--9. He threw for 2,453 yards with a 54.8% completion rate, with 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions; and he only once had a passer rating of 85 or better.
On Nov. 6, Shurmur declared of Weeden, "He's our guy."
This being Cleveland, however, Haslam's right-hand man, CEO Joe Banner, told The Plain Dealer two days later that Weeden was "on the list of important things we have to figure out." Instead of playing to learn, the 29-year-old rookie is now playing for his job.
Scoring just 20 points on Sunday against a Steelers team that turned the ball over eight times did little to further Weeden's cause. That Cleveland won the game did little to silence his critics. One fan on Twitter joked that Weeden hadn't suffered a concussion but a broken hip.
"We made a commitment that we were going to flip the roster around, and I would say we've held to that," says Shurmur. "Some folks don't want to admit it, but some of this takes time."
UPSIDE Weeden's 322 passing yards in a Week 2 loss to Cincy set a team rookie record.
How does QB stability correlate with wins? Here are all 32 teams' winning percentages since 1999, alongside their turnover at the position
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
% '99 '00 '01 '02 '03 '04 '05 '06 '07 '08 '09 '10 '11 '12
1. NE .708
2. IND .671
3. PIT .637
4. GB .616
5. BAL .607
6. PHI .594
7. TEN .562
8. NYG .553
9. DEN .543
10. NO .525
T11. SD .521
T11. CHI .521
13. ATL .518
T14. SEA .507
T14. NYJ .507
16. TB .502
T17. MIN .498
T17. DAL .498
19. MIA .484
20. JAX .479
21. SF .454
T22. CAR .445
T22. STL .445
24. KC .443
25. HOU .439
26. WAS .438
27. CIN .418
28. BUF .416
29. OAK .406
30. ARI .388
31. CLE .324
32. DET .320
Majority of starts by one QB
Starts split equally between two QBs
To find out where Luck and Weeden fall in senior writer Jim Trotter's weekly Awards Watch, and for more on Colts rookie playmaker T.Y. Hilton, visit SI.com/mag
RICK OSENTOSKI/US PRESSWIRE
WEEDEN, START THE FIRE! This year's rookie movement, led by the former big league prospect, was meant to spark a franchise renaissance, but new ownership may mean new plans yet again.
FRANK VICTORES/US PRESSWIRE (QUINN)
DAVID BERGMAN (MCCOY)
THOMAS E. WITTE (ANDERSON)
THIS BEING CLEVELAND ... Even an upset of Pittsburgh comes with a cloud: Weeden's Browns capitalized on eight Steelers turnovers in a 20--14 win on Sunday, but the rookie QB suffered a concussion and left in the fourth quarter.