Browns head to camp hoping to shed losing image
CLEVELAND – Rob Chudzinski has his dream job. There’s no telling how long he’ll keep it.
Hired as Cleveland’s sixth coach – and fourth in six years – since 1999, Chudzinski returns to the team he cheered for as a kid and the one he helped to a 10-6 record in 2007 as the offensive coordinator. The orange helmets are being directed by Chud now, and while the Browns still have a long climb to contention, he inherits more talent than any of his predecessors.
The Browns have lost at least 11 games in each of the past five seasons, a streak they should be able to stop.
However, to do so, they’ll need stability at quarterback, a position of constant change since the Browns returned as an expansion franchise. Second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden showed promise last season but needs to make major strides under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who has a track record for developing QBs.
Cleveland’s spending spree in free agency – mostly on defense – gave worn-out Browns fans reason to hope that 2013 would bring a turnaround and dawn a new era. But some of the optimism has been erased by new owner Jimmy Haslam’s legal troubles, which have cast a shadow over the season already.
Five things to know as the Browns open training camp this week:
1. RICHARDSON ROLLING: Running back Trent Richardson may be the NFL’s toughest man. Playing most of his rookie year with two broken ribs he kept secret until the season ended, Richardson still rushed for 950 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. The Browns need Richardson, who reported to camp banged up last season, to shed the “injury-prone” label and be 100 percent healthy from the outset. He’s ready to roll after missing some of the spring workouts with a sprained shin muscle. He averaged just 3.6 yards per carry – 45th among the league’s runners.
2. WEEDEN GROWS: Weeden passed for 3,385 yards in 2012, not bad for a rookie. But he was overshadowed by an elite class of first-year QBs, three of whom – Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson – led their teams to the playoffs. The Browns are adjusting their offense to better fit Weeden’s strengths, and Chudzinski said he has already seen marked improvement in the 29-year-old’s footwork, quickness and speed in getting rid of the ball. Weeden believes he has grown as a leader as well and feels “like a completely different player” than last year.
3. HASLAM’S HEADACHE: The owner’s ongoing legal entanglement has Browns fans on edge, and the NFL on watch. Haslam’s arrival gave Cleveland a much-needed boost and he’s already sunk millions into overhauling the roster, the team’s suburban headquarters and a $100 million face lift of FirstEnergy Stadium is reportedly in the works. Haslam recently reached a settlement with customers his Pilot Flying J truck-stop chain cheated out of rebate money. Unless he is indicted, the league will not consider sanctions against Haslam, who has professed his innocence from the start.
4. KICKING IT: Phil Dawson’s departure leaves the Browns with some huge cleats to fill. The Pro Bowl kicker, who signed as a free agent with the 49ers, was an invaluable asset for 14 years, handling field-goal and kickoff duties while mastering the tricky winds off Lake Erie. The Browns signed veteran Shayne Graham, who made 31 of 38 field goals and scored 138 points for Houston last season, to compete for the job with rookie Brandon Bogotay. The winner will have a difficult time replacing the dependable Dawson, the second-leading scorer in franchise history.
5. FLASH GORDON: Wide receiver Josh Gordon’s two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s drug policy makes it imperative the Browns find some other offensive playmakers. Gordon will miss the opener against Miami and the following week against Baltimore, depriving Weeden of his top target. But more importantly, the Browns have to hope Gordon, who was suspended for marijuana use in college, gets his head on straight and stays clean in the future. His teammates rave about his athletic gifts and view the 22-year-old as a future star – if he stays on the right path.