By Matt Vensel, The Baltimore Sun
2:06 PM EDT, September 26, 2012
It's not often that a modest 1-yard gain in a season-opening loss holds so much significance.
When Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson took his first handoff from quarterback Brandon Weeden three weeks ago, he carried the hopes of a championship-starved city still praying for its first Super Bowl title, while ushering in yet another new era for the floundering franchise.
The Browns, who have had one winning season and five head coaches in the past decade, traded up to select Richardson third overall in April's draft and 19 spots later used another first-round draft pick on Weeden. And by starting the two rookies right away, the Browns hope to build the foundation of a contending team with a similar blueprint to the one the Ravens used in 2008.
In John Harbaugh's first year as coach, the Ravens became the third team since 1968 to start a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back in their season opener. Four years and four trips to the playoffs later, Joe Flacco ranks second in the NFL with 913 passing yards, Ray Rice remains in Pro Bowl form, and the Ravens are one of the early favorites to win the AFC.
"My hopes, of course, are that we can have the same success that the Ravens have had — going to the playoffs the last four years, the AFC championship game," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said of his rookie duo. "I'm hopeful that these are two of the pieces that will help us get there."
But three games into their NFL careers, the rest of the puzzle looks to be very incomplete.
The Browns, who have 15 rookies on their 53-man active roster, are winless heading into Thursday night's game at M&T Bank Stadium, and they rank near the bottom of the NFL in total offense and total defense. Weeden has thrown six interceptions and Richardson is averaging 3.5 yards per carry.
"They've had to learn on the run," said Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who played college football at Maryland. "They have a lot expected of them, especially from the quarterback position. Brandon has a lot on his plate right now, and I'm sure he's feeling the pressure around here in Cleveland. ... He's handled the pressure well. He still has a lot to learn in this league just through experience and play. I could say the same about [Richardson]."
The Browns believe they are tough enough and mature enough to handle the high expectations. But still, this has been a rude welcome for a pair of players whose college teams won 12 games apiece in 2011.
Richardson, a teammate of Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw on the Alabama teams that won NCAA titles in 2009 and 2011, was the consensus top running back in the draft after rushing for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns as a junior. He lost four games as a collegian.
Weeden spent five years as a minor league baseball player before joining the football program at Oklahoma State. He threw for 71 touchdowns in his two seasons as a starter and guided the Cowboys to a No. 3 ranking in the AP's postseason poll, their highest year-end ranking ever.
The Browns were mostly praised for selecting Richardson and Weeden, but they might not have been their preferred prospects. In March, Cleveland unsuccessfully attempted to trade up for the second overall pick, presumably to select Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, but St. Louis dealt the pick to Washington. Then Cleveland was reportedly prepared to take speedy Baylor wide receiver Kendall Wright with the 22nd pick, but Tennessee drafted him two picks earlier.
Still, after missing out on Griffin, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said the Browns "had to take" Richardson because he was the rare running back who deserved to go in the top five picks.
"I'm not big on taking a tailback in the top 10. But I thought this kid was special," said Mayock, who is calling Thursday night's game for NFL Network. "And in the AFC North, where you win games 17-14 and play a lot of great defense, I think it was incumbent upon them to get a tailback that could push the pile. I loved the Richardson pick and I thought that had to happen."
Mayock said he was surprised by the selection of Weeden because he thought they would try to build around former starter Colt McCoy. But after scouting Weeden, Mayock understands what the Browns saw in him, though he said it could take a while for the 28-year-old to adjust to the professional game after thriving in Oklahoma State's no-huddle "Air Raid" passing attack.
"He is very mature and very intelligent, but he's kind of starting at ground zero as a quarterback — a lot less knowledge of calling plays, making checks and handling pass protections than most quarterbacks in the league," Mayock said. "So he's got further to go, but he's a talented kid."
Some pundits said similar things about Flacco when the Ravens drafted him in the first round in 2008 out of Delaware. Mayock was not one of them. The Philadelphia resident recalls a couple of his scouting buddies telling him that he had to go check out a big-armed kid down at Delaware. Months later, he was stumping for Flacco to get invited to the Senior Bowl.
"It's nice to have a big arm, but more important are all the intangibles that go along with it," Mayock said of Flacco, who played in a spread shotgun offense at Delaware. "I think he had a chip on his shoulder that drove him to be a better football player. And I think it's still there — and I like it."
In the second round of that draft, the Ravens grabbed a pint-sized powerhouse from Rutgers named Ray Rice even though they had traded for running back Willis McGahee one year prior.
Five months later, after Flacco earned the Week 1 start when Kyle Boller hurt his shoulder and Troy Smith came down with tonsillitis, he and Rice made eye contact in the huddle before embarking on their first NFL drive — and potentially a career-long journey together — just like Weeden and Richardson later did.
"There was definitely that nerve going into our first game together and here we are five years later still playing as a duo," said Rice, who rushed for 4 yards on the first play that afternoon.
The Ravens went 11-5 in 2008, improbably advancing all the way to the AFC championship game. Rice, who was part of a three-pronged rushing attack with McGahee and Le'Ron McClain, only started three more games. Flacco avoided critical mistakes, guided the team to two road playoff wins, and earned the faith of his teammates with his poise and his play-making ability.
"You saw games of brilliance when he just went out there and did his thing," said linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who cited Flacco's 38-yard touchdown run in the 17-10 win against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1 as the moment when he and many of his teammates started to believe in the quiet quarterback.
The early success of Flacco and other rookie quarterbacks has since emboldened teams to throw their first-round quarterbacks into the fire, too. In the past five drafts, 15 quarterbacks were selected in the first round. Fourteen are starting for their teams today. The other is New York Jets backup Tim Tebow, who was originally drafted by the Denver Broncos and now plays behind 2009 first-rounder Mark Sanchez.
And the Browns weren't alone in starting a pair of rookies in the backfield in Week 1. The Washington Redskins rolled with Griffin and Alfred Morris, making the Browns and the Redskins the fourth and fifth teams in the past 44 years — and the first since the Ravens — to do so. As center Matt Birk put it, "it's all about instant gratification" in this modern era of free agency.
That's why Shurmur and the Browns front office might not be around long enough to see if the Weeden-Richardson experiment is a success. A new ownership group is taking over control of the team, and new owners like to hire new coaches, especially when the old ones aren't winning many football games.
Pressure is already mounting on these Browns. Some were calling for McCoy to replace Weeden after Weeden threw four interceptions in a season-opening loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. And after the rookie impressed with 322 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to the Bengals, Weeden chucked a pair of picks last weekend. Richardson has run hard, but his linemen have gotten tossed around by defenders.
The Ravens, who will be grumpy Thursday after a short but tiresome work week, don't plan on cutting them a break. They praised the rookies for their poise, but they admitted that Weeden has at times been illiterate when it comes to reading complex NFL defenses, and while they know it may take a few defenders to drag down Richardson, they are confident they can take away the Browns' running game.
But the Ravens can look at the success they have had with Flacco and Rice since 2008 and know that it could one day happen for the Browns with Weeden and Richardson, too, even if it doesn't immediately.
"They're going to make some rookie mistakes, but it can happen for them, no doubt about it," guard Marshal Yanda said. "Those two guys are gifted and they can definitely be successful."
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