Thursday, October 3, 2013

Weeden deserves at least some credit

This winning football games thing is really catchy. How else can anyone explain Brandon Weeden’s performance Thursday night against the Buffalo Bills?

Brian Hoyer starts the game looking to become the first Browns quarterback ever to win his first three starts. Not even the great Otto Graham won his first three National Football League starts.

Weeden, finally healed from his thumb injury, is rightfully on the sideline as the pre-game hype centers on the young man from North Olmsted, whose play has rejuvenated not only the team, but the city.

Weeden was minding his own business, probably bemoaning his fate, when Hoyer scrambled out of the pocket on the second series of the game, picked up a first down near midfield and slid to protect himself.

Only problem was he tucked his left leg under his body, much like a baseball runner prepares for a pop-up slide. Except Hoyer did not pop up. His right knee appeared to give out.

So with 11:31 left in the opening quarter, Weeden all of a sudden found himself back under center and feeling the immediate wrath of the fans. They remembered he was the quarterback in the first two games of the season and did not look good in the two losses.

It seemed as though a lot of energy was sucked out of the old Cleveland Browns Stadium when Hoyer was helped to the dressing room. This, then, became Weeden’s game to win or lose. And the fans had little faith in him. As in zero.

But the Browns were on a roll. Two straight victories, a national television audience to entertain and there were still 56 minutes of football left. A lot can happen in that period of time.

So Weeden, with plenty of help from special teams and an opportunistic defense, went out and showed that the Browns can, indeed, win with him under center. It wasn’t the prettiest display of quarterbacking you’ll ever see, but he sure made plays when they needed to be made.

Travis Benjamin provided the first spark of the evening with a pair of punt returns, the first of which (59 yards) set up the first of Billy Cundiff’s three field goals. The second, during which the slight wide receiver ran about 120 yards, was officially a 79-yarder that wound up in the end zone.

In perhaps the most entertaining game the NFL Network has beamed to the country in a long time, the two clubs were tied twice and changed leads another two times.

The Bills scored the first 10 points of the game, the Browns tallied the next 17 to take the lead into the dressing room, the Bills came back to rack up the next 14 to take the lead again before the Browns ran off the game’s final 20 points for the 37-24 victory.

And for the first time since the 2001 season, the Browns breathe the rarefied air of first place in the AFC North all by themselves and will keep doing so until the weekend when Baltimore and Cincinnati play.

When Weeden entered the game, most of the fans, at least those who will admit it, probably thought the winning streak was over. No way the second-year quarterback could match what Hoyer had accomplished in the last two games.

But again, the winning thing is catchy and Weeden did not look all that bad. He had his moments when he looked indecisive, held the ball too long and took five sacks, triggering the boo birds. And he was late with some of his throws, lucky on two occasions that he wasn’t picked.

But overall, he looked more like the Weeden we saw last season in the club’s victories, connecting beautifully on deep throws. That’s his forte. That’s where he feels the most comfortable. He’s got the arm and is not afraid to show it off.

Thursday night, he received plenty of help from running back Willis McGahee, who did not put up great numbers, but ground up some very tough yards (72 on 26 carries) to make Weeden’s job a little easier. The quarterback did not make any glaring mistakes.

The Bills are most vulnerable through the air and Weeden, who was 13-of-24 for 197 yards and a touchdown, took full advantage, especially in the second half, just when it looked as though the Bills had put the clamps on the Cleveland offense.

Down, 24-17, midway through the third quarter, he connected with Greg Little on a 47-yard bomb to set up a 37-yard scoring dagger two plays later to Josh Gordon, who tipped the pass to himself, then juggled it for a step and half before clutching it in the end zone to bring the Browns even at 24-24 less than a minute after the Bills had taken the lead on a Fred Jackson one-yard run.

The twin bombs swiftly took away whatever momentum the Bills had achieved and swung it back to the Browns for the last time.

That’s when the Cleveland defense, which had struggled for the better part of the first three quarters, clamped down and finally took over the game. It sort of evened the quarterback score when rookie Buffalo quarterback E. J. Manuel suffered a knee injury during, what else, a scramble with about two minutes left in the third quarter.

Rookie Jeff Tuel replaced Manuel, but he’s no Brandon Weeden. The Bills had run the ball effectively up to that point (they wound up with 155 yards), but with Tuel under center, the Browns concentrated on shutting down the run, forcing him to throw the ball.

It resulted in three straight three and outs and a five and out, and just 16 yards of total offense. The game, for all practical purposes, was over for the Bills when Manuel went down.

A couple of Cundiff field goals gave the Browns a six-point lead and then strong safety T. J Ward poured the frosting on the victory cake with his first pick 6 as a pro, a 44-yarder with less than two minutes left.

It tuned out to be a contest to see which team had the better backup quarterback. And it was no contest.

The big question now is who will be at quarterback when the Browns welcome the Detroit Lions a week from Sunday. If Hoyer’s injury is as serious as it appeared, get used to Weeden all over again.

But at least this time, he’ll step under center knowing he can help win ball games. He proved that to himself -- and maybe a few fans -- against the Bills. 

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