Once practice ended on Friday, quarterback Thad Lewis was approached by Browns coach Pat Shurmur, who had great news for the third-stringer.
”He said, `You’re the man,”’ Lewis said.
And just like that, Lewis became Cleveland’s starter Sunday in the season finale at Pittsburgh, where he will take his first regular-season NFL snaps against the Steelers and their No. 1-ranked defense.
”It’s exciting,” Lewis said. ”It’s a blessing for a childhood dream come true.”
Shoulder injuries to starter Brandon Weeden and No. 2 QB Colt McCoy will give Lewis a chance to show what he can do after almost three seasons spent on practice squads, running the scout team and finishing off exhibition games with other backups. He’s been waiting for his opportunity, and he’ll get it against James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and Co. – amid a sea of Terrible Towels.
Lewis never considered his first start would come against one of the league’s most feared defenses.
”Part of my childhood dream was to be a starter one day in the NFL. Who it was against, I didn’t have a visual of that,” Lewis said, smiling. ”But it’s a challenge and if you don’t like challenges then you’re in the wrong sport.”
With Weeden and McCoy unable to practice, Lewis spent all week working with Cleveland’s first-team offense. Although signs pointed toward him making the start, Lewis didn’t get the official word until after Friday’s workout from Shurmur, who is confident the 25-year-old will perform well.
”He’s been preparing himself to play all year even though he wasn’t on the active roster,” Shurmur said. ”What we expect is that he goes out and plays winning football.”
Weeden finished with 3,385 yards passing, a team rookie record. He was inconsistent, but Shurmur believes the 29-year-old’s best seasons are ahead.
”Now that he’s had a season under his belt, he’ll come back here in the offseason, much like a lot of quarterbacks in this league that went on to have really good careers, just pick one,” he said. ”They all had rookie years where they were much better in their second year. I think he’s shown quite a bit this year that’s good.”
For their last game, the Browns will also be without starting rookie running back Trent Richardson.
He sprained his left ankle in the closing seconds last week in a lopsided loss at Denver. He broke almost every Browns rookie rushing record but wound up 50 yards shy of 1,000. It’s a disappointing ending for Richardson, who missed all of the exhibition season following knee surgery and played most of the season with a rib cartilage injury.
Browns running backs coach Gary Brown said Richardson was never at full speed.
”Although he was running hard and playing well, he just didn’t feel like Trent,” Brown said. ”God willing he’s going to come back strong from the rib and the knee is strong and the city of Cleveland will see exactly what Trent Richardson is, and I believe that’s going to be a top-flight running back in this league.”
Montario Hardesty will start for Richardson.
Cornerback Sheldon Brown will also sit out with a concussion, ending his streak of 175 consecutive starts, the second-longest run among active cornerbacks. .
”It’s killing him,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. ”I know he wants to play.”
Shurmur said he didn’t have to radically alter his game plan for Lewis, whom he has known since they were both in St. Louis. Lewis is aware of the Steelers and their propensity to blitz.
”I think there’s enough evidence of how they play,” Shurmur said. ”We have the first game against them, plus their style of defense hasn’t changed in years. What’s important for Thad is to execute the progressions and get the ball off on time and not rush things, just be urgent and go play his game.”
Pittsburgh has never been a forgiving place for any quarterbacks, and especially ones from Cleveland.
In the 2008 season finale at Pittsburgh, injuries forced the Browns to start fourth-stringer Bruce Gradkowski, who passed for 18 yards, was sacked three times and posted a 1.0 rating in a 31-0 loss.
Last year, McCoy’s season ended after he sustained a concussion in the fourth quarter when Harrison leveled him on a jarring tackle late in a loss at Heinz Field.
Lewis knows he has to be wary of Harrison and Polamalu, who both seem to be all over the field.
However, he’s not worried about Harrison.
”You’ve got on a helmet and shoulder pads and if a guy is going to hit you or if you get hit, that’s what the pads is for, to protect you,” he said. ”You’ve got to be tough at the quarterback position. You’ve got to get up, shake it off and move on to the next play.”
As for Polamalu, Lewis said it’s imperative to know where he’s lined up.
”He’s going to be the rule breaker,” Lewis said. ”You have to keep an eye on 43.”
The Browns have lost eight straight games in Pittsburgh, and are just 5-23 against their biggest rival since 1999. But after beating the Steelers in November, the Browns can sweep them for the first time since 1988 and perhaps send Shurmur out on a high note in what is likely his final game for Cleveland.
”We can walk away from this season with something to brag about,” Jackson said.
Notes: Weeden, McCoy and Richardson did not speak to the media this week. … Cleveland’s 82 combined starts by rookies are a league high. Indianapolis is second with 52. … TE Jordan Cameron will also miss Sunday’s game with a concussion.