CLEVELAND – A couple of things were happening simultaneously on Sunday afternoon, four or five stories apart inside and on the perimeter of First Energy Stadium, and they were things that haven’t happened around what used to be called Cleveland Browns Stadium a whole lot.
Exiting Browns fans were bouncing down the concourse ramps, high-fiving strangers, smiling widely and breaking into chants — some even printable, most notably, “Here we go Hoyer, here we go.” One of their own, Brian Hoyer, has won his first two games as a starter, making quick throws and riding a ferocious defense to save a season that looked headed a bunch of nowhere just 10 days ago.
Downstairs in the Browns locker room, a bunch of football players didn’t hear those fans. They were screaming and laughing and hugging, too. Hoyer and Jordan Cameron and that defense played leading roles into smacking the Bengals back to reality, 17-6, for coach Rob Chudzinski’s first home win, the Browns first division win, a win that at very least changes perceptions outside that jovial locker room and maybe goals inside it.
The AFC North is kind of a mess. The Browns are a part of that — and that defense is playing like a mess is what it wants. Just four weeks into a marathon, three AFC North Division teams are tied for first place at 2-2. The Pittsburgh Steelers are not one of them.
The Football Gods work in strange ways — anyone associated with the Browns certainly knew that already — and upon this team they’ve bestowed a new quick-release offense, a nasty front seven and a cornerback in Joe Haden who’s playing as well as anyone at the position anywhere, giving a newfound pass rush a chance to harass quarterbacks the way it harrassed Andy Dalton on Sunday. Dalton never had a chance, so neither did the Bengals.
“We want people to know this defense…is legit,” Haden said. “If people don’t respect it, we will just have to keep doing what we do until we get the respect we deserve. We feel like we have one of the best defenses in the league.”
What the Browns suddenly have, too, is a little maturity, a little leadership and some reasons to believe. Joe Thomas played his 100th game Sunday and has never missed a snap. Thomas was careful not to jump ahead of himself after the game, but he said, “We’re making a push in the division. We’re starting to win division games and close games. Obviously, the offense is picking up.”
Thomas hasn’t been able to say that many times before.
After a disheartening 14-6 loss in Baltimore two weeks ago that could have been a win had the Browns mustered any offense at all, D’Qwell Jackson stood in front of the same guys who were in that winning locker room Sunday and asked them to believe.
“Don’t go in the tank,” Jackson told them then. “I’ve been through this with some bad teams. We are not that team.”
Two games, one new quarterback and one shocking trade later, the Browns are a whole new team. They’ve earned what’s long been missing here, some NFL relevance, and with a short week on tap, they’re four days from playing another home game against the Buffalo Bills. Because those Bills beat the Ravens on Sunday, the Browns will be playing for first place. Really.
This is an ever-changing, unforgiving league. The Browns changed quarterbacks after Brandon Weeden got hurt, traded Trent Richardson because they saw value and have ridden Cameron’s big catches and that defense to two wins. They’ve kept changing — Hoyer gets rid of the ball quickly; Josh Gordon returned from suspension and the passing game has picked up an almost non-existent running game — and they’ve found a way to get on the right side.
“We are a young team with a brand-new offense and I think every week we are continuing to get better,” Cameron said. “It’s learning the game and getting the reps. We are making the corrections, learning from (previous mistakes).
“We came closer as a team the last couple weeks. We really just tuned out all the other stuff and focused on us getting better. I think it showed the last two weeks that we are pretty resilient.”
Yes. Resilient helps, too.
Cameron, a backup the last two seasons and a big question mark as early as this season’s opener, has five touchdown receptions on the season, tied for most in the NFL. Hoyer had started one game in his career before last week; he was cut twice last season and again last spring. Jackson and Thomas and Haden are familiar names; Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo and even Buster Skrine are earning attention now. They’re earning it.
This moment of celebration, even if it does prove to be fleeting, is also well-earned. Winning just hasn’t happened here. This is just the fifth time since Haden was drafted in 2010 that the Browns have won consecutive games. A lot of NFL teams would have a hard time processing that.
“It just feels good, man,” Haden said. “It feels like the season is important. We feel like we have a really good team. We’re moving the ball, we’ve got (Gordon) back. He’s a special player. Hoyer is stepping in and doing what nobody thought he could do. And, our defense is holding strong every week and making plays. Our front seven never lets us down.”
Right now, Haden Island is one of the NFL’s loneliest places.
The Browns bandwagon, however, is currently just the opposite.