BEREA, Ohio (AP) — As he left the field, Rob Chudzinski looked at the smiling, young fans cheering from the sideline bleachers.
Once upon a summer, he was one of them.
Chudzinski, who grew up a die-hard Browns fan and ate a few dog biscuits in his time, heard some barks, so he pumped his fist and called for more. He then slapped a few hands and later returned to sign autographs.
His first training camp practice as Cleveland’s coach couldn’t have gone any better.
“It was awesome,” Chudzinski said, “just looking out and seeing some of those young faces out there with their Browns jerseys on and knowing how much that meant to me and I’m sure how much it means to them. That’s the kind of excitement we want out here at practice and we want to generate. Our fans deserve it and we plan on giving it to them.”
One year after they opened camp with the stunning news that the franchise was being sold, the Browns were able to concentrate on football.
On a cloudless day, quarterback Brandon Weeden looked sharp while whistling passes. Running back Trent Richardson, lighter and healthier than he’s been as a pro, darted quickly around the field to the approval of Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, who is back as an adviser with the team.
There was even a fight involving Pro Bowl offensive tackle Joe Thomas.
“Joe was in there somewhere,” Chudzinski said. “I don’t know if he started on top and ended up on the bottom or not. I was in the melee there, too. It’s training camp. Energy’s high.”
So is optimism.
Just like every NFL team in July, the Browns feel good about their chances to contend this season. But until like last year, when the announcement that Randy Lerner was selling the team to Jimmy Haslam rocked the organization to its core, contributed to a 5-11 record and led to another front office overall, there is a genuine belief that this season could be different.
“This year, this team has so much steam going forward,” said Weeden, who is hoping to build off an inconsistent rookie campaign. “We feel like we were so much better than our record last year. We have a good football team and we’re just chomping at the bit to get started again.”
Chudzinski’s presence has accounted for much of the good vibrations. This is his second go-round with the Browns after serving as their offensive coordinator for two seasons. Chudzinski has his dream job and his passion has already made an impact on his players.
“Chud is doing everything possible to be successful, and not to say that every other guy didn’t, it’s just he’s a people’s guy,” said linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. “He talks to everyone. He asks our opinion. He wants to know, `how can things get better?’ And that’s pretty impressive. A lot of guys come in and they want to do it their way or no way.
“But he’s a guy who is willing to take any opinions and he listens to you. He’s giving us that trust, so in return we have to not let him down.”
Moments after the Browns took the field, Haslam addressed the media, giving his most detailed comments yet about the federal investigation of fraud at his Pilot Flying J truck-stop chain.
During a seven-minute news conference, Haslam said he expects to own the Browns for a long time and he’s “very optimistic” about a favorable outcome of the probe, which began in April when the IRS and FBI raided Pilot Flying J’s headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn.
“We’re committed to owning the Browns for a long period of time,” Haslam said. “I understand in Cleveland there’s a great deal of uncertainty because of past history, but the fans should not worry. Our family is going to own this asset for a long, long time.”
Haslam was asked if he would remain in charge of the franchise if he was indicted.
“Our style is to be very transparent and very open,” he said. “When the government investigation happened on April 15, one of the very first calls we made was to the NFL. We’re in constant contact with them, they have been very supportive in working with us and I’d say we’re very optimistic on the outcome.”
The Browns’ chances this season will hinge on Weeden’s development and the health of Richardson, who rushed for 950 yards despite playing most of his rookie season with two broken ribs.
Richardson’s side has healed as has a shin injury that kept him out of spring practices. He reported to camp weighing 225, his playing weight at Alabama. He hopes to keep it there.
“I can’t have big weekends eating and stuff,” he said. “I got all my kids’ birthdays out of the way until we get to October. I have to stay out of Chuck E. Cheese.”
Before practice, Chudzinski asked Brown to address the team and the legend began his remarks by bringing Richardson to the front of the room. Brown, who had called Richardson “ordinary” before Cleveland drafted him third overall in 2012, praised the young back for his toughness.
Richardson was touched by the tribute, but promised not to let it affect him.
“There’s still a lot that I’ve got to prove,” he said. “I still haven’t done what I think I can do. For him to say that, it’s big hearing it from him. But at the same time, I’m not going to let my head get big. I’ve still got a lot of improvement.”
NOTES: WR Josh Gordon came up limping after he dropped a long pass from Weeden late in practice. Chudzinski said Gordon was suffering from a cramp in his lower left leg, but that he will be further examined by the medical staff. … DT Phil Taylor did not practice because of a strained calf muscle. Chudzinski said it’s not a concern. … Weeden started slowly, but made several excellent throws, including long completions to WRs Greg Little and Travis Benjamin and TE Jordan Cameron. … Little is now wearing No. 18 after swapping No. 15 with Davone Bess. Josh Gordon, who wore No. 13 last year, is wearing No. 12. He has a large 12 tattooed on his back.