BEREA — One of the statements of support came from the San Diego Chargers special teams coach.
Rich Bisaccia, also the assistant head coach, sought out Alex Smith after the Browns had beaten San Diego.
“Just keep working hard,” Bisaccia told Smith. “You guys are knocking right on the door.”
A week later, after the Browns had blown several chances to beat Baltimore, their coach John Harbaugh sought out Juqua Parker, who played in Philadelphia while Harbaugh was the special teams coach there.
“He was looking for me,” Parker said. “He was like, ‘Man, you all got a good team. Just counsel them. Let them know that they have a good team.'”
After the game, Harbaugh was more pointed when he spoke to the media.
“That is a really good football team,” the Ravens coach said. “That is a very well coached football team. They’re physical. They’re tough. They’re disciplined. They’ve got all the tools. They’re young and they are building something, so whoever is here from the Cleveland media, write that. Write that.”
Would Harbaugh say something like that merely for the sake of saying it?
“I go way back with him,” Parker said. “He’s not that kind of coach.”
Slowly but surely, the feeling is creeping in around the league that the Browns may at long last be doing some things right.
But ask the players in Cleveland what they learned the first nine games of the season, and the lessons are a little more painful, a little more esoteric. It’s tough to boost your own growth when the ledger shows two wins and seven losses.
“We have talent,” Parker said. “We just need to find a way to win and to stay hungry of winning.”
“We have a group of fighters,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “We can play with anybody.”
“We got a bunch of young, talented guys just waiting to be more consistent,” cornerback Sheldon Brown said.
Which sounds like the same things that have been said in the bye weeks of all the losing season since 1999.
Early in the season, placekicker Phil Dawson said these are not the same old Browns. He still believes it, even though the record doesn’t show it. Joe Thomas, never one given to hyperbole, did not disagree. He’s lived through times when players talked through lack of hope.
This season …
“I feel it is different,” Thomas said. Every game we’ve played has been close and we’ve got weapons on offense and defense that are young, that are just now developing. Give us a couple years and I feel that those players have a chance to be some of the elite skill players in the NFL.
“That’s what’s promising to me. Versus having a bunch of aging vets saying, ‘Oh we’re almost there.'”
Youth eventually is rewarded, but for Browns fans the wait has taken more than a decade. The team has been through different coaches, coordinators and countless players who were finally supposed to be “the guy.” Either the team misjudged, or they did not stick with things. So re-start after re-start took place. This group of Browns players seem to firmly believe they are on the precipice, that if they can just get a couple wins then good things might follow.
“The fans, they can tell the difference between the years,” defensive lineman Frostee Rucker said. “Even from last year to this year, how the offense can produce, get first downs. Last year they were scratching just to get a first down.”
The tough thing for the Browns is to justify improvement without the numbers. The won-lost record is not good, and the offense still ranked 30th in the league heading into Sunday’s games.
But the passing yardage is up to 223 per game (from 193) and the Browns have scored 27 points or more three times — something that happened once in all of 2012. Also, big plays have increased 55 percent and big scoring plays are way up. The Browns had seven touchdowns longer than 20 yards in 16 games. They have nine in nine games this season.
The key to translating this much-discussed potential to wins boils down, in the players’ view, to just going through it.
“I think it’s just something you got to experience,” Smith said. “We’ve had some unfortunate games that we felt like we had in our hands and let slip away. I think going through it makes you say to yourself that you don’t want to feel that way. So you do everything possible to try to avoid those kind of situations.”
“You have to become experienced in a hurry,” Brown said. “The unfortunate thing is sometimes it takes longer than you want”
If wins don’t come, though, change might — especially with a new president and new owner doing the evaluating.
“I just take care of my own household,” Brown said. “I do know the nucleus is here, the talent is here. I just hope these guys can get up to speed fast enough before that happens.”