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Browns think Weeden, rookies can lead offense out of the dark ages

BEREA, OHIO -- It happens for all of them, sooner or later: the Welcome to the NFL Moment, the moment that smacks every rookie hotshot across the face and says, Son, you're not in college anymore. For Brandon Weeden that moment came during his very first practice in Browns training camp in late July. "We were running a six-yard hitch to my right side," said the Browns' rookie starting quarterback. "Joe Haden was playing cushion, probably eight yards off -- and I just turned my back a little bit to throw a quick hitch out there, and he leaped in, and batted the ball down. I just shook my head and said, 'Wow.' That never happens in college."

It is late afternoon, the hazy Midwestern sun is fading into the distant hills, and here, sitting on a bench just off the Browns' empty practice fields in Berea, Ohio, is the 28-year-old gunslinger who rewrote the Oklahoma State record books a year ago and is now tasked with leading one of the boldest youth movements in recent NFL history. The 2012 Browns are expected to start four rookies on their offense, a unit that will be headlined by Weeden at quarterback and first-round pick Trent Richardson at running back. Over the last 44 years, only three teams have opened an NFL season with a rookie quarterback and rookie running back in the starting lineup. The Browns -- assuming Richardson recovers from knee surgery in time for the start of the season -- will become the fourth on Sept. 9, when they open against the Eagles.

"With the young guys we have, there are going to be growing pains, no doubt," said Weeden. "But let me tell you, I'm so pumped." The Browns' fans are pumped, too: they've been showing up at Berea in record numbers, sweating through their shirts in the 90-degree heat, to catch a glimpse of a team that went 4-12 last season with an offense that was mostly unwatchable.

But this summer there's been a great new energy in the crowds, littered with fans wearing Weeden's No. 3 and Richardson's No. 33 jerseys. The Baby Browns have somehow made Berea a worthwhile stop on the training camp tour. There's the quarterback who passed for 4,727 yards with a preposterous 72.3 completion rate for Big 12-champion Oklahoma State, there's the running back who rushed for 1,679 yards for national champion Alabama. There are also two dynamic rookies at wide receiver: Josh Gordon, who was one of Robert Griffin III's favorite weapons at Baylor in 2010 before a series of incidents ended his college career, and Travis Benjamin, the burner from Miami.

"It is kind of crazy, with all the rookies walking around here, guys you watched on Saturdays on TV," said another rookie, Mitchell Schwartz, an All-Pac-12 offensive lineman at Cal who is expected to start for the Browns at right tackle. "Trent has been on the national stage for a while. Brandon's a little more new to it, but he was spectacular last year -- they beat Stanford [in the Fiesta Bowl], which, as a Cal guy, I love. But it is a little surreal looking around, being teammates with these guys."

There are days in Berea where you see Weeden float gorgeous completions to the corner of the end zone, where you see Gordon make spectacular twisting catches and you see Benjamin's glitzy speed, and you can almost picture a world where the Browns win as many games as they lose in 2012. No one, of course, actually thinks Cleveland could be a real AFC sleeper, not in a division with two titans, the Steelers and the Ravens, and the rising Bengals, and not with a cruel schedule that's the third-toughest in the NFL.

But here's why the great experiment in Cleveland might actually work better than anyone thinks: the Browns will go as far as their quarterback, the most important rookie on the team, can take them. And Brandon Weeden could not be more prepared for this moment.

"I always got so ticked off when people said it was the system," Weeden said. "Well, if it was the system, everyone would be running it and scoring a ton of points."

Weeden is talking about the breathless Oklahoma State offense he led the last two seasons in Stillwater. He put up mind-boggling numbers, but few outside Stillwater seemed interested in giving him his due -- everyone seemed to want to attribute his success to the system at Oklahoma State. "The thing about that," said Mike Gundy, the Oklahoma State head coach, "when Brandon was going to start, I decided to change offenses to fit Brandon's style of play. We tailored the offense to be a pocket-style passing team -- we just eliminated any passes on the move, we just let him sit in the pocket and throw it, and let him make a decision based on what the defense was trying to present him to stop us.

"The reason why we could do that is that there just aren't many guys walking the face of the earth who throw the ball like Brandon does. I've been coaching for over 20 years, I've played against some great ones, but I've never seen anyone like him. He can throw the deep ball on time, he can throw the line drive, he can throw the short ball, the screen, the quick ball. He does it all."

Leading up to the draft, Gundy fielded calls from NFL teams that didn't really know what to make of this quarterback who spent five years in the Yankees minor league system as a pitcher before joining the Cowboys in 2007. "When the scouts and coaches and owners would call, they had concerns about his age," says Gundy. "My opinion was, his age is an advantage, because he's not 22, 23 years old, where those young guys get a lot of money, they're single, they're young, they go out at night, they live the lifestyle. He's older, he's more mature, he's married, he goes home, he studies the game.

"The other thing is that he's very healthy," says Gundy. "He didn't get hit here. He didn't take many hits because we get rid of the ball so fast, because the system's set up that way. There were concerns about him not having many years left. He hasn't taken as many hits as some of these quarterbacks that were taken who were 22, 23. I see him having six or eight years left."

Gundy believes that Weeden's great gift, aside from his arm, is his short-term memory: "That comes from his many years of being a pitcher in baseball -- he talks about it all the time, you give up a home run and you have to go back on the mound and shake it off. He's carried that approach to football. He made mistakes, but he could also wipe the slate clean really fast."

Weeden will rely on that short-term memory this year -- things could get ugly fast as the Browns open up with a brutal stretch of games that includes the Eagles, Bengals, Giants and Ravens. And Weeden and the offense won't get much help from the Browns defense, which struggled last year and has struggled this summer, and might see cornerback Joe Haden suspended after a failed drug test, which would be devastating.

But when it comes to their quarterback, the Browns love what they see so far. They love how he commands the huddle, they love how he isn't afraid to pull guys aside. "I think he's very comfortable in his role as a guy to lead the team," said Browns coach Pat Shurmur. "I see him make progress every practice -- I see him not repeating mistakes. He's got a very strong arm, he's accurate, he's a very fine thrower -- I think that in itself will give him the chance to develop quickly. But we do need to remember: he's still a rookie."

With all the love in Berea, with all the excitement in Cleveland, it may be easy to forget that there will be a lot of losing before the winning begins. But Weeden and the Baby Browns have already given the great football city and the long-suffering faithful there something they haven't had in a long time: hope.

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