CLEVELAND (AP) On the eve of their final exhibition game, the Browns had denial turn into reality.
Josh Gordon's gone for this season. And, maybe for good.
The Pro Bowl wide receiver's indefinite suspension for another violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy was upheld on Wednesday, leaving the Browns (0-3) without their top playmaker. That's devastating for Cleveland's offense, which has struggled during the preseason and enters Thursday night's game against the Chicago Bears looking to gain some confidence.
Quarterback Brian Hoyer will start and is expected to play most of the first quarter before giving way to rookie backup Johnny Manziel as Cleveland's first-team offense tries to get its act together with the Sept. 7 season opener quickly approaching.
Hoyer has stayed upbeat and positive despite the offense's slow start this summer. He's convinced things will get better, and that many of Cleveland's issues so far have been self-inflicted.
''I don't feel we're down on ourselves,'' he said. ''The most frustrating part to us is that we do some things really well and then we shoot ourselves in the foot.
''It's not like we're going out there and just going three and out, three and out, three and out. That's the frustrating part. If we just (stunk) then I think we would kind of just be down on ourselves, but we realize what we can be.
''That's the most frustrating part and that's why we've been coming out of these games feeling mad at ourselves. Obviously we want to go out and play and execute Thursday night really well, but I don't think there's going to be any type of hangover whether it's positive or negative going into regular season. I think it's a whole new ball game when that comes around.''
Hoyer, as long as he hangs onto the starting job, won't have Gordon as a target and the Browns need their other receivers to step and try to replace the huge numbers he gave them.
Veteran Nate Burleson's return could help. He's been sidelined with a hamstring issue and will be making his preseason debut in Cleveland's fourth game, normally when young players are batting for roster spots.
Because of his injury, Burelson isn't a lock to make the final cut and needs to show he can stay healthy and be productive. Hoyer said Burleson's knowledge can help Cleveland's quarterbacks and young receivers.
''It's great to have Nate back out here,'' Hoyer said. ''Obviously, we got to see him out here earlier in the spring and to have him back out here another veteran guy who knows what he's supposed to do. Nate has had a great career, to have a guy like that around us is only going to benefit us.''
Browns coach Mike Pettine only plans to play his starters for about a quarter, but he could stretch that out if he's not satisfied with what he sees.
Meanwhile, the Bears (2-1) are hoping for a better performance from their defense after being routed 34-6 by the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks last week.
Coach Marc Trestman will rest most of his starters, including quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte and wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
Rookie quarterback David Fales, a sixth-round pick from San Jose State, will start and could play the entire game. The Bears haven't decided if they'll keep three quarterbacks - Jimmy Clausen is Cutler's backup - so Fales is trying to convince them to keep him on the roster and not the practice squad.
''I'm just excited to get out there, run around and have fun,'' said Fales, who is 5 of 7 in mop-up duty in the preseason. ''I'm definitely excited just to get in and play and compete. I've been staying involved each week, so I know the offense, I know the reads. I'm definitely excited to go out there and play. It's a huge opportunity.''
Another rookie trying to make Chicago's roster is Jordan Lynch, the former star quarterback at Northern Illinois trying to catch on as a running back. Lynch has picked up 24 yards on seven carries, but will likely get plenty of attempts against the Browns.
A bruising runner as a college QB, Lynch is hoping to show the Bears he can make the transition to a new position and be just as physical. He hasn't had many chances to show what he can do in practice and is looking forward to running at - and around - the Browns.
''We don't really hit in practice, but there's some thudding going on and you can kind of tell and get a judgment of that,'' he said. ''I'm always out there, high-effort guy, always going out there full speed and I think they know what they have in me.''
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