BEREA: With a new regime at the helm, Brandon Weeden knows he must drastically improve in his second NFL season if he wants to convince the Browns he can be their quarterback of the future.
So Weeden, the projected starter, embarked on a mission this offseason to evolve on and off the field. As he continued to take all the first-team snaps Saturday during training camp, the changes he adopted might not have been obvious to the untrained eye.
His hope, though, is that the results of those adjustments will become apparent once the Browns open the regular season Sept. 8 at home against the Miami Dolphins.
If Weeden can make the big leap in progression he’s shooting for, the Browns’ path to redemption could be significantly shorter than some expect. If not, the chances for a sixth consecutive losing season will dramatically increase, and the front office will likely look to hit the reset button on the quarterback position next year.
Weeden, the 22nd overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft, realizes what’s at stake for his career and for the Browns, who went 5-11 this past season. He’ll turn 30 on Oct. 14, so he needs to earn the organization’s trust in a hurry. Two quarterbacks, Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer, were signed this spring to push him.
“I threw more this offseason than I’ve thrown probably in any offseason,” Weeden told the Beacon Journal last week during an interview at the team’s headquarters. … “I busted my tail because I knew I had to. There’s a lot of guys that are counting on me, a nd this city’s counting on me. And I want to prove that I can be the guy.”
It remains to be seen whether Weeden can show he’s a bona fide franchise quarterback. Still, he believes it’s a realistic expectation not only because his confidence remains intact, but also because of the seeds he planted this offseason.
After owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner hired coach Rob Chudzinski to replace Pat Shurmur in January, Weeden became invigorated by the thought of operating the vertical, downfield passing attack that Chudzinski and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner want to feature. With his strong arm and history of playing almost exclusively in the shotgun at Oklahoma State University, Weeden believes the new offense suits him “a lot better” than the short passing game used in Shurmur’s West Coast system.
“It was a difficult situation I think,” said Weeden, who started 15 games last season, completing 297-of-517 passes (57.4 percent) for 3,385 yards and 14 touchdowns with 17 interceptions and posting a passer rating of 72.6, fourth-worst in the league. “I was in positions where I maybe had never been before. That’s part of being in a new system, part of being on a new team, part of being with new guys, a new regime. That’s just the system they’re comfortable with. It’s not that I don’t like being under center or I didn’t like doing some of the stuff we did. I just felt like there was more there. I felt like I could do more as a quarterback.”
But Weeden also knew he needed to tweak his mechanics to maximize his abilities under Chudzinski and Turner, so he sought advice from Chris Weinke.
As the director of IMG Academy’s football program in Bradenton, Fla., Weinke tutors some of the top quarterback prospects each year. During the NFL lockout in 2011, he helped No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton prepare for his rookie season with Chudzinski, the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers at the time.
Like Weeden, Weinke was a minor-league pitcher before becoming a college football star and NFL quarterback. So when Weeden was preparing for last year’s draft, he had a 35-minute phone conversation with Weinke about their similar backgrounds, and Weinke encouraged him to reach out if he ever needed anything.
Weeden took Weinke up on his offer and trained with him in Florida for three days this past March. The focus was on two key issues that Weinke identified while watching film from last season: Weeden needed to drop back faster and avoid patting the ball with his left hand before throwing it with his right.
“My whole goal with him was to really do drills that reinforced the sense of urgency in his feet while he maintained great balance and good power position at the top of his drop,” Weinke said last week in a phone interview. “So some of the things I did was put a resistance cord on him and pulled him back to do some overspeed training in his drop where he had to fight it and still stay in a good, balanced position. I wanted him to get the feel of being able to get back much quicker and get set to throw the football quicker than he was previously. So I did a number of drills with him just in footwork, working in a small area. I talk about working in a telephone booth. The pocket in the National Football League is not very big, so you have to have a sense of urgency, being able to flip your feet and your hips to throw the ball accurately.”
Weinke filmed Weeden going through drills and reviewed the tape with him to emphasize what he needed to do differently.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re moving fast but you’re really not,” Weeden said. “You start with doing bag drills. You start with doing ladder drills. I always start with a three-step drop and just try to be as quick as you can. … When you get real long, like I was last year, you get real drawn and then you’re too deep. I was 10 yards deep last year, which makes it hard on those [offensive] tackles. So now I try to stay at 8, 8½ yards, no matter what, whether I’m in shotgun or under center. It’s just picking your feet up and putting them down. So you’ve just got to train yourself mentally. I do a lot of jump rope just to speed those things up.”
Weeden said the steps in his drop are “definitely shorter” now than they were last year, and he thinks the new pace will lead to better timing for the entire offense.
“He’s quickened his footwork,” Chudzinski said. “It’s more consistent, and he’s getting the ball out quicker because of it.”
As for patting the ball, Weeden conceded that it’s a habit he should’ve broken a long time ago because it throws him “out of whack.”
“He would get to the top of his drop and start to make his move to throw the football with his legs, but he would pat the ball once or twice, which caused a disconnection,” Weinke said. “The body’s connected, and to create maximum power it has to stay connected. And I think what he saw was throughout the course of the few days that I worked with him, I never let him take his left hand off the ball until it was ready to be thrown. In his drop, he would pat the ball and then right prior to him releasing the football, he would pat the football. I told him to put some glue on his left hand and keep the left hand on the ball so he can set it in the position to throw it.”
Weeden had a league-high 21 passes batted down at the line of scrimmage last season, according to ProFootballFocus.com, and patting the ball was a culprit.
“It definitely can’t help,” Weeden said. “I think when you pat and those defensive linemen see that, they’re going to jump when they see your hands separate. In this league, that’s what those corners, safeties, linebackers do. When they see your hands separate, that’s when they break because if you’re separating, usually the ball’s coming out. So that has to be some of it.”
Now Weeden must prove he can consistently stick with sound fundamentals under pressure.
“You hope that you’ve created enough muscle memory in your preparation and your practice time to be able to have that carry over into the heat of the battle,” Weinke said. … “So I think the true test for Brandon is now how does he make that jump to the next year and has he made the changes he needed to make and does he feel more comfortable in the speed of the game at the National Football League level? I think he’s wired the right way. I think he has the opportunity to have a very successful career.”
Weeden believes developing the right mindset is also vital to achieving success.
He thinks avoiding Twitter until the end of the season is one way he can help himself maintain focus and a good attitude. He started his ban July 19, the day he reported to training camp.
“I want to be surrounded with people that are positive,” Weeden said. “I don’t need negativity. I don’t need all the other crap, and a good way to do that is just get rid of social media because it’s turned into a negative. Like LeBron, I don’t know how he does it, or Kobe, or A-Rod, whoever it may be, I don’t know how they do it because as good as they are they still have people that want to be negative. You could say, ‘I’m going out to dinner with my wife,’ and [people on Twitter] turn it into a negative thing. It’s just stupid, so I’m done with it. It’s too much of a distraction. I can live perfectly fine without having Twitter.”
Weeden said he wouldn’t encourage his teammates to quit using social media, but he added, “We can all go without Twitter for six months, seven months.”
Stepping up as a leader, he said, is a “huge” priority for him, and he hopes to show his teammates the right way to conduct business.
“I lead by example,” Weeden said. “I’m not a huge vocal guy. I’m not going to chew you out. I’m not going to do all that. But I treat each guy different because you have to. Each guy you have to kind of know how to treat. But it’s big. You’ve got to be a leader. You’ve got to lead by example. You’ve got to do all the right things. You’ve got to work hard, be the first one in the building, you’ve got to be the last one to leave, all those things that you always hear. It’s a big piece to playing this position.”
Weeden spent three days working out with Browns receivers Greg Little and Josh Cooper earlier this month in Oklahoma. Chudzinski said he has seen “a big improvement” in Weeden from a leadership standpoint.
In the midst of all the changes the Browns have gone through this year, Weeden has endured rampant speculation about his future. That won’t go away anytime soon, but perhaps Weeden is actually better suited to lead the team now than before it was overhauled. Only time will tell.
“There’s always going to be new faces on a roster,” Weeden said. “There’s always going to be coaching changes and stuff. That’s just the way this business is. But I feel like I’m in a good position right now. I’m excited about the guys I have around me. I’m excited about everybody in this building. There’s a lot of excitement right now going on. It’s fun to be a part of it. I’m excited to be a part of it, and I’m in a good spot. I’m just ready to get going. I wish Week 1 was next week.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.