The Browns traded their starting running back, lost their starting quarterback to injury, benched one of their starting wide receivers because of poor performances, and in the meantime, first-year head coach Rob Chudzinski faces the unenviable task of preparing the team for a game.
After a wild week, the Browns (0-2) will play the Minnesota Vikings (0-2) at 1 p.m. today in the Metrodome. Even without all of the distractions, the Browns would have been deemed an underdog against the Vikings, who made the playoffs last year on the strength of running back Adrian Peterson’s phenomenal season in which he earned the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award.
“It’s about the focus,” Chudzinski said Friday after practice. “It’s about what’s important. It’s about what our goals are and what we want to do, that focus being on this game, the Minnesota game. I’ve really been impressed with our guys and how vehemently they’ve been working and focusing on going and winning the game.”
Speaking of focus, below are five subplots to concentrate on as the Browns attempt to overcome a string of unusual developments.
1. Shocking deal.
The Browns stunned the NFL on Wednesday by trading running back Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in last year’s draft, to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a first-round pick in the 2014 draft.
The new regime is obviously stockpiling ammunition with plans to secure its quarterback of the future when the draft begins May 8. The Browns now have 10 picks, including two in the first, third and fourth rounds.
“We really reconfigured the whole roster, the whole mindset, the whole approach that the team’s going to use to play defense,” CEO Joe Banner said Friday on ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike. “I think we’ll be doing the same thing with the offense going forward, and I think this [trade] was an important thing to do to get us where we want to be.”
In terms of the deal’s immediate impact, the Browns will rely on running back Willis McGahee after signing him Thursday. McGahee, 31, hasn’t played since Nov. 18, 2012, when he tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee and fractured his lower right leg while playing for the Denver Broncos, who cut him in June.
McGahee, a Pro Bowl selection in 2007 and 2011, is eager to show he still has something to offer.
“You have to prove yourself,” he said. “I’m used to it.”
Chris Ogbonnaya and Bobby Rainey are also in the mix at running back.
2. Exploring QB options.
Brandon Weeden sprained the thumb on his throwing hand in Week 2 when he accidentally smacked it against left guard John Greco’s helmet in the fourth quarter of the Browns’ 14-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Weeden has been ruled out against the Vikings, though he won’t need surgery. He could even return as soon as next week.
But Chudzinski has not committed to handing the starting job back to Weeden partly because he wants to see how Brian Hoyer leads the offense against the Vikings. On Tuesday, Chudzinski informed Hoyer that he would start despite entering the week third on the depth chart, one spot behind Jason Campbell.
Hoyer has started only one regular-season game since entering the NFL in 2009, so this is a huge audition for him. He hopes to spark an offense that has converted just 5-of-29 third downs and scored only one touchdown through two games
“Anytime you get a chance to play, you’re building your resume, you’re putting yourself out there,” Hoyer said. “So you look at guys all around the league who’ve played a few games here or there, now they’re starters, and they’re doing a great job. So I think for me, that’s kind of in the back of my mind.”
The opportunity has a special meaning for Hoyer, a North Olmsted native and St. Ignatius High School graduate.
“When you dream of playing in the professional leagues, you dream of playing for your hometown team,” Hoyer said.
3. Shuffling receivers.
Josh Gordon, the Browns’ No. 1 wide receiver, will make his 2013 regular-season debut after serving a two-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
Davone Bess will start opposite Gordon because Chudzinski demoted Greg Little primarily for poor performances on the field, although his rash of recent traffic violations shouldn’t be discounted. Little dropped at least two passes in each of the first two games. He’ll play, just not as a starter.
“It’s hard for anybody to bounce back from [being benched],” Gordon said. “But we will see his willpower and how strong he is mentally to bounce back from it. I know he’ll be great. Whether it’s next week or whatever the coaches decide, he’ll definitely be out there again.”
4. O-line’s challenge.
The Browns struggled in pass protection during the first two games, allowing 28 quarterback hits, including 11 sacks, and the offensive line will have its hands full again. The turf and crowd noise in the Metrodome can make life hell for offensive linemen.
“You put a place where it’s difficult to hear the snap count and the calls and the adjustments together with fast rushers and a fast turf, those are difficult situations to work under,” Browns Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said.
Thomas and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz will have the daunting tasks of blocking defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison, respectively. Allen had 12 sacks last season and 22 the year before. Robison had 8½ sacks last season and eight in 2011.
5. Defense’s mission.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton revealed that he used the Richardson trade to motivate his defense, and he’s hoping the tactic pays off against Peterson and Co.
“I issued the challenge to our defense to put it on their shoulders like the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, where they had to shut people down,” Horton said. “I think it’s a fantastic challenge.”
Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson believes the defense is buying into Horton’s message.
“We pride ourselves in being one of the top defenses around the league, and having to play 10 or 15 extra snaps, so be it,” Jackson said. “Anytime we approach the field, we want to take care of our job.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.