By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Brandon Weeden’s NFL debut was doomed before it began last year.
As U.S. Armed Forces ran onto the field in Cleveland and unfurled a massive flag for the national anthem, Weeden became buried beneath the stars and stripes, and a routine warm-up session suddenly transformed into a blooper that didn’t take long to go viral.
To make matters worse, Weeden completed just 12-of-35 passes (34.3 percent) for 118 yards with four interceptions. He finished with a passer rating of 5.1, and the Browns fell 17-16 to the Philadelphia Eagles despite tallying five takeaways. It was the 13th season-opening loss in 14 years since the team’s rebirth in 1999.
“Obviously it didn’t start well getting trapped under the flag, so I kind of keep my eyes open for those kind of things now,” Weeden said Wednesday before practice. “It started bad, and I just didn’t play well.”
Now Weeden is on the verge of testing exactly how much he has improved in the past year. The 22nd overall pick in last year’s draft, Weeden will officially begin his second tour of duty as the Browns’ starting quarterback Sunday, when the Miami Dolphins visit FirstEnergy Stadium for the regular-season opener.
He’s working under the guidance of a new coaching staff and more comfortable with the vertical, downfield passing game offensive coordinator Norv Turner wants to feature than the West Coast system employed by former Browns coach Pat Shurmur.
Rob Chudzinski, Shurmur’s successor, said Weeden is “right on track” in terms of his development.
“I think he’s come a long way and really improving as a player,” Chudzinski said. “He’s grabbed ahold of the offense. I’m really looking forward to seeing him out there on Sunday.”
Weeden believes the optimism is justified. He had strong preseason showings against the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions before a disappointing performance against the Indianapolis Colts. In three exhibition games, he completed 30-of-50 passes (60 percent) for 334 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, finishing with a passer rating of 99.9.
“I think I’ve gotten better,” said Weeden, who went 5-10 as a starter 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. “It comes with reps, it comes with experience and it comes with seeing things several times because in that Philly game, it was so fast because it was my first time in the fire. You kind of get better each time you get reps, and I’m excited. I’m excited about starting year two.”
Weeden’s counterpart with the Dolphins is also entering his second professional season. Ryan Tannehill, the eighth overall pick in last year’s draft, is hoping to make a leap in progression as well after going 7-9 as a starting quarterback, completing 282-of-484 passes (58.3 percent) for 3,294 yards and 12 touchdowns with 17 interceptions and posting a passer rating of 76.1.
When Weeden played for Oklahoma State University, he went 2-0 against Tannehill and Texas A&M. In the first meeting, Tannehill was still playing wide receiver, and Oklahoma State prevailed 38-35 at home in 2010. Then after Tannehill converted to quarterback, Oklahoma State won 30-29 on the road in 2011.
Weeden sees the parallels between himself and Tannehill.
“We’re buddies and our wives got to know each other a little bit,” said Weeden, who’ll turn 30 next month. “We came from a similar situation in college obviously being two-year starters and those type of things. He’s got a bright future. He’s a talented guy. I saw it in college and obviously last year he had a good year, so it’ll be fun to compete against him.”
They’re also both overshadowed by the other quarterbacks selected in the first round last year. Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins, picked first and second overall, respectively, receive more attention after helping their teams earn playoff berths. The Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, a third-round selection, has also generated more buzz for the same reason.
For what it’s worth, Weeden also prevailed in duels against Luck and Griffin in college. He wants to show he can do it in the NFL, too, and improving to 3-0 against Tannehill would be a nice start.
“If we’re playing checkers, I want to beat them,” Weeden said. “That’s just the way my competition level is. It counted then when we beat them, and now it counts again. I want to give our team every opportunity to win whether it’s those guys or whoever else we’re playing.”
Dolphins coach Joe Philbin believes Tannehill has made strides since last season mostly because he has a year of experience under his belt. He has similar feelings about Weeden, whom he studied extensively heading into the 2012 draft.
“The guy’s got a lot of skill and a lot of talent,” Philbin said of Weeden. “I think he’s playing well. He seems to have picked up their offense well. He’s making good decisions. He’s kind of an old-fashioned quarterback. He can sling the ball. He’s got velocity, touch and we’re going to have to be on top of our game.”
Weeden also hopes he’ll be on top of his game Sunday instead of under a flag.
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.