CLEVELAND: When it came to the atmosphere in Cleveland Browns Stadium, the contrast from the end of last season was startling.
With three minutes remaining, everyone was standing. There wasn’t an empty seat — or an empty section of seats — in sight. Fans couldn’t believe their eyes.
Led by a relentless defense that produced five turnovers, the Browns were leading the Philadelphia Eagles by six points. Most analysts thought the highly respected visitors from the NFC East would have disposed of the young Browns by halftime.
Seven-year veteran linebacker D’Qwell Jackson had scored his first career touchdown to put the Browns ahead, returning an interception 27 yards with 13:59 to play, and capped it with a front somersault into the end zone that couldn’t have pleased coach Pat Shurmur.
“Do you know how long I’ve waited to do that?” Jackson said later, seemingly ready to face the consequences.
Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson averaged just 2.1 yards per carry and rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden threw four interceptions, but a season-opening victory was still within their grasp.
It wasn’t the University of Akron leading Ohio State, but it was close.
Then with 1:29 left, victory was literally within the grasp of linebacker L.J. Fort, an undrafted rookie from Northern Iowa. Michael Vick’s pass in the end zone went through Fort’s hands and fell incomplete. On the next play, the Eagles scored and kicked the extra point to take the lead. Weeden returned, was picked off by former Ohio State safety Kurt Coleman for the second time, and it was over.
All day, there had been energy, there had been promise. The stadium didn’t feel like ‘Here we go again.’
But in the end, nothing changed.
The Eagles prevailed 17-16. The Browns fell to 1-13 in season openers since the franchise’s rebirth. Weeden became the 17th quarterback to start for the Browns since 1999, and the only one who sent the fans home happy was Jeff Garcia in 2004.
It was not Dwayne Rudd helmet-toss demoralizing, but it was demoralizing nonetheless. Owner-to-be Jimmy Haslam III, who sat in on Shurmur’s postgame news conference as his wife, Dee, flanked Shurmur’s wife, Jennifer, got his first real taste of the task ahead.
Making matters worse was Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, the player the Browns could have drafted if they’d made a daring enough trade offer to the St. Louis Rams. While Griffin put up the highest quarterback rating (139.9) in a Week 1 debut since Fran Tarkenton in 1961, Weeden finished with a rating of 5.1. It was the lowest by a Browns quarterback since Bruce Gradkowski turned in a 1.0 in 2008, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The Browns’ offense produced no points, with turnovers also setting up Phil Dawson’s three field goals. Griffin’s Redskins won in New Orleans 40-32.
Oklahoma State product Weeden took so many chances, he could have finished with six interceptions. He fumbled twice, though the Browns recovered both.
“I expect to play better than that. I think more of myself than that,” Weeden said. “I’ll be the first one at the building tomorrow, no doubt about that.”
Shurmur said Weeden, 28, who played five years of minor-league baseball, was not overwhelmed by his first chance on the big stage.
“I did not see a guy that was starry-eyed, not at all,” Shurmur said. “I see a guy that can play better, absolutely.”
He got little help from Richardson, the third overall pick from Alabama. Seeing his first action since arthroscopic knee surgery Aug. 9, Richardson rushed 19 times for 39 yards and caught one pass for 5 yards. He did produce what could be one of the highlights of the season, knocking off Coleman’s helmet in a second-quarter collision. Richardson didn’t seem to have his usual burst, but he was the only Browns running back with a carry. Brandon Jackson was reduced to third-down duty, and Montario Hardesty was seen little after missing on a pass protection.
Weeden doesn’t have to phone Tim Couch to know that’s not the kind of help a rookie quarterback needs.
The Browns did their best to say this was different than what fans have seen on 13 previous opening days. Yet while the defense’s effort was laudable, it couldn’t stop the Eagles when it mattered. The offense, even with the addition of coordinator Brad Childress, was laughable. And Vick, who played only 12 preseason snaps due to bruised ribs, was clearly rusty.
“The good thing about it, as I walked into the locker room I saw a lot of guys that you could tell it meant something to them,” Jackson said. “The younger guys come from programs where they won … a lot of those guys were upset about losing.”
Shurmur said he doesn’t believe in moral victories. He insisted that the Browns went out with every intention of winning, although he stuck to a conservative game plan by refusing to hand the ball to Jackson or try anything other than a double reverse to receiver Travis Benjamin.
“A first-week loss is only fatal if the guys in that room let it be because there are a helluva lot of good things that happened that we will build on,” Shurmur said.
Perhaps the outcome won’t be fatal. Weeden and Richardson could be quick studies with short memories. There might be some stars among the youngsters on defense. Jackson might even get the chance to somersault again.
But on a Sunday that seemed like a new beginning, its disappointing ending was all too familiar.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.