By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: The Browns have endured a roller-coaster ride of a season thus far, but they’re still in position to enter the playoff discussion if they can maintain their momentum coming off a bye this weekend.
The players certainly deserve credit for hanging tough, though they’re identifying first-year head coach Rob Chudzinski as a major reason the team has a record of 4-5 at its break.
The possibility for many more losses seemed to be strong, considering the Browns started the season 0-2 and faced potential distractions when the organization traded running back Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in last year’s draft, to the Indianapolis Colts Sept. 18 and speculation that wide receiver Josh Gordon would be subsequently dealt spread like wildfire. Not to mention the team was on its third starting quarterback by Week 8 after Brandon Weeden sprained his right thumb, Brian Hoyer spearheaded back-to-back wins before suffering a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and Weeden returned to the lineup for two games until he was benched in favor of Jason Campbell because of poor performances.
Chudzinski, through it all, never wavered.
“With Trent, the big trade with him, the different quarterbacks, [Chudzinski has] dealt with it all up front and he has never swayed away from his message and how we're going to attack people regardless of who was in the game,” inside linebacker and defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson said. “So that's when we started to realize, ‘You know what? He has a lot of trust in what he's doing and what the position coaches are doing.’ And we didn't miss a beat.”
The Browns lost two games in a row to start the season, went on a three-game winning streak and then a three-game skid before triumphing over the defending Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens 24-18 on Sunday to give themselves legitimate hope of making a run during their final seven games. The AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals (6-3) will visit the Ravens (3-5) on Sunday. The Browns will play their next game Nov. 17 at Cincinnati, a showdown that could have significant postseason implications.
“There’s been a lot of things that happened and a lot of things going on, different situations, some unique, some that you expect and some things that don’t happen very often that we’ve had,” Chudzinski said. “I go back to the kind of people that we have here and the identity that we’re creating. It’s a resilient group.
“They haven’t flinched. Whatever happens, what we talk as coaches to them about is how you respond to the things that happen. It’s not what happens, it’s how you respond to it. That’s the approach we’ve taken, and these guys have bought into it. And you see them bouncing back and continuing to play hard.”
But Chudzinski, a 45-year-old Toledo native, is not satisfied.
He wants the team to be better on third downs. In third-down efficiency, the offense was ranked 29th (33.3 percent) and the defense 31st (46.1 percent) through Week 9. He’s not happy with a ranking of 31st in red-zone defense (68.0 touchdown percentage) or a ranking of 25th in rushing (81.6 yards per game).
“There’s a lot of things that we need to improve on,” said Chudzinski, who had two previous tours with the Browns as an assistant coach. “We’re still a work in progress in that way. I expect us to keep improving like we need to. This bye week gives us a chance to look at our personnel. Are we doing the right things with them? Is there some things that we can do better and put them in better position? Because as coach, I believe that we always want to put our guys and try to put our guys in the best position for them to succeed, which will give us the best chance of succeeding.”
The players trust Chudzinski will deliver.
“The proof is pretty much in the pudding,” free safety Tashaun Gipson said. “What coach Chud came in here and told us was he’s going to give us the best opportunity and the best chance to win football games. This is his team, and he’s the leader of this team. He definitely said he’s going to put us in the best positions, the best situations and the best guys are going to be out there. So far, he’s definitely been a man of his word.”
He also hasn’t strayed from his philosophy.
“I think from Day One he has done a great job of getting our attention first and then not only that, but backing up his words,” Jackson said. “He told us from Day One we were going to be an attack-style team, that we were going to go for it on fourth down and we were going to take some chances in the kicking game, and everything thus far has held true. And that goes a long way throughout the locker room, especially for a guy like myself. I've had a lot of coaches say one thing, and then depending on how the season goes you’re entirely a different team. He's done a great job with that, and that's a true testament in what he believes in.”
Heading into this weekend, the Browns lead the league in fourth-down attempts and conversions. They’re 10-of-19 on fourth down (52.6 percent), and the players embrace Chudzinski’s aggressive approach.
“When he gets in these critical situations, he’s not a guy that shies away from it,” said Campbell, who’s 1-1 as a starter this season. “It was fourth-and-goal [at the Ravens’ 1-yard line] last week, and we went for it. Ninety percent of the league probably would have kicked a field goal. It was fourth-and-1 at [the Ravens’ 43] last week, and we went for it. It just shows you he’s going all out to win. He’s not going to shy away from any circumstance or any situation. It shows how much he really believes in us as players to put us in those situations. He feels like we’ll be successful and get the job done. I think his mindset and attitude really sits well with our young football team.”
And if there was ever any question about Chudzinski’s ability to motivate players, it has been answered. He gave them a tongue-lashing during halftime Oct. 27 against the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs, and they have responded with six good quarters since then.
“We needed it,” Jackson said. “He's not afraid to say what's on his mind, and it gets us going. We're all grown men, and he doesn't call guys out. Whatever we need to have corrected is corrected, but he doesn't call anyone out. He's telling everyone, ‘This is what we need to do to win this ballgame.’
“He's a fiery guy and we're like, ‘Show us more of that. Show us more of it.’ And at halftime in Kansas City, he got us going at halftime, and we were a completely different team and this past game.”
Could Chudzinski, who played tight end for the University of Miami from 1986-90, really be that intense behind the scenes? After all, he is pretty vanilla in news conferences.
“Really?” Jackson said. “He’s a great poker player then.”
From 2007-08, Chudzinski was the offensive coordinator of the Browns, but even though Jackson was with the team at the time, he had no clue to what to expect from Chudzinski in his new role when owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner hired him Jan. 10. Jackson has since learned that Chudzinski possesses the same passion for the Browns that he had as a rabid, dog-biscuit devouring fan growing up in Toledo.
"You can tell he's from Ohio,” Jackson said. “He loves the Browns, and it's a side of him that gets us going. It's something you really don't see from a lot of head coaches. They try to carry themselves in a certain light, and he's into the game, man. You can tell his roots come from Ohio, and you can just imagine the pep talks he's given us before games and at halftime. He's calling it how it is, and we respect the heck out of him.”
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has been impressed with the way Chudzinski has handled his first season in charge of a team.
“I think he’s done a great job from the beginning of laying the ground work, a foundation, then letting guys know what he expects,” said Turner, whose resume includes 15 seasons as an NFL head coach. “If you’re up front and tell them what you expect right from the beginning, then as you go through the year, they respond to you. This team has responded to Chud in a great way.”
Chudzinski made it clear what he expects when the players and coaches return to work Monday.
“I want them to come back stronger and hungrier and be ready to go for the next seven games,” he said. “I expect us to keep improving.”
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.