By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: The Browns are in uncharted territory for the expansion era, and they’re hoping quarterback Brandon Weeden can help them stay there.
The franchise is atop its division standings through five games for the first time since 1995, the year the late Art Modell announced he would move the team to Baltimore. The Browns started their final season under Modell’s ownership with a record of 3-2 and were tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers before stumbling to a 5-11 finish.
But since their rebirth in 1999, the Browns had never been in first place this deep into a season until now. They are 3-2 and tied with the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens for first place in the AFC North.
In the wake of quarterback Brian Hoyer suffering a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the first quarter of a 37-24 win over the Buffalo Bills on Thursday night, Weeden will start Sunday when the Browns host the Detroit Lions (3-2).
“I think he’s ready to lead us,” Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said Monday after practice. “I think it was huge to be able to get a win last Thursday with him, come from behind, move us down the field a couple times when we had to, really help build the confidence and I think we’re going to see that out here next week.”
The 22nd overall pick in the 2012 draft who started all but one game as a rookie, Weeden began this season with two consecutive losses and suffered a sprained right thumb Sept. 15 against the Ravens, opening the door for Hoyer, who sparked the offense and led the team to back-to-back wins over the Bengals and Minnesota Vikings. Almost immediately after he replaced Hoyer in the first quarter against the Bills at FirstEnergy Stadium, Weeden was booed as he got off to a rough start before regrouping to complete 13-of-24 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown without an interception and finish with a passer rating of 95.3.
“We have to help him gain that confidence back,” wide receiver Davone Bess said. “He’s a competitor. He’s a player. We understand what’s at stake. He’s our guy, and we’ve got to just continue to have his back.”
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said Hoyer will undergo surgery to repair his torn ACL, though he will be examined by one more doctor before the operation is scheduled.
“We’re definitely heartbroken for him when we heard how bad it was, an ACL,” wide receiver Josh Gordon said. “You never want to see a teammate go down like that ever. It’s rough for him because he was really fighting and battling. But I think we’re definitely going to maintain and try to stay on course with Brandon Weeden. I don’t think we lost a step at all or anything like that. We’re just going to persevere through it and push on.”
The Browns have yet to acquire a third quarterback to join Weeden and backup Jason Campbell. Undrafted rookie tight end MarQueis Gray, who played quarterback at the University of Minnesota, will serve as the emergency third-stringer against the Lions if the Browns don’t add to the position this week.
“We’re looking at our options right now,” Chudzinski said. “We’ll determine that. Obviously, we have two guys that are comfortable and that have been in the system. We’ll just work through that.”
There are at least a few glaring differences between Weeden and Hoyer that will force the offense to make adjustments.
Hoyer took less time to make decisions, released the ball quicker and took fewer sacks. Heading into Thursday, Weeden got rid of the ball on average in 4.3 seconds, and Hoyer did it in 2.8 seconds, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
“It’s just a matter of trusting your receivers and trusting your arm and throwing it based on what you see coverage wise,” said Thomas, the offense’s captain. “That’s how it is throughout the NFL. You see some guys that try to scramble and make plays with their feet and take sacks. That’s just in their make-up. For Brandon, the best thing he can do is beat the coverage, be confident. He’s a smart guy. He studies hard. He has three receivers. Throw it to the guy he thinks is going to be open and just trust him.”
Weeden has taken 16 sacks in three games, including five against the Bills, and Chudzinski conceded that’s “a concern.” Hoyer took six sacks in three games — he was injured Thursday while sliding awkwardly at the end of an 11-yard run with 11:13 remaining in the first quarter.
Thomas has faith that Weeden will get rid of the ball faster and absorb fewer sacks moving forward.
“Obviously we’re always blocking our guys as long as we possibly can,” Thomas said. “So if it was a matter of just saying, ‘Hey, block longer,’ it’d be nice, but unfortunately, it’s not that easy. So I think with comfort and now that he’s back to being the starter, I think those numbers will improve. You’ll definitely see that.”
Meanwhile, the receivers must be ready to catch Weeden’s sharp passes. Hoyer has more touch than Weeden and completed 70 percent of his throws of less than 10 yards in his first two starts. In Weeden’s two starts, he completed 38.4 percent of his passes from less than 10 yards.
“Brandon definitely has that baseball arm on him,” said Gordon, referring to Weeden’s previous career as a minor-league pitcher. “He can throw it harder than probably anybody I’ve caught the ball with, probably next to [Gordon’s former Baylor University teammate Robert Griffin III] in practice, and they’re about the same. But it might’ve been an experience thing. You’ve got to get used to getting it over the linebackers and cornerbacks. I’m not really sure. He’ll probably pick up on it, but Brandon definitely has a hard ball, throws it fast.”
Bess stressed the importance of Weeden’s teammates supporting him with strong performances.
“He knows the system,” Bess said. “He had a solid preseason. I think the more and more he sits back and soaks it up and just [gets] to feel out his level of play and see how he can get better, I think he’ll be all right. We’ve got to make plays for him. The offensive line has got to protect. We’ve got to do this for him.
“As a receiver, you want to be able to catch the ball no matter who’s throwing it. That’s a staple. Obviously Brian throws more of a touch ball. Weeden, everybody knows he has a strong arm. But it’s the same system. We’ve just got to have his back.”
Thomas believes the Browns have what they need to extend their three-game winning streak instead of fizzling like they have in previous seasons.
“I think we have better players,” Thomas said. “We have guys that make plays on offense. We have a really solid defense. We have confident people. We have really good coaches at good positions. That’s the difference.”
Still, it remains to be seen whether Weeden is able to keep the first-place Browns afloat.
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.