MINNEAPOLIS: The door to the Browns’ locker room was closed, but that did little to diminish the din.
The raucous celebration after a 31-27 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday in the Metrodome didn’t quiet until co-captain D’Qwell Jackson stepped forward and gave the first game ball of the season to coach Rob Chudzinski.
Privately later, the rookie coach who rooted for the Browns as a child growing up in Toledo conceded that it was a very emotional moment.
“He knew what he was signing up for, but I don’t know if he was ready for that last week,” Jackson said.
It had been a tumultuous, draining week for the Browns, winless in their first two games. Starting quarterback Brandon Weeden sprained the thumb on his throwing hand against the Baltimore Ravens and Chudzinski promoted unproven third-stringer Brian Hoyer on Wednesday. Later that evening running back Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in last year’s draft, was traded to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick in 2014.
Fans reacted with outrage not seen since 1995, when owner Art Modell said he was moving the Browns to Baltimore. Season-ticket holders wanted their money back. They sent emails to the media pouring out their souls. After just two games, how could the Browns’ tank the season and start building for 2014?
Those who expected the Browns to purposely go 0-16 so they could get their franchise quarterback in next year’s draft grossly misjudged the Browns’ pride and professionalism. They forgot how much the players care about the fans who have supported them through the endless dark days. They also underrated Chudzinski.
“Everyone believes in Chud; everyone believes he can get it done and turn it around,” said Browns rookie defensive back Josh Aubrey, who ran 34 yards for a first down on a fake punt in the second quarter that helped set up a field goal.
On Wednesday night, Chudzinksi brought up the 2007 season when he was Browns offensive coordinator and starting quarterback Charlie Frye was benched at halftime of a 34-7 loss to the Steelers and traded two days later. With Derek Anderson at quarterback, the Browns defeated Cincinnati 51-45 the next week, went on to finish 10-6 and just missed the playoffs.
On Sunday, the Browns succeeded under odds that seemed just as insurmountable.
“Sometimes through chaos comes order,” Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said afterward. “Obviously the Browns came out ready to play. I think everyone was crazy for [under]estimating these guys.”
Running back Willis McGahee, signed Thursday to replace Richardson, played under Chudzinski in 2001-02 when he was offensive coordinator at the University of Miami. McGahee said Chudzinski convinced the Browns to tune out the negativity and carry on.
“He told everybody he has faith in us,” McGahee said. “ ‘It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks on the outside. It’s what goes on in here. You start on the inside.’ I think everybody took that to heart and went out and played.”
Six-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said he has been excited about Chudzinski since he was hired on Jan. 10.
“He’s the type of coach you need to lead you through the rough water when you have adversity,” Thomas said. “He’s the guy who points to the mission and makes sure everybody’s on board and working towards the same goal. He helps you understand how to eliminate the distractions.”
Thomas might not have been surprised that Chudzinski came into the game in full attack mode, calling for a fake punt and a fake field goal, the latter resulting in punter/holder Spencer Lanning’s 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Cameron. But Jackson was.
“Coach Chud preaches he’s going to attack. He made some gutsy calls today. If they don’t work, with everything that happened this week, he was in for it,” Jackson said. “It shows you who he is.”
Chudzinski seemed to go out of his way to show his players his faith in them by taking such risks, confident they could pull it off. He also got them to realize that Browns fans deserve a team that tries to win.
“We owe it to the city of Cleveland, they’ve supported us and we want them to be behind us,” running back Chris Ogbonnaya said.
When Chudzinski headed to the bus with his game ball packed away, determined to make sure his three children don’t take it outside and play with it, he wasn’t gloating. He quietly accepted congratulations, then admitted total exhaustion had set in for him Saturday.
“We’re never going to quit,” Chudzinski said a few minutes earlier. “The guys in this room aren’t that way; I’m not that way. That’s not even in our terminology. For them to get this win in the environment we were in … I can’t be more proud of this group.”
The plane ride back to Cleveland may have been as euphoric as the first few minutes inside the locker room. After a tortuous week filled with negativity and doubt, the Browns came home with hope.
“The fans, when we play bad, some of them are hecklers and some of them are supportive. That comes with the territory,” strong safety T.J. Ward said. “Hopefully all of them feel good about this win and feel good about what we can do in the future. I know we do.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read 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.