CINCINNATI: One of America’s favorite NFL Week 1 punching bags was lying in bed Thursday night, an iPad in his lap.
Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden had been staring at the screen for hours. His eyes were glassy. He had been watching red zone plays and dozing off and on. At one point he phoned Browns quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple with a few questions, then went back to work.
“It was about 11:30. Late. That was way past my bedtime,” Weeden said, adding that his wife, Melanie, gives him a hard time because he can’t stay awake in movies, either.
Weeden, a rookie first-round draft choice from Oklahoma State, had been picked apart after producing a pathetic 5.1 passer rating in his league debut. The number was the lowest by a Browns starter since 2008 and there have been a lot of bad ones among the 17 quarterbacks to take a first snap since 1999. Some even questioned his athleticism since Weeden, 28, pitched five years in the minor leagues and never made it above A ball.
Weeden insisted that he wasn’t listening. But the talking heads didn’t stop. On Sunday morning, ESPN’s Ron Jaworski said, “Of all the rookie quarterbacks, I said Brandon Weeden was not ready, and he proved me correct. He even mentioned it himself — his lack of accuracy. That is the most overlooked aspect of playing the quarterback position. … This guy’s going to be a player someday. He’s not right now.”
If he were listening, Weeden would have been sending a few tweets Jaworski’s way on Sunday night.
In a 34-27 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, Weeden completed his own version of a worst-to-first transformation.
His passer rating of 114.9 wasn’t the best of the weekend; that belonged to the Bengals’ Andy Dalton (128.2) going into Sunday night. But putting Weeden’s improvement into baseball terms, it seemed as if Ubaldo Jimenez morphed into Justin Verlander.
After throwing four interceptions last week against the Philadelphia Eagles, he had none against the Bengals. His completion percentage rose from 34.3 to 70.2, his yards per attempt to 8.70 from 3.37. He threw two touchdown passes after getting none in his debut or in the preseason. His 322 passing yards set a Browns rookie record, surpassing Eric Zeier’s 310 at Cincinnati on Oct. 29, 1995.
“For the most part it was a lot better than last week, but there is still a sour taste,” Weeden said, disappointed by the loss. “You’ve got to make a play here and there.”
Weeden fought back the only way he knew how, with hard work. He did manage to squeeze in dinners with rookie running back Trent Richardson on Wednesday and receiver Greg Little on Friday, but it sounded as if the rest of his evenings ended in a love affair with his iPad.
“I wish I had a dollar for every hour I put in this week,” he said.
Browns coach Pat Shurmur didn’t gush over his quarterback, saying Weeden did some things better, but he praised Weeden for being more devoted to preparation.
“Some of these guys playing college football in some of these big-time programs, they can get off the bus and win six games,” Shurmur said. “There’s a way to prepare, and these guys have to learn it.”
As Weeden forced himself to knuckle down, he was bolstered by texts from friends all over the country. One came from former Browns assistant Marc Trestman, the coach of the Montreal Alouettes, whom he had worked with before the draft. Weeden vowed to make himself a better passer and a better leader against the Bengals.
Judging from what his teammates said, he was a changed man in the huddle.
“He was on the edge. Not in a bad way, but talking to us all, ‘C’mon, hold ’em right here. Give me time so I can get it downfield.’ Or, ‘Receivers, make sure you get your depth,’ ” Little said. “Really more authoritative with everybody.”
Richardson said Weeden “was making all the right calls, making all the [middle linebacker] points, being a voice in the huddle. Brandon was acting like a real true professional, like he’d been around for a while. I know it’s not his first time being a professional, but like he’d been around the NFL for a long time.”
That’s the plan. The Browns hope that quarterback needle is stuck on 17 for years, even though no one in the front office is ready to voice their visions of greatness.
But it sounded as if Weeden went a long way in the past week to prove to his teammates he’s committed to personal improvement, to them and to winning. Count five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas among his admirers.
“He’s a positive guy. He wants to work at it; he wants to be great,” Thomas said. “He’s not going to let one bad throw affect him the rest of the game or one bad game affect him the rest of the year.”
Thomas was also impressed that Weeden turned a deaf ear to his critics, like when he said Wednesday, “I know I played bad. I don’t need the nation to tell me how bad I played.”
“I think he’s got the right idea,” Thomas said. “I think it’s important for a quarterback to not worry about what people on the outside say because if you do, you lose before you even start the game.”
For so many years with so many previous Browns players that seemed to be the case. So Weeden’s way seems encouraging.
Of course, overreacting to one good start by Weeden seems nearly as bad as the national overreaction to one bad one. Browns fans have seen the good-D.A., bad-D.A. act before with former quarterback Derek Anderson, so even success-starved zealots may not jump to conclusions.
At the moment, Weeden is merely comeback player of the week. But seven days ago, even that seemed a stretch.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.