By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: The coaches and front office downplayed it, and some of the players followed suit. But for the most part, the importance of winning the regular-season opener was not lost on the Browns as they prepared to face the Miami Dolphins at 1 p.m. today at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“It’s not a kill shot [if we lose], but still we have to get over that hump and start winning games eventually,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “It’s not going to be all right [if we lose and say], ‘Let’s get the next one.’
“We have to win this first game. Not putting all the pressure on this, but it’s time to [man] up. We always talk about it and talk about it, and if we can’t come out here and win, then it’s not a step forward.”
The Browns have not taken that step forward to start a season since 2004, when they defeated the Baltimore Ravens 20-3. They are 1-13 in openers since their rebirth in 1999, even though all but one of those games was played in Cleveland. The Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders are tied for the second-worst record in openers during that span with four wins apiece, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The level of futility is so unbelievable that inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson didn’t even realize the extent of it until reporters brought it to his attention Friday.
“You guys are telling me I’ve never won a home opener? Jackson said. “Get out of here.”
In fact, he hasn’t won an opener at all — home or away. Jackson, a second-round draft pick in 2006, is the longest-tenured member of the Browns, meaning no current player has started a season 1-0 as a member of the organization.
“I’m very aware of the opener situation,” quarterback Brandon Weeden. “I know D’Qwell and [Pro Bowl left tackle] Joe [Thomas] are the longest-tenured guys here, and they haven’t won one, so as a player you always want to start the season off on the right foot. You want to get momentum going into Week 2 and propel you in the right direction. For these fans, we’d like to win the opener at home and just give them something to be excited about and moving forward.”
The same theory applies to a new coaching staff. Rob Chudzinski, a Toledo native and a rabid Browns fan growing up, will make his regular-season debut as an NFL head coach today.
No Browns coach has won his first game since Bud Carson in 1989. That means Bill Belichick, Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur swung and missed in their debuts.
Davis, though, guided the Browns to their lone season-opening win of the expansion era in 2004, his fourth season on the job. But the team collapsed after a 3-3 start, interim coach Terry Robiskie replaced Davis for the final five games and the Browns finished 4-12.
“That’s the danger of putting all of your eggs in one basket,” said Chudzinski, who served as the tight ends coach and interim offensive coordinator for the Browns in 2004. “Other times, I’ve been on teams that may have lost the first game and have gone on to win 13 games.”
The team’s brass is hesitant to place too much emphasis on Week 1 for that reason.
“I think we treat every game the same, and you have to do that if you’re on the inside,” Browns CEO Joe Banner said. “The important thing to us is to start to see things take hold and the team to be getting better and better and better as the season goes on, growing each week.
“It will feel great if we win the game. It will be something that you’ll see we’re going to do everything we can to do. But I think where the team is at on the progression of its development, the most important thing is to see the team playing hard and getting better every week. I think that’s our focus.”
The opener, though, can be vital to contention.
Since 1978, when the NFL adopted the 16-game schedule — excluding the abbreviated season of 1982 — teams that have prevailed in their openers have been more than twice as likely to reach the playoffs than Week 1 losers, according to the league. And the 47 Super Bowl winners have a combined record of 38-8-1 in the openers of their title seasons.
“It’s huge, especially in front of your home crowd to be able to come out there and have a good showing and build the confidence,” said outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who signed with the Browns in March after winning a Super Bowl with the Ravens last season. “It’s all about creating and sustaining momentum, and it’s something that is going to be huge for us.”
From Dwayne Rudd’s helmet toss in 2002 to Haden’s failure to get out of the defensive huddle and cover Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green in 2011 to L.J. Fort’s dropped interception against the Philadelphia Eagles last season, the Browns hope to put their season-opening woes, including a history of bizarre lapses in crunch time, behind them.
“This team is a different team,” Jackson said. “Those teams in the past, I’m not even thinking about them.”
If it’s any consolation, the Dolphins haven’t had much recent success in openers, either. They’re 2-6 in the last eight and haven’t won one since 2010. They’ve also lost their past four games against the Browns.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.