CLEVELAND: D’Qwell Jackson stood in an aisle in the visitors’ locker room at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on Sept. 15 and delivered the speech that might have turned around the Browns season.
Not everyone could see him in such cramped quarters, the tiny space ringed with lockers divided by a double-sided row of metal stalls down the middle. But they certainly heard him.
“It wasn’t a library voice, I’ll tell ya that much,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I got everyone’s attention.”
The Browns were 0-2 and the veteran linebacker was angry. He feared they were headed for the same NFL oblivion they had occupied during six of his previous seven seasons. This was Jackson’s team now, the new regime’s housecleaning leaving him as the longest-tenured of Browns players. So he spoke up to try to do something to change the Browns’ mind-sets and their fortunes.
He told his teammates they couldn’t accept losing; that they work too hard for that. He said there were great players in that locker room and they were “better than this.” He offered hope, saying, “If you stay the course and keep pushing forward, good things will happen.”
Asked if it was as fiery as he has been during his tortured time in Cleveland, he put it in his top five.
“My emotions kicked in,” Jackson said. “I’m trying to get to the playoffs. I’m trying to win some games and we finally have guys that can get it done.
“If we don’t turn this thing around, it can be a long season. I’ve been through that with some pretty bad teams and this team is not that team. I’ve been here longer than anyone so I know what it means to Cleveland, I know what it means to me. I think the coaches were surprised a little bit. Everyone that wasn’t used to me I guess was surprised.”
The Browns responded with a victory last week in Minnesota. Then on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 17-6. Allowing the Bengals to hang around for three quarters, it looked like so many other games they have lost before. Instead, they put it away with a 91-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown drive. Their second consecutive triumph left them tied with the Ravens and Bengals for the lead in the AFC North.
The Sept. 18 trade of running back Trent Richardson might not have been the seminal moment in the Browns’ shocking transformation from 0-2 to 2-2. Nor might it have been coach Rob Chudzinski’s decision the day before to start third-string quarterback Brian Hoyer over backup Jason Campbell against the Vikings after starter Brandon Weeden suffered a sprained right thumb.
Both moves have played a huge part. But the key could have come three days earlier, when Jackson let loose. The bond the Browns have built, the family closeness fostered, the special chemistry that several of them mentioned Sunday, Jackson is being praised for that.
“D’Qwell Jackson is huge, he’s very important for this team, the way he talks to us and brings us together,” tight end Jordan Cameron said. “I think he did a great job of bringing us closer and telling us to trust the organization and where they’re going. I think guys bought into that and it really showed the last couple weeks.”
Cornerback Joe Haden said the Browns’ captains, Jackson and left tackle Joe Thomas, kept them from believing the sky was falling at 0-2.
“D’Qwell wouldn’t let it happen if he felt like we had players who were losing anything or acting differently, he’d kick them out of the meeting room,” Haden said. “We have really good leaders with him on the defense and Joe Thomas on offense always bringing that spirit.”
Defensive end Paul Kruger, the former Ravens defender who was the Browns’ highest-priced, free-agent acquisition, said the Browns have “a really good vibe right now.”
“We’ve come together as a family,” Kruger said. “It makes you really want to play for the guy next to you. I think a lot of the reason the guys are playing the way they are and working the way they are in practice is because of the brotherhood we have.”
Chudzinski said he hoped the Richardson trade would have the same effect as when the Browns traded starting quarterback Charlie Frye to the Seattle Seahawks after the 2007 opener when Chudzinski was offensive coordinator. The Browns finished 10-6 with quarterback Derek Anderson.
On Sunday, Thomas sounded skeptical.
“I don’t know. I’m excited that we’re 2-2 and we’re making a push in the division, we’re starting to win close games,” Thomas said. “The offense is picking up, we’re playing better in the last two weeks. Those are all encouraging things. It’s hard to make an assessment of the long-term ability of the team.”
Others are brimming with optimism, especially with the division race wide open. The Pittsburgh Steelers are winless. Quarterback Joe Flacco threw five interceptions Sunday for the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens in a loss to the Buffalo Bills. The Bengals are underachieving.
If Chudzinski is right, if his feeling that this could be a replay of 2007 proves on point, there will be several reasons. The impact of Jackson’s speech cannot be downplayed.
Hoyer might prove to be the quarterback of the future. The 2014 first-round pick acquired for Richardson might bring the Browns a Pro Bowler. But when they were 0-2, some players had to be questioning the front office and the direction the team was headed. Jackson convinced them to have faith.
“It needed to be said,” Jackson said. “I’ll do it again if I need to.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at https://ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.