Steven King

Chudzinski Now A Success Story With The Browns

Created on Oct. 06, 2013 7:20 AM EST

Heading into this season, Cleveland Browns coach Rob Chudzinski was a real feel-good story.

After having never been a head coach at any level before, he was hired in Cleveland in January. As such, he was not going to be presiding over just any NFL team, but the one he rooted for while growing up in Toledo, Ohio – the one his family and friends root for to this day.

Browns fans looked at him and said with a smile, “He’s one of us.”

But through the first one-third of the season, the story has gone way beyond that. It has turned into one of the best success stories in the league. Going into Sunday, the Browns (3-2) – coming off their first three-game winning streak in six years, including a come-from-behind 37-24 decision over the Buffalo Bills on Thursday night – were in first place in the AFC North all by themselves, a half-game ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens.

To understand where the team is now, you need to understand how far it has come under Chudzinski’s direction. This is a club that hasn’t had a winning season since 2007 – in fact, it hasn’t won more than five games in any season during that time. It has made the playoffs just once in the 14 previous years in the expansion era. And even then, that postseason appearance came in 2002 when the Browns squeaked in as a wild card with a 9-7 record and dropped their first game.

On top of that, Chudzinski was viewed as being maybe only the second or third choice of Browns management. The Browns had “settled” for the Toledo St. John’s High School graduate when people like former University of Oregon and current Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly turned them down, it was perceived.

In addition, the Browns’ best pass catcher and their only legitimate, consistent downfield threat, WR Josh Gordon, was going to miss the first two games after being suspended by the NFL for using a banned substance. Considering all that, it was not a surprise at all that the Browns lost their first two games to the Miami Dolphins and Ravens, something they had done in every year but one since 2008.

Then, a week and a half into the season, their situation got more dicey – much more dicey – when the Browns traded the face of the team, RB Trent Richardson, to Indianapolis for the Colts’ first-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Browns had traded up in the first round in 2012 to get Richardson, who, despite two broken ribs, had the most impressive rookie season ever by a Cleveland running back – even better than that of the great Jim Brown in 1957.

Say what?

The Browns had surely hoisted the white flag of surrender on their season. The deal of Richardson was such an incredible story, in fact, that it dwarfed the news from the previous day that starting QB Brandon Weeden had been sidelined by a sprained thumb and would be replaced by Brian Hoyer. Hoyer was the No. 3 quarterback but, in a surprising move, had leapfrogged the No. 2 man, Jason Campbell, to be handed the job.

Say what?

Those two things put together made for the mother of all distractions. Being a new coach, there was no way Chudzinski would be able to get the Browns to focus on the task at hand in advance of for their Sept. 22 game at Minnesota. The Vikings, a postseason qualifier last year, were in an angry mood after their own 0-2 start. Playing their home opener, they were going to roll.

It didn’t happen, though. Chudzinski wouldn’t let it happen.

The Browns, using the distractions to galvanize themselves and create an us-against-the-world mentality, won 31-27 when Hoyer threw a touchdown pass in the waning moments. Returning home the following week to play the Bengals – the preseason favorites to win the division title – Cleveland won 17-6 behind Hoyer’s heady play and a stout defense.

Against Buffalo on national television, Hoyer was knocked out of the game early with a knee injury and Cleveland found itself behind 10-0 after one quarter. In their long-awaited opportunity to show the country how much they had improved, the Browns were melting right away. It was a nightmarish situation.

But Cleveland rallied for the win with Weeden, of all people, playing a key role.

Chudzinski has met every challenge thrown his way thus far. He has proven to be a good gameday coach and he’s obviously been good in the locker room, holding the team together through more-than-trying times.

He has changed the culture in Cleveland. Instead of hoping they would win or maybe even deep down inside fully expecting to lose, now the Browns expect to win. And each victory has made that feeling even stronger.

Hoyer is done for the year with a torn ACL. The Browns will now go back to Weeden – using the 10-day period from the Bills game to a visit by the Detroit Lions on Oct. 13 – to figure out what Weeden does best and then construct an offense that will allow him to be more successful than he was during those first two weeks when he really struggled.

The NFL Coach of the Year through five weeks?

It has to be Chudzinski, who is not only coaching his hometown team, but coaching it back to being relative again. And though it’s still far away, Chudzinski’s long-term goal remains the same: turn the Browns into the contending team he rooted for as a kid during the “Kardiac Kids” days and the Bernie Kosar era.

It will not be easy. But don’t bet against Chudzinski and the Browns, not after all they’ve done so far in such a relatively short period of time.

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