By Tony Grossi
In the victorious Browns locker room – yes, there is such a thing – Joe Haden wore the biggest smile.
“It felt like we won the Super Bowl,” said the Browns’ cornerback.
OK, one victory – 34-24 over the Cincinnati Bengals – is a long, long way from the place the Browns have never been. But after winning for the first time since Nov. 20, cut these guys a break.
The streaks are over. Eleven losses in a row overall. Twelve in a row overall to AFC North opponents. Eight in a row under coach Pat Shurmur within the division. Four in a row to the Bengals.
There was a long line of men celebrating the removal of tons of pressure on them and you had to feel for them. Relief was in the air.
Start with Haden, who made the first repayment of debt to his team for being suspended four games for an offseason positive test for Adderall. Haden’s interception of Andy Dalton on a pass deflecting off the hands of nemesis A.J. Green extended the Browns’ comeback from a 14-7 halftime deficit.
Haden also had three pass breakups. A.J. Green did have 135 yards receiving and two touchdowns (one against Usama Young), but Haden’s impact on this game extended beyond the field.
“He sparked everybody,” said linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. “It started on Wednesday (at practice). His energy rubs off on everybody.”
Then there was Montario Hardesty, the running back whose very existence on the roster has been questioned after an unimpressive preseason. Hardesty was pressed into extended action for the first time this season when Trent Richardson removed himself in the third quarter after the pain of a helmet hit to his side early in the game got worse.
The game-plan already had been established to get Richardson the ball in any way possible. He touched it 13 times on 30 offensive snaps in the first half. But his effectiveness was decreasing because of the injury.
After Richardson finally left for good, Hardesty was a key factor in the Browns scoring 27 points in the second half. Seven came on a 19-yard interception return by Sheldon Brown.
Hardesty carried the ball the final four plays of the scoring drive that gave the Browns the lead they never surrendered, 20-14, including a 1-yard vault for his first career touchdown.
Then when the Bengals responded with a field goal, Hardesty ran hard again for 14 yards, 4 and 5, to set up Brandon Weeden’s 3-yard TD pass to Benjamin Watson.
“Montario, man, you gotta love him,” said Richardson. “He is a beast.”
How about Weeden? He shook off seven consecutive three-and-out possessions (two ending in field goals) and revived his arm for the two fourth-quarter TD drives. Weeden also spun the ball through a 29 mph wind for a 71-yard touchdown pass to Josh Gordon in the second quarter – a play that Weeden credited solely to Gordon because he adjusted to a dramatic wind shear at the end and pulled in the ball with his right hand.
“That ball took a hard nose-dive from the wind,” Weeden said. “That was not an easy catch, believe me.”
Given a complete turnaround of the team’s infamous pass-run imbalance, Weeden persevered to post his first career win. He was 17 of 29 for 231 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 92.7 – eclipsing his counterpart, Andy Dalton, who threw 46 times for 381 yards and three TDs, but was intercepted three times for an 87.3 rating.
After averaging a 70-30 pass-run ratio through five games, the Browns had a healthy mix of 29 passes and 34 runs.
This was a strange game, with long droughts by both clubs followed by bursts of big plays at the end.
And the list of players who came up big for the Browns included:
Josh Cribbs, who spurred the comeback with a 60-yard punt return and added a 44-yard kickoff return to set up Watson’s fourth-quarter touchdown; Brown, whose interception return for a TD was his first with the Browns and added three pass knockdowns; Buster Skrine, who was not abused by Cincinnati slot receiver Andrew Hawkins (five catches for 35 yards); Gordon, who notched his third TD catch in two games; Josh Cooper, who had two catches for first downs in his first NFL game after being activated from the practice squad; and rookie tackle Billy Winn, whose recovery of a Dalton fumble at the Browns’ 9-yard line following an Emmanuel Stephens sack and 35-yard return made everyone breathe easier just before the two-minute warning.
Nobody had more pressure relieved than Shurmur, of course, who made it through a difficult week of second-guessing and criticism with his humor intact.
Shurmur tried hard to be stoic after his first win in 22 games against a team with a winning record on the day of the game.
“Oh, I’m happy,” the coach responded. “I’m holding it back so I don’t appear sensitive. That's a joke."
The win ushered out the Lerner family ownership of the team. Coincidentally, the Bengals were also the victims in the Browns’ last home win of the Art Modell era in 1995 and were the team against which the Browns ended their only other 11-game losing streak in 1975.
Haslam’s purchase of the club will be ratified by NFL owners on Tuesday, after which he can finally take action on matters he has been meticulously planning to change. For the first time, Haslam appeared in the locker room after the game. Haden said he did not address the team but did welcome him back.
Cribbs, for one, believes better things are ahead.
“It kind of felt like we were gonna win from the start,” Cribbs said. “Everybody felt this was our day. I think we’re on to something.”
Tomorrow is another day. Victory Monday. “It will be a lot more fun,” Weeden said.
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