Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson—the only Browns player who's been with the team since the franchise was revived in 1999—is stumped. He's trying to count the number of quarterbacks he's played with. "There have been a lot," he says. "I can only think of one or two opening days where we've had a return starter from the year before, and this is year 14...."
In fact, when rookie Brandon Weeden took Cleveland's first snap in Week 1, he became the 11th opening-day quarterback for these modern-day Browns. If Andrew Luck's metaphorical challenge with the Colts is to fill some huge shoes, Weeden's is to step into a decent pair of cleats from a closet overflowing with smelly sneakers, threadbare Top-Siders and dog-chewed shower sandals. Luck's predecessor, Peyton Manning, was drafted by the Colts in 1998 and started every game for the next 13 seasons. In their 13 full seasons since returning to the NFL, only one Browns passer has made it through an entire season as the starter: In 2001, Tim Couch played all 16 games, and his rating was worse than that of 23 other starters.
That Cleveland is home to such quarterback upheaval seems wrong. The position was stable for the old Browns, and you can draw a line, with just a few breaks, from Otto Graham (10 seasons, beginning in 1946) through Milt Plum, Frank Ryan, Bill Nelsen, Mike Phipps, Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar to Vinny Testaverde in '95, the last season before Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore. Over 50 years, those eight men started 624 of the Browns' 735 games, or 84.8%.
The new Browns make Taylor Swift look like the picture of commitment. They've had dalliances with rookies (Couch, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson), past-their-prime veterans (Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Jake Delhomme), projects (Seneca Wallace) and journeymen (Ty Detmer, Kelly Holcomb)—in all, 16 starters over 13 years. Who among us can forget those heady days in the fall of 2000 when there existed in northeast Ohio such a thing as a Spergon Wynn bandwagon?
Last April the Browns went into the draft intent on finding a passer they could stick with. Unable to trade up for Robert Griffin III, they spent the 22nd pick on Weeden, a smart, rifle-armed slinger from Oklahoma State. But this being Cleveland, he came with a question mark: He was 28. "If he can play six years, I might not be here," G.M. Tom Heckert said, "so who cares?"
Heckert was kidding. But this being Cleveland, owner Randy Lerner put the team on the block three months later, and on Oct. 16 the Browns were sold to truck-stop magnate Jimmy Haslam, whose first act was to announce that team president Mike Holmgren—Heckert's patron—would be leaving at the end of the year. Chances are Heckert will be gone too. And if the architect is no longer around, then a radical and nearly unprecedented youth movement in Cleveland will be left hanging in the balance.
AT THE OPENING of Sunday's 20--14 win over the Steelers—hours before he was knocked out with a fourth-quarter concussion—Weeden lined up with another 2012 first-round pick, running back Trent Richardson of Alabama, behind him. Josh Gordon, a '12 second-round supplemental pick out of Baylor, was split to the slot left. Two months earlier, when that trio took the field against the Eagles in Week 1, the Browns became just the third team in NFL history to open the season with rookies at the three skill positions. (For good measure Cleveland also starts a rookie, Mitchell Schwartz, at right tackle, and has 30 other first- or second-year players on the roster or on IR.) "I feel like an old guy," says left tackle Joe Thomas, 27. "I went from being the youngest guy on the line a few years ago to now being the oldest guy on almost all of the offense."
Because his team was so green, second-year coach Pat Shurmur streamlined his offense in training camp. "You can't put in quite as much," he says. "You can't ask them to absorb as many concepts as maybe a group of veteran players could. You try to find ways for them to have success with what they're good at."
Of those who've found such success, Schwartz stands out. An American studies major from Cal, he has a football IQ commensurate with his book smarts. "He understands [the game] so well that I'll ask him questions," says Thomas, a first-team All-Pro in each of the past three seasons. "I can watch film with just him, and we can bounce ideas off of each other. It's like talking to another veteran."
Others have shown flashes. Despite missing most of camp following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, Richardson has three 100-yard games, one more than Jim Brown—who called Richardson "ordinary" following the April draft—had as a Browns rookie. He also has six touchdowns, his most recent being a 15-yard between-the-tackles gasher that cemented Sunday's victory. And Gordon, who sat out the 2011 season after being kicked off the Baylor team for testing positive for marijuana, overcame a slow start and ranks second among rookies in receiving yards (530) and touchdown catches (four).