CLEVELAND — Rob Chudzinski jogged off the field Sunday and into the tunnel that leads to the Browns locker room. The postgame speech he had visualized would have to wait. Instead, he was about to deliver the same talk given by Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur before him.
It goes something like this: It’s only one loss, the season has 15 more games, get ready for Week 2.
“There is a lot of football left to be played this season,” Chudzinski told reporters.
The message is hard for Browns fans to stomach, especially after a 23-10 loss to Miami in an opener that was supposed to set a positive tone for the season.
The Browns are 1-14 in openers since returning in 1999, the only victory coming in 2004. Thirteen of the losses have come along the lakefront. Each one crushes the city’s spirit a little more.
Many in the sellout crowd of 71,513 began to file out with 5:33 left. Hope usually leaves early at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Chudzinski’s first game as Browns coach — his dream job — ended in disappointment, just like the debut of every Browns coach since Bud Carson in 1989. It also looked like most of the season-opening debacles that have greeted Browns fans for 15 years — ugly.
Brandon Weeden threw three interceptions (two off the hands of his receivers), was sacked six times and hit 16. His last of 53 passes was thrown underhanded as he ran for his life with no receivers open.
Starting receivers Greg Little and Travis Benjamin dropped two passes apiece. One of Little’s turned into an interception. One of Benjamin’s could’ve gone for a touchdown because no one was in front of him.
The suspect secondary gave up a 34-yard touchdown, dropped two interceptions and was too soft in coverage too often.
The Browns were penalized nine times, including four by emergency right guard Oniel Cousins.
“You put in a lot of time starting in April and you get done with preseason games feeling good about yourself,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “It was important for us to come out and try to win the first one and establish winning at home. It’s a little deflating feeling to know we didn’t come up with the win.”
Weeden is like every Browns quarterback since 1999 not named Jeff Garcia — he’s 0-for-openers. Despite the three interceptions, 24 incompletions and 48.4 rating, he was infinitely better than he was as a rookie last season when he threw four picks and had a 5.1 rating.
That wasn’t nearly good enough. Weeden finished Sunday 26-for-53 for 289 yards and a touchdown. He led only two scoring drives and met with trainers after the game to assess the damage from the beating administered by end Cameron Wake and his buddies across the Dolphins defensive line.
Cousins and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz should pay for any medical bills.
“I think he was harassed quite a bit,” Chudzinski said when asked to assess Weeden’s day. “A lot of throws were altered.”
“He’s always been tough,” said tight end Jordan Cameron, who set career highs with nine catches for 108 yards, and added his second career touchdown. “I don’t know how many times he got hit — way too much — but he was tough.”
Weeden didn’t get much help from his line (he said he had never been hit more), receivers (including Josh Gordon, who’s serving a two-game suspension) or running game (Trent Richardson started fast but finished with 13 carries for 47 yards), but left the stadium in a different mind-set than he did after last year’s opening loss to Philadelphia.
“I’m more confident,” he said. “Things didn’t go great today, unfortunately it happens. It (stinks). But I’m confident in our team. I’m confident in this group of guys we have and I’m excited moving forward. It’s a long year and this one’s over.”
The Browns somehow managed to lead 7-6 at halftime. Weeden hit Cameron for a 7-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone with 28 seconds left in the second quarter, and the hope was the Browns had gotten the poor play out of their system.
The Dolphins scored touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters as the Cleveland defense couldn’t keep up its stellar start. The Browns countered with just a 39-yard Billy Cundiff field goal.
Receiver Brian Hartline, an Ohio State graduate, got behind cornerback Buster Skrine on an out-and-up for a 34-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter that gave the Dolphins the lead for good at 13-7. Second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill beat the blitz and converted a third-and-9 two plays prior to the score, and the play before that safety T.J. Ward dropped an interception in the end zone.
The Cleveland defenders followed the example set by their receivers. Cornerback Joe Haden dropped a pick on the first play of the second half.
“That ball will not touch your hands a lot in this league,” said Jackson, who deflected a pass to safety Tashaun Gipson for an interception that set up Cleveland’s lone touchdown. “When it does, you’ve got to be ready for it.”
“It touched my hands so definitely felt like I should have caught it,” Ward said.
The Browns held the Dolphins to 20 yards rushing – the second-lowest total in Cleveland history – on 23 attempts for a 0.9 average. All four sacks of Tannehill came from free-agent pickups, two by end Desmond Bryant and one each by outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves.
But the blitz didn’t hit home enough on key third downs, cornerbacks Skrine and Chris Owens allowed critical completions and Tannehill went 24-for-38 for 272 yards, a touchdown, an interception and an 82.3 rating. Most of the damage came in the second half.
“You’re going to get tired being on the field that long,” nose tackle Phil Taylor said. “But it is what it is. The defense has got to worry about defense. We’ve got to go out there and do our job if we’re on the field long or if we’re not on the field.
“We had four sacks. We missed a few. We dropped some picks. We did a good job stopping the run. But we’ve got to do better.”
The story of the game was told on the critical downs. The Browns went 1-for-14 on third down and 2-for-4 on fourth. The Dolphins were 8-for-16 on third down.
“We wanted to start the season with a bang,” Haden said. “But when you lose the first one, right now we have no time to sit here and be sad or beat ourself up. We’ve got to go in there and make the corrections and then get ready for Baltimore, because it’s a division opponent, it’s a big game for us.”
Week 2 is always bigger after the traditional season-opening clunker.
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