MINNEAPOLIS — Quarterback Brian Hoyer got the matchup he wanted — tight end Jordan Cameron alone on the left with safety Harrison Smith in man coverage — and threw the pass he’d dreamed about as a kid. A perfect fade to the corner. Touchdown. Browns win.
The chaos of last week carried over to Sunday inside the noisy Metrodome, but the Browns silenced the crowd, the doubters and the talk of tanking the season with an exhilarating 31-27 victory.
Hoyer earned his first NFL victory in his second start with an 11-play, 55-yard drive that ended with the 7-yard completion with 51 seconds left. It was his first start for the team he grew up cheering in his North Olmsted house and during his days at St. Ignatius, and came only because Brandon Weeden has a sprained thumb.
“I just hope I did not put my wife into labor by having it end the way it did,” said Hoyer, whose wife, Lauren, is due Oct. 21 with their second child. “But it will definitely go down as something special.
“You guys ask me a million times, ‘Does it mean more playing for your hometown team?’ Yes, obviously it does, and to win and get that first win is huge.”
Rookie coach Rob Chudzinski might be the only man who appreciates the victory more. He grew up in Toledo living and dying with the Browns (1-2) and needed three weeks to get his first win. He has the game ball to prove it.
“I’ll save that,” Chudzinski said. “I’m not sure where I’m going to put that one, just have to make sure my kids don’t snag it and take it outside to play with.”
“It was good for him, he’s from Ohio,” said defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson, who handed Chudzinski the souvenir. “He knew what he was signing up for, but I don’t know if he was ready for that last week.”
The week that was featured the startling and unpopular trade of starting running back Trent Richardson (he rushed 13 times for 35 yards and a touchdown for the Colts) and the surprising decision to bypass backup Jason Campbell in favor of Hoyer, who was No. 3 on the depth chart. The new week began Sunday with pregame reports of more trade talk and a possible fire sale. Everyone assumed the Browns were focused on the 2014 draft — except the players and coaches.
“They just didn’t listen to any of the noise and any of the things that were out there, any of the negative things,” Chudzinski said. “They just continued to believe and work hard. It just says a lot about those guys, their character. They’re winners in that locker room.”
Hoyer threw 54 times for 321 yards and three touchdowns, receiver Josh Gordon caught 10 passes for 146 yards and a 47-yard touchdown in his return from a two-game suspension, Cameron caught three touchdowns, the Browns converted a fake punt and fake field goal and the defense sacked Christian Ponder six times while holding All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson to 88 yards, a 3.5 average and a long gain of 9.
“For fans to even say that we’ll tank the season, it’s a slap in the face as a player and as a coach,” Jackson said. “All the time we spend preparing, our bodies ache, the things we sacrifice, the things I do outside the building to take care of our body and so do other guys, you can’t even fathom anything like that.”
The effort was obvious from the start. The victory wasn’t a reality until the finish.
The Browns took a 24-14 lead in the second quarter, surpassing the 16 points they totaled in the first two weeks with Weeden at quarterback but without Gordon. The big plays and excitement from the first half disappeared, and the Browns reverted to their old ways for much of the second half. Interceptions, sacks and untimely penalties robbed them of scoring chances.
Until the finish.
Hoyer took over at the Cleveland 45-yard line with 3:21 left. A field goal would’ve tied the game and possibly forced overtime, but that was in doubt with kicker Billy Cundiff idled by a strained quadriceps.
“I was thinking that we need a touchdown,” Hoyer said. “I told those guys in the huddle, ‘Let’s just go win it right here.’”
He had thrown three interceptions since the last points, and the final drive started with a drop by receiver Davone Bess and an incompletion under pressure. But Hoyer wasn’t fazed.
He hit Gordon for 11 yards on a slant. Fullback Chris Ogbonnaya made a Vikings defender miss and picked up 11 after a short pass. Hoyer hit Cameron on a cross for 14 yards and Gordon on an in for 12 yards to the 7.
Two throws out of bounds followed, then Hoyer saw Cameron and the Vikings (0-3) right where he wanted them.
“You just have to let Jordan go out and win, and he did,” Hoyer said. “He did a great job.”
Hoyer held for the extra point and punter Spencer Lanning made it a four-point game. Lanning, acting in his usually role of holder, threw an 11-yard touchdown to Cameron in the second quarter when the Vikings failed to cover him split wide on a fake field goal.
When safety T.J. Ward (eight tackles, an interception) knocked down a Ponder prayer at the goal line and defensive end Desmond Bryant sacked Ponder on the final two plays, Cleveland’s first win since Dec. 9 was secured.
A chest-bump between Bryant and left tackle Joe Thomas served as a 622-pound exclamation point in midair.
Hoyer spent three years as Tom Brady’s backup and was cut three times between August and May. He doesn’t have the strongest arm, isn’t the biggest guy and isn’t the best athlete. But with the game on the line, he put the interceptions out of his head and won a game. He was 6-for-11 for 55 yards on the final drive.
“This team will not quit,” Chudzinski said. “They’re true professionals and they got the hearts of lions. I’ll never doubt these guys in this locker room.”
Weeden, who watched from the sideline and is still in a brace, might be healthy enough to return this week. Chudzinski was asked if Hoyer will keep the job.
“We’ll talk about that and think that through once we get back and look at the film and get ready for next week,” he said.
The film will show a victory.
“Brian gave us a spark today and did a great job, made the plays down the stretch when you had to make the plays,” Chudzinski said. “Just all those guys in that huddle, looking in their eyes right before that drive, they believed.”
Hoyer was the 19th quarterback to start for the Browns since 1999. He joins Jeff Garcia in 2004 as the only ones to win their debut. He knows a lot of the fans were predicting gloom and doom and had declared the season over after the Richardson trade.
“I used to think that way, too,” he said. “Hopefully, this is a change.”
Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.