CLEVELAND – Jim Brown barreled through the doors of the victorious Browns locker room and glared at the waiting media.
"You all got something to write about now!" he barked. "Brighten the lights, sharpen the pencils. These guys brought the spirit back."
The legendary running back is right: the Cleveland Browns are something to talk about now. The team that everyone dismissed as road kill after it traded Trent Richardson two weeks ago is now in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC North after a stunning 17-6 win over rival Cincinnati on Sunday. Cleveland is one of the top stories of September in the NFL. They're heading into a new month with a two-game winning streak, a bold hometown quarterback and a defense that ought to be scaring quarterbacks around the league.
Tashaun Gipson, a key defensive back in a much-improved secondary. "That trade, it sucked the whole air out of the building.""People didn't give us enough credit," said
And it may have pushed life back into it. Pretty much everyone around the NFL considered the Browns' decision to ship Richardson to Indianapolis for a first-round draft pick a huge white flag signal. To the team, though, it was a red flag and a green one.
"It was a good thing for our team," said linebacker Paul Kruger. "It kind of made sense."
"It created a sense of urgency," Kruger said. "It put everyone on the hot seat. It was a reality shock for us."
The other jolt came after the team's second loss, against Baltimore, which dropped the Browns to 0-2. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, one of the team's oldest players at age 30, stood up in the locker room and started yelling.
"It wasn't a library voice," Jackson explained Sunday. "Pretty sure I got everyone's attention." He even said the coaches were surprised at the tirade.
Jackson had endured the losing before and was tired of it. Furthermore, the city of Cleveland was tired of it. "We're a better team," he told the Browns. "Don't go into the tank. Don't do that. I've done that before."
Whether it was that speech, or the trade, or the unearthing of new quarterback Brian Hoyer, or all of the above, the Browns are now as confident as they have been in a while. The defense was suffocating on Sunday, holding the Bengals without a touchdown and making Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton look jittery in the pocket. A fan base that wears a comedy of obsolete uniforms at home games – Couch, Frye, Jurevicius, Cribbs, Spielman, Sipe and yes, Richardson – now has new names to shop for: Mingo, Gordon, Skrine, Cameron, Taylor.
"We have the best cornerback in the league [in Joe Haden]," said Gipson, "and the best secondary in the league. We have a ton of confidence. If you're an offense, you're going to have to adjust to us."
That kind of jawboning gives a sense of how far the attitude has come in two weeks. Gipson said he was upset Sunday morning when he saw the NFL Network analysts picking the Bengals.
"They said this next game, we all know what's going to happen," Gipson remembers hearing. "I don't know who all was watching, but I was."
Now the Browns host Buffalo on Thursday night and a lot more people will be watching. Specifically, they will be watching Hoyer, the local kid who went to St. Ignatius High School and dreamed of playing for this team. Two weeks after being hired to fill in for the injured Brandon Weeden, he has grabbed the top job and it's safe to say no one in this town wants him to hold a clipboard again this season.
Hoyer gets the ball away quickly, accurately and fearlessly. The "game manager" label is an epithet, but Hoyer is the ideal version of it. On Sunday he threw for 269 yards, two touchdowns and converted on nearly 50 percent of his third downs. He had no interceptions.
"He gets rid of that ball," Jackson said. "The o-line doesn't want to keep blocking Terrell Suggs all day."
With Hoyer, the Browns don't have to. And Jackson calls the difference from the 0-2 team "night and day."
The added benefit Hoyer brings is his energy. The game-clinching drive came in the fourth quarter, with the Browns hanging on to a 10-6 lead. Hoyer led something that resembled a two-minute drill, hustling the team upfield and motivating teammates between complete passes.
"He's very confident and the team feeds off that," said tight end Jordan Cameron. "He was really adamant. He was telling us, 'Guys, make a play!' "
They did. Specifically, he did: throwing a 1-yard touchdown to fullback Chris Ogbonnaya to clinch the game, and by the time Browns fans realized the team had scored, Hoyer was already sprinting toward the middle of the field, jabbing his fist into the air like Brett Favre.
"I grew up here," Hoyer said afterward. "I know what these fans are like."
He was one of them. And now this city is poised for a week of sports excitement that rivals any that it's had in recent memory. The Indians are a wild-card team in the American League and will come home to play on Wednesday. The first-place Browns will play in front of a national audience on Thursday. The people who watched LeBron James go, watched Cliff Lee go, watched CC Sabathia go, and watched Trent Richardson go, are now getting something in return. It's the Indians and more important, the beloved Browns – a team that even many in this city didn't believe in until Sunday.
"We know what we have in this room," said rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo, who disrupted Dalton's pass protection all day. "We're very confident right now."
Brighten the lights, sharpen the pencils. For one week and maybe longer, Cleveland is back.
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