By Steve DiMatteo
A team that is able to select both its starting running back and starting quarterback in the first round of the same draft is, usually, met with all kinds of praise. And for a team like the Browns — without much offensive firepower in recent seasons — it was the best-case scenario in this year’s NFL draft.
But the unrelenting praise has had to wait. Instead, the selection of QB Brandon Weeden with the 22nd overall pick has resulted in everything from very cautious optimism to a revival in the jokes-about-being-old industry.
No one is denying Weeden’s talent, but he will be turning 29 years old during his rookie season, a red flag when it comes to his time frame for development. Luckily, he was named the starter early by head coach Pat Shurmur, giving him more time to settle into his new role as the savior — or scapegoat — of the franchise.
There always will be hand-wringing over Weeden's age, though. Granted, he’s probably not going to have a 12-year career in the NFL, but that’s not what the Browns are looking for; rather, they just need someone to stop the bleeding on offense until another long-term solution can be found.
If anything, Weeden’s age is actually working in his favor in Cleveland. Consider the factors at play as the team prepares for the season:
• The Browns are about to be under new ownership. Jimmy Haslam III has expressed a desire to bring some stability to the franchise and is not opposed to making changes in personnel, as no new owner should be. But this means everyone in the organization, even the players on the field, are fighting for their jobs. If Weeden can’t produce in his first season, his days quickly could be numbered.
• The offense looks revamped, but key pieces like RB Trent Richardson, OT Mitchell Schwartz, and WR Josh Gordon (or WR Travis Benjamin, for that matter) are still just rookies as well. Weeden is being asked to guide a young team through a schedule that, on paper, looks to be brutal.
• Simply put, Weeden is playing in Cleveland. With a tortured fan base desperate to finally see a winner, Weeden was going to be thrown into a pressure cooker no matter what. People in the city often have been accused of having unrealistic expectations, but with each passing year and another failed quarterback experiment, who can really blame them when something even remotely promising comes along?
With all of that at stake, what is a more comforting image: a 23-year-old fresh out of college, wide-eyed and slapped with an entirely new reality or a 28-year-old who carries himself well and already has dabbled in professional sports (Weeden played minor league baseball for the New York Yankees)? In the high-stress environment that is Cleveland, the Browns were smart to take their chances on Weeden. That has been obvious from the start.
He shrugged off a so-so first preseason game against the Lions only to have a much better performance against the Packers. Prior to the Browns' 35-10 victory over Green Bay, Weeden said that he and the team would look better and he was right. Call it overanalysis since it is the preseason, but the necessary leadership qualities are there and Weeden immediately becoming the elder statesman of the offense didn’t hurt.
He hasn’t played a real down in the NFL yet, but one senses a calm and poise about Weeden (also a potential by-product of his age) that would be considered rare in a younger player. The only question is how that translates to on-field success.
This experiment has been most notably tried before with Chris Weinke, and it didn’t go well. After becoming the oldest player to ever win the Heisman Trophy at age 28, he was a fourth-round pick of the Panthers in 2001 and posted a 1-14 record as a rookie starter on a Carolina team that was a league-worst 1-15. Weinke spent seven years in the NFL, though he won only 2-of-20 games in which he started in his career.
Preconceived notions and examples such as Weinke continue to work against Weeden. Critics will continue to knock him for his age, questioning whether he can become a serviceable player before time catches up to him.
Despite this, there might not be a man better suited to lead the Browns to stability. Weeden says he does not feel any added pressure, and it’s not hard to believe him. With so many things working against him, he has some semblance of relatable experience, confidence, the needed talent, and a supporting cast with upside to help overcome those obstacles. The window for success with him is small, but that seems to be something he embraces, something on which he thrives.
In other words, if things are finally going to turn around for the Browns, Brandon Weeden is truly the most qualified quarterback in years to help make that happen.