It's not often that a modest 1-yard gain in a season-opening loss holds so much significance.
When Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson took his first handoff from quarterback Brandon Weeden three weeks ago, he carried the hopes of a championship-starved city still praying for its first Super Bowl title, while ushering in yet another new era for the floundering franchise.
The Browns, who have had one winning season and five head coaches in the past decade, traded up to select Richardson third overall in April's draft and 19 spots later used another first-round draft pick on Weeden. And by starting the two rookies right away, the Browns hope to build the foundation of a contending team with a similar blueprint to the one the Ravens used in 2008.
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M&T Bank Stadium, 1101 Russell St, Baltimore, MD 21230, USA
In John Harbaugh's first year as coach, the Ravens became the third team since 1968 to start a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back in their season opener. Four years and four trips to the playoffs later, Joe Flacco ranks second in the NFL with 913 passing yards, Ray Rice remains in Pro Bowl form, and the Ravens are one of the early favorites to win the AFC.
"My hopes, of course, are that we can have the same success that the Ravens have had — going to the playoffs the last four years, the AFC championship game," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said of his rookie duo. "I'm hopeful that these are two of the pieces that will help us get there."
But three games into their NFL careers, the rest of the puzzle looks to be very incomplete.
The Browns, who have 15 rookies on their 53-man active roster, are winless heading into Thursday night's game at M&T Bank Stadium, and they rank near the bottom of the NFL in total offense and total defense. Weeden has thrown six interceptions and Richardson is averaging 3.5 yards per carry.
"They've had to learn on the run," said Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who played college football at Maryland. "They have a lot expected of them, especially from the quarterback position. Brandon has a lot on his plate right now, and I'm sure he's feeling the pressure around here in Cleveland. ... He's handled the pressure well. He still has a lot to learn in this league just through experience and play. I could say the same about [Richardson]."
The Browns believe they are tough enough and mature enough to handle the high expectations. But still, this has been a rude welcome for a pair of players whose college teams won 12 games apiece in 2011.
Richardson, a teammate of Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw on the Alabama teams that won NCAA titles in 2009 and 2011, was the consensus top running back in the draft after rushing for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns as a junior. He lost four games as a collegian.
Weeden spent five years as a minor league baseball player before joining the football program at Oklahoma State. He threw for 71 touchdowns in his two seasons as a starter and guided the Cowboys to a No. 3 ranking in the AP's postseason poll, their highest year-end ranking ever.
The Browns were mostly praised for selecting Richardson and Weeden, but they might not have been their preferred prospects. In March, Cleveland unsuccessfully attempted to trade up for the second overall pick, presumably to select Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, but St. Louis dealt the pick to Washington. Then Cleveland was reportedly prepared to take speedy Baylor wide receiver Kendall Wright with the 22nd pick, but Tennessee drafted him two picks earlier.
Still, after missing out on Griffin, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said the Browns "had to take" Richardson because he was the rare running back who deserved to go in the top five picks.
"I'm not big on taking a tailback in the top 10. But I thought this kid was special," said Mayock, who is calling Thursday night's game for NFL Network. "And in the AFC North, where you win games 17-14 and play a lot of great defense, I think it was incumbent upon them to get a tailback that could push the pile. I loved the Richardson pick and I thought that had to happen."
Mayock said he was surprised by the selection of Weeden because he thought they would try to build around former starter Colt McCoy. But after scouting Weeden, Mayock understands what the Browns saw in him, though he said it could take a while for the 28-year-old to adjust to the professional game after thriving in Oklahoma State's no-huddle "Air Raid" passing attack.
"He is very mature and very intelligent, but he's kind of starting at ground zero as a quarterback — a lot less knowledge of calling plays, making checks and handling pass protections than most quarterbacks in the league," Mayock said. "So he's got further to go, but he's a talented kid."
Some pundits said similar things about Flacco when the Ravens drafted him in the first round in 2008 out of Delaware. Mayock was not one of them. The Philadelphia resident recalls a couple of his scouting buddies telling him that he had to go check out a big-armed kid down at Delaware. Months later, he was stumping for Flacco to get invited to the Senior Bowl.
"It's nice to have a big arm, but more important are all the intangibles that go along with it," Mayock said of Flacco, who played in a spread shotgun offense at Delaware. "I think he had a chip on his shoulder that drove him to be a better football player. And I think it's still there — and I like it."
Five months later, after Flacco earned the Week 1 start when Kyle Boller hurt his shoulder and Troy Smith came down with tonsillitis, he and Rice made eye contact in the huddle before embarking on their first NFL drive — and potentially a career-long journey together — just like Weeden and Richardson later did.