Philadelphia, PA – For Brandon Weeden, it's a unique opportunity to make the most of a second chance. The Cleveland Browns, meanwhile, are simply hoping that the third time's a charm.
The first minicamp of a player's professional career can be a very nerve- racking endeavor, but Weeden displayed all the calm and confidence of an established veteran when the Browns opened their rookie minicamp this past week. And that sweatless demeanor really should come as no surprise, considering the newest candidate to take his turn at solving the team's never- ending quarterback riddle has been down this road before.
As most followers of last month's NFL Draft are fully aware, Weeden toiled five seasons in baseball's minor leagues as a pitcher for three different organizations before reinventing himself as a highly desired passing prospect in Oklahoma State's revved-up spread attack, giving the mildly surprising recent first-round choice a rare perspective that even the two headliners of this year's diverse rookie quarterback crop -- Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III -- can't offer to their new teams.
That experience with handling failure under high-pressure circumstances likely played a big part in the Browns' decision to target the 28-year-old Weeden as the expected next leader of their terminally lethargic offense. And thick skin should be an absolute prerequisite as well, as Cleveland has been beset by one mishap after another at the game's most vital position ever since rejoining the NFL wars as a reincarnated expansion franchise in 1999.
The Browns have used a first-round pick on a quarterback twice previously since their revival, and both times it led to disastrous results. Tim Couch never came close to fulfilling his potential as the top overall choice of the 1999 draft, with injuries, a poor supporting cast and a loss of faith by then- head coach Butch Davis all contributing to the former Kentucky gunslinger's nondescript five-year tenure in Cleveland.
The team then thought it had the answer in Brady Quinn in 2009, but soon turned the page on the popular Ohio native after three seasons and 12 mostly inconsequential starts.
Cleveland also missed big on Charlie Frye, another local product taken in the third round of the 2005 draft.
Colt McCoy, a 2010 third-round pick and Weeden's chief competition for the starting job in camp, hasn't embarrassed himself as the club's main field general the past two years, but the undersized ex-University of Texas standout's arm strength and playmaking limitations have been underscored in the Browns' lackluster offensive performance.
McCoy proponents have often blamed his mediocre numbers on the subpar collection of skill players he's been surrounded with, and the addition of phenomenally talented rookie running back Trent Richardson should no doubt boost the offense's overall efficiency no matter who's taking the snaps this season. Keep in mind, however, that the Browns had a nearly 1,200-yard rusher in Peyton Hillis during McCoy's rookie year of 2010, yet still finished 5-11 and 29th in passing yards.
In fact, Cleveland has ranked 23rd or worse in passing offense in 11 of 13 seasons since its 1999 rebirth. Not coincidentally, the two times the Browns were 18th or better in that category (2002 and 2007) also were their only two winning seasons over that span.
That information didn't seem to be lost on the Browns' brain trust of president Mike Holmgren, general manager Tom Heckert and head coach Pat Shurmur, the matchmakers behind this strange but sensible union between the oldest first-round pick in NFL history and a team that's chosen quarterbacks about as well as another Cleveland institution -- The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- has selected its inductees (sorry, just the venting of a lifelong Rush fan coming out there).
Whether the Browns have finally found their Mr. Right -- and with Weeden turning 29 in October, he better be Mr. Right Now as well -- remains to be seen. While there are no reservations about his maturity and leadership abilities, his effectiveness and acumen in an NFL offense are still questions the one-time New York Yankees prospect will have to answer in his debut.
Weeden built his credentials playing in a spread system that's become the en vogue trend in the college ranks, but the results of its products making a successful transition to a pro scheme have been rather mixed over the years. Cam Newton and Sam Bradford made seamless conversions as rookies; others such as Alex Smith, Tim Tebow and Blaine Gabbert have had noticeably harder adjustments.
Having Shurmur in his corner, however, may very well work to Weeden's advantage as he attempts to grasp Cleveland's West Coast system. The current head coach was St. Louis' offensive coordinator and play-caller during Bradford's banner 2010 intro in which the former Heisman Trophy winner threw for over 3,500 yards and was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
"I like what I've seen from him just in terms of throwing the football, for sure," Shurmur said of Weeden at the conclusion of the rookie camp. "His touch and accuracy are all part of it. I think that it's kind of a natural thing, that (some quarterbacks) just know to take a little off of it because a guy's five yards away and then whether to put it on the right or left shoulder based on where the defender is so he can turn away from it."
With quarterbacks like Roger Staubach and Kurt Warner still amassing excellent careers despite late starts, the fact that Weeden was born seven weeks before Aaron Rodgers and is also older than Smith, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan, among others, may not be as much an impediment as at first glance. His age also may not be the primary reason why his window as an NFL starter could possibly be a short one.
The Browns have a whopper of a schedule in 2012, with eight of their 16 games coming against teams that reached the playoffs a year ago and only four versus ones that ended 2011 with a losing record. And that doesn't count potentially daunting home assignments against Philadelphia and San Diego plus a road test at Dallas.
The offseason has so far been unkind for Cleveland as well. Two key members of a defense that was unquestionably the Browns' backbone in 2011, tackle Phil Taylor and veteran linebacker Scott Fujita, will miss significant time this season. Fujita must serve a three-game suspension for his involvement in New Orleans' infamous bounty program during his prior tenure with the Saints, while the promising Taylor will be out until at least midseason after tearing his pectorals while working out last week.
So if Weeden struggles or can't beat out McCoy, and the Browns also falter under the heavy burden of the league's third-toughest schedule, the prospect of more tough decisions looming in the near future certainly exists. It's not out of the question that Cleveland finds itself in position to land one of the two top quarterbacks, Southern California's Matt Barkley or Arkansas' Tyler Wilson, in next year's draft. Both are at least six years younger than Weeden and have already demonstrated proficiency operating pro-style offenses during their time in college.
And if the Browns' regression continues in 2012, the chances of Weeden's support group of Holmgren, Heckert and Shurmur being split up or completely removed from power for his second season infinitely increase.
So to put it in baseball terms, a guy who's yet to step to the plate in the big leagues may already be nearing the seventh-inning stretch of his career.