MINNEAPOLIS — A bloodstain on his lower right leg proof of a hard-fought victory, D’Qwell Jackson popped his head out of the visitors’ locker room at the Metrodome on Sunday. He needed to find a football.
An equipment manager hastily pulled one out of a long black bag. The veteran linebacker’s voice boomed over his boisterous teammates as the locker room doors closed behind him. “First team win!” Jackson called out. “Coach gets first game ball!”
Another cheer rose as Jackson handed the ball to Rob Chudzinski, the Browns’ 45-year-old rookie head coach who secured his first victory—a 31-27 road win over the Vikings—just four days after Cleveland traded running back Trent Richardson to the Colts. Sunday was about much more than getting something for the mantelpiece; this was a statement by Chudzinski and his players: The Browns can win now.
Moving Richardson, the third overall pick in last year’s draft, in exchange for the Colts’ first-round pick next spring was an investment in the future by the Browns’ new brass. But it left many wondering about the present. Going into Sunday’s game, Cleveland had an 0-2 record, a starting quarterback sidelined by a thumb injury and plenty of speculation about who would be shipped out of town next.
But Sunday, at least, was in the hands of the coaches and players, the ones who ultimately control the Browns’ fate no matter what long-term personnel decisions the front office might make. Says Jackson, “For fans to even say that we’ll tank the season, it’s a slap in your face as a player.”
Now in his eighth season with Cleveland, Jackson the longest-serving Brown and the glue that bonds the locker room. For Chudzinski, the veteran ’backer is also the pulse of the team, which is why it was important for the two men to have a one-on-one talk after the Richardson trade. Jackson said it was brief, sometime mid-week and at the team’s practice facility in Berea, Ohio. The fact that they talked isn’t out of the ordinary, but the subject matter was.
“It was about the team, how would the team respond [to the trade], and seeing if there were any issues that needed to be addressed,” Jackson says. “But there were none. There were no issues that stood out to be that I thought needed to be addressed.”
Chudzinski tried to soften the blow in the locker room—cornerback Joe Haden was among those who initially thought, What the … just happened? after the trade—by reminding everyone that the goals hadn’t changed. But the coach needed his player leaders, like Jackson and seventh-year left tackle Joe Thomas, to reinforce the message.
Even after Sunday’s win, Jackson kept reciting a line he attributed to Chudzinski: “Keep your mind on your goals, and they’ll come forward.” Another motivational message was written in marker on a cardboard box containing bags of pretzels in the locker room: “For our players. Play for each other. You have our undying support. Win!!!”
A win, of course, would have been the greatest morale-booster. And the Browns got it, even if they needed to rely on some trickery—a fake punt that set up a field goal, and a fake field goal that resulted in a touchdown—and a last-minute touchdown drive.
“He made some gutsy calls today, and if they don’t work, with everything that happened this week, he was in for it,” Jackson said of Chudzinski. “He knew what he was signing up for [by coming here to rebuild the Browns], but I don’t know if he was ready for that last week.”
No one was.
Thomas points out that ever since his 2007 rookie season, when the Browns traded starting quarterback Charlie Frye in Week 2, he’s understood that anything can happen in the NFL. But moving Richardson was still a shock. “When you go home, you wonder what’s going to happen with your future; it’s natural,” admits Thomas, who along with receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little has been mentioned in reports as a potential trading piece. But Thomas says that if you let such distractions creep onto the field, “then you are tanking the season.”
To keep things in perspective, the Browns are just 1-2. Next up are the division-rival Bengals, who just knocked off the Packers. There’s also an emerging quarterback controversy after Brian Hoyer’s three-touchdown, 321-yard performance. But the Browns are 1-0 post-Richardson, which alone says something about the direction of this franchise.
“Whoever Chud feels is the guy to lead us, I’m behind it,” Jackson says. “With everything that happened this past week, hey, they know more than I do. So I’m going to continue to lead the troops, continue to do my job on defense, and let the powers-that-be make those tough decisions.”