The Browns hit the season’s halfway point in an all-too-familiar funk.
They have lost three straight games, sensational punt returner Travis Benjamin is done for the year with a knee injury, trade rumors about top wide receiver Josh Gordon persist and Cleveland appears headed toward another disappointing finish.
There’s the usual doom. Just not as much gloom.
“I feel like a lot of good things are happening,” linebacker Paul Kruger said.
Less than 24 hours after a 23-17 loss at Kansas City — a game the Browns could have won if they had minimized their mistakes in the second half — there were reasons for optimism in Cleveland.
A strong performance by quarterback Jason Campbell, making his first start in 11 months, gave the Browns (3-5) a welcomed boost after starter Brian Hoyer sustained a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 3 and Brandon Weeden played so poorly in consecutive losses.
Campbell shook off a sluggish start and finished 22 of 36 for 293 yards and two touchdowns against the Chiefs’ tough defense.
Campbell’s outing was a much-needed shot in the arm, and coach Rob Chudzinski didn’t waste any time in naming the nine-year veteran his starter for this week’s home game against Baltimore.
“I thought Jason played very well,” said Chudzinski, already on his third quarterback through eight weeks of his first season. “After looking at the tape, he was able to manage the game. He was able to escape and get out of some trouble and create some plays.
“He did a good job from a decision-making standpoint as far as protecting the football and he gave us a lift in that game, so we’re real pleased with how he played.”
Kruger said Campbell invigorated the Browns on both sides of the ball.
“He did a great job,” Kruger said. “He made plays and put us in a position to win.”
Campbell’s composure allowed the Browns’ offense, which didn’t get its initial first down until the final four minutes of the second quarter, to turn things around in the second half. Cleveland was a play or two away from an upset, but couldn’t finish the job.
“The guys did a great job stepping up protecting for him,” said wide receiver Davone Bess, who dropped three passes and fumbled away a critical punt. “Jason stood in the pocket and made some crucial, crucial throws. He had a really solid game. ... We just fell short.”
Bess’ blunder with 7:13 left in the fourth was Cleveland’s most costly miscue.
After Benjamin tore his anterior cruciate ligament, Bess took the speedster’s spot returning punts. With Kansas City leading 20-17, Bess tried to catch a punt on the run, but took his eyes off the ball, coughed it up and Kansas City recovered. If Bess had held on, the Browns would have had the ball near midfield with a chance to tie the score or possibly take the lead.
“I had it,” said Bess, who also didn’t handle a fourth-down pass from Campbell with 2:12 remaining. “When I got my eyes up to see where the defenders were, they were there and I must not have had it 100 percent. It’s just discipline. Those can be game-changing plays. It was just an opportunity I saw and I swung.”
He’ll get another swing or two as Chudzinski plans to stick with Bess as Benjamin’s replacement.
As the Browns begin focusing on the Ravens (3-4), there’s still a chance Gordon won’t be with them. The second-year wide receiver has been the subject of trade speculation for weeks and the Browns will listen to offers on Gordon up until today’s 4 p.m. deadline.
There’s a market for Gordon, who had five catches for 132 yards and a TD on Sunday. He’s arguably Cleveland’s best player, but he’s also their most enigmatic as another failed drug test could lead to a minimum one-year league suspension. CEO Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi could make a deal for the right package.
Chudzinski, though, said the Browns have no intention of letting Gordon leave.
“We have no plans of trading any of our guys, including Josh,” he said. “We’re not shopping him.”
Chudzinski’s first eight games have been challenging with injuries, quarterback changes and tough losses. It’s only been half a season and felt like several. But through it all, the Browns have shown resiliency and Chudzinski is confident his team will continue to improve over the final eight games.
“It’s been a tough stretch,” he said. “What guys have learned playing some very good teams is we’ve played — whether it’s a half, whether it’s a quarter, whether it’s a couple series or three quarters of games we’ve played very well at times. It’s a matter of consistently putting it together for four quarters. That’s what the mission is we’re on right now.”