Create an article with this title some three months ago, and the finest grain of salt visible to the human eye would have had to be taken with it. A young quarterback, who is older than Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers, coming off a mediocre rookie season, being relied on to be an x-factor for a downtrodden franchise looking to contend for a postseason spot.
That seemed about as likely as Anna Kendrick texting yours truly to hook up in San Francisco.
Fast forward just a couple months later, and things might be starting to look up for the Cleveland Browns and their “young” quarterback.
Weeden has completed 18-of-25 passes for 229 yards and three scores in the Browns first two preseason games; all of this against opposing first-team defenses. Meaningless may be the first word that comes to mind when throwing out preseason statistics, but this is a completely different story than what we are accustomed to.
The Oklahoma State product has looked like a completely new quarterback from his rookie season to this year. His pocket awareness when facing pressure has increased a great deal from the “deer in the headlights” look he had last season. This has enabled Weeden to stand strong in the face of pressure and find secondary receivers instead of either taking a sack or forcing the ball to his primary read.
That’s the natural progression you look for in a inexperienced quarterback. Even the harshest of critics normally grant rookie signal callers a reprieve when it comes to this, but considering Weeden’s relatively advanced age; many weren’t willing to do so for him.
New Browns’ offensive coordinator Norv Turner has a history of working with quarterbacks, dating back to his days with the Dallas Cowboys.
He helped Troy Aikman progress into a Super Bowl-winning quarterback in 1992 and 1993 after the then young quarterback struggled through his first three seasons to the tune of 31 touchdowns and 46 interceptions with a 14-24 record.
To a lesser extent, Turner helped Jay Fiedler lead the Miami Dolphins to consecutive winning seasons in 2002 and 2003. Anyone who was able to get water from the bottom-feeder of a rock Fiedler was, is good in my book.
Turner also had limited success with Alex Smith in San Francisco for one season. Prior to Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in Northern California, Smith’s best season did come under the direction of turner. He threw as many touchdowns (16) as interceptions, which was actually a major upgrade from previous seasons.
Despite failing at every turn as a head coach in the NFL, Turner is one of the best offensive minds in the entire NFL. I fully expect him to get everything, and more, from Weeden this upcoming season.
If Weeden is able to improve from what we saw last season, there is no reason to believe the Browns cannot be a playoff team.
They have one of the top young running backs in the form of Trent Richardson. The 2012 first-round pick seems to be healthy and ready to go this season, which is going to be absolutely huge for the Browns offense. He has the capability of touching the ball 350-plus times while putting up 1,700 total yards and 15-plus scores. That’ll take an incredible amount of the onus off Weeden and the passing game.
In reality, all Weeden really needs to be is a game manager if the Browns are going to be able to contend on a weekly basis this upcoming season. After all, they did lose seven of their games by a combined 42 points in 2012. A slight improvement from Weeden could mean a .500 season.
If fans in Ohio are okay with another mediocre season, I am sure they’ll welcome that slight improvement. If they want a team that’s in contention for a postseason spot and yes… AFC North title, they are going to have to see dramatic improvement from Weeden.
This type of improvement will only come if the likes of Josh Gordon, Jordan Cameron and even Davone Bess provide consistent targets in the passing game. Gordon needs to act as the down-field threat, while both Bess and Cameron will need to give Weeden solid possession-like production.
Cleveland’s defense possesses a top-five ceiling, especially after adding the likes of Desmond Bryant, Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo to the mix. Imagine if its offense can up its game to average status in 2013. Those extra five or six points per game could mean the difference between seven and 10 wins.
With that, the onus sits right on Weeden’s lap. He’ll need to be more than a game manager if the Browns are to compete with the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North.
If he does improve a great deal, Cleveland could surprise a lot of people. If not, it’ll probably be looking at another disappointing season; even with a strong overall roster. It will also be forced to go back to the well at quarterback once again next May.
For that, Weeden is Cleveland’s primary key to contention in the AFC this season.
Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist at Bleacher Report.
Vincent is the head sports editor at eDraft, co-host of eDraft Sports Radio (which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3-6 p.m. ET) and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus. He’s also the news director here at PFC and co-host of Football Debate Central with Ryan Riddle every Wednesday.