- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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Those following the Browns know this vicious cycle better than anyone: A new decision-maker means a new head coach, and a new head coach leads to a new starting quarterback. This is why every comment and quote from the revamped front office is overanalyzed by the media and fans alike to see if the Browns are committed to Brandon Weeden, or at the very least, even like him.
In the end, after free agency is settled and the draft is over, Weeden should be Browns' starting quarterback in 2013. This isn't necessarily an endorsement. This is just the reality of the situation.
In other years, chief executive officer Joe Banner might have been inclined to ship off Weeden for a fifth-round pick. This year, Weeden is the best option over a weak-armed Alex Smith (who was traded to the Chiefs on Wednesday), an inexperienced Ryan Mallett and an underwhelming quarterback draft class. Those other choices cost draft picks, which is something the rebuilding Browns, who already used a second-round pick on wide receiver Josh Gordon in last year's supplemental draft, can't afford to give up.
No one is saying Weeden is a franchise quarterback. He was a disappointment last year as a rookie, but he hardly cemented himself as a first-round bust. What you can say with certainty is this: Weeden has his best chance to succeed this season. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner wants to throw the ball downfield, and Weeden's arm strength has the makings of being a good fit. It was evident that Weeden had become frustrated in Pat Shurmur's conservative play calling. The Browns are expected to stretch defenses more under Turner and head coach Rob Chudzinski.
Call it a one-year trial or a one-season reprieve, but the Browns need to give Weeden another shot to prove himself. While Banner and vice president of player personnel Mike Lombardi didn't draft Weeden, the Browns did invest the 22nd overall pick in last year's draft on him. The Browns have to try to develop him. They have to develop someone eventually.
Based on NFL history, and the AFC North division, the best way for the Browns to find success is to find a quarterback in the draft. Nine of the past 10 Super Bowl champions won with quarterbacks they drafted (only exception was the Saints and Drew Brees). Over the past five seasons, the Browns have watched Joe Flacco win a Super Bowl with the Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger hoist up the Lombardi Trophy for the Steelers and Andy Dalton lead the Bengals to back-to-back playoff appearances. And, over those same five seasons, the Browns have had nine starting quarterbacks (Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Jake Delhomme, Colt McCoy, Seneca Wallace, Thad Lewis and Weeden) and a different season-opening starter each year.
Ideally, Banner and Lombardi would want to place their stamp on the franchise and draft a quarterback with the No. 6 overall pick. But most draft analysts agree that using a selection that high on West Virginia's Geno Smith or USC's Matt Barkley is a stretch. Banner alluded to that when he acknowledged that taking a quarterback at No. 6 is not the team's focus. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. suggested Weeden might be the first quarterback taken if he was in this year's draft class, another indication why Weeden remains a viable candidate for the Browns.
"If I'm Cleveland, nobody in this draft is making me say, ‘I have to take this quarterback even though I have Brandon Weeden,'" Kiper said. "I don't think Cleveland is going to be able to find that guy."
Cleveland isn't going to find "that guy" in free agency or in a trade. Alex Smith was the top quarterback available before getting traded to Kansas City. Even though Smith worked under Turner in 2006, he doesn't have a strong enough arm for Turner's downfield passing attack. Smith has good footwork and timing. He can read defenses. He just won't provide that explosive playmaking ability, which is one reason why the 49ers ultimately turned to Colin Kaepernick.
Mallett has the arm, just not the experience. He's been linked to the Browns because, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, Lombardi had Mallett rated as the top quarterback in the 2011 draft. But Mallett, who has four career regular-season passes, could be the next Matt Cassel.
Like Smith and Mallet, Weeden has his faults as well. Weeden just won't cost a draft pick from the Browns, who have one selection in the first 67 picks this year. There are valid concerns about Weeden's instincts and his ability to read defenses (just ask running back Trent Richardson). And there's always the age factor. Weeden will turn 30 during the 2013 season, and Flacco is 28.
The new regime has handled the awkward quarterback situation the right way. The Browns haven't given the starting job to Weeden because he didn't earn it last season. Weeden's 3,385 passing yards ranked second among NFL rookies last season (behind only Andrew Luck) and were a Browns rookie record. He is one of only five Browns quarterbacks to have three or more 300-yard passing games in a season. But Weeden threw 14 touchdowns (the fewest by a quarterback with at least 500 pass attempts) and 17 interceptions (tied for fifth-most in the league).
Banner told Browns reporters at the NFL combine that the team is going to give Weeden "his best chance to succeed."
"We're telling you that we see potential that we're going to try to work with it and see what it's going to develop into," Banner said. "Some of that is just going to come from how bad he wants it. So I think we'll know a lot more than we know now shortly."
The Browns will likely add a veteran such as Matt Moore in free agency and hold a quarterback competition. It will be up to Weeden to prove he deserves to be the starter for this year and the future. If not, the Browns will end up in the same spot next year, looking for another potential franchise quarterback.