CLEVELAND (AP) — Shortly after he was hired as a rookie NFL coach, Rob Chudzinski looked Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson in the eyes.
In laying out plans for his first season, Chudzinski promised Jackson his team would attack — on offense and defense. He vowed the Browns would take chances in the kicking game and not be afraid to go for it on fourth downs. He assured Jackson, one of Cleveland’s most respected veterans and a captain, things were going to change.
The Browns, perennial losers, would be different. They would win. As long as they followed his plan.
“Everything,” Jackson said, “has held true.”
Under Chudzinski’s steadying hand, the Browns, kicked around and mostly ignored for years, reached the bye week looking and feeling like a different team.
At 4-5, they’re one win from matching last season’s total, and for the first time since 2007, legions of suffering Cleveland fans are talking about next week’s game in Cincinnati — not next April’s draft.
Two weeks ago, the Browns took the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs down to the wire before losing on the road. Last Sunday, they ended an 11-game losing streak to the Baltimore Ravens. Not only did the Browns beat the defending Super Bowl champions, but the AFC North’s “kid brother” as Chudzinski called his team, stood up and returned every extra shove and forearm shiver the Ravens threw at them.
These aren’t the same Browns, who have lost at least 11 games in each of the past five seasons and are on their fourth coach since 2008.
These Browns have some swagger, and it starts with at the top, from the man they call “Chud.”
An offensive coordinator in Cleveland and Carolina whose name didn’t surface as a serious candidate until the Browns hired him, Chudzinski has been a revelation in his first stint as a head coach.
In the season’s first two months, Chudzinski has effectively and efficiently handled a number of dicey topics, including wide receiver Josh Gordon’s two-game drug suspension, major injuries, starting three quarterbacks, the stunning trade of running back Trent Richardson and the uncertainty created by the ongoing federal investigation involving Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.
“He’s such a good leader,” said Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas. “Chud has found a way in his rookie season to be a good head coach. I think he probably has surpassed even my high expectations.”
Chudzinski carries himself like a head coach in his ninth season, not one with nine games under his belt. It’s helped that the Browns surrounded him with two well-respected coordinators in Norv Turner and Ray Horton, but Chudzinski is his own man. He is confident but not overly so as he’s never reluctant to ask one of his assistants for an opinion or input on any matter.
Nothing seems to rattle him. Behind those ever-present Maui Jim sunglasses, Chudzinski, who played tight end on two national championship teams at Miami, struts the sideline on game day or across the practice field looking composed, cool. During media interviews, he’s amicable and often makes an extra effort to expound on an answer.
He’s the classic player’s coach, and because he played at a high level for the vaunted Hurricanes under Jimmy Johnson, Chudzinski finds it easy to bond with his players.
“He was at The U when The U was The U,” Jackson said. “He can connect with everyone.”
But there’s the publicly composed Chudzinski and then there’s heated Chud, who after watching the Browns get manhandled and play listlessly in the first half against the Chiefs, challenged his team at halftime with a fire-and-brimstone speech.
Chudzinski as a kid growing up in Toledo used to sit outside and watch Browns games through the windows of his house to make it feel like he was sitting in the famed Dawg Pound. He can bark like a junkyard dog.
“You can tell he’s from Ohio,” Jackson said. “He loves the Browns and it’s a side of him that gets us going. It’s something you really don’t see from a lot of head coaches. They try to carry themselves in a certain light and he’s into the game, man. You can tell his roots come from Ohio and you can just imagine the pep talks he’s given us before games and at halftime. He’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind and it gets us going.
“He’s calling how it is and we respect the heck out of him.”
Chudzinski has proven to be quite the gambler. The Browns have attempted to convert a league-high 19 fourth downs, picking up 10. Against the Ravens, Chudzinski twice went for it on fourth down and the Browns got a touchdown in the first quarter and a game-clinching first down in the final three minutes.
Chudzinski’s aggressiveness has made an impression on his players, who relish him showing faith in them.
“It’s a shot of confidence for the guys,” Thomas said.
The Browns are far from a finished product. They spent the bye week working on third-down conversions, a running game moving at a snail’s pace and hoping quarterback Jason Campbell’s bruised ribs heal in time to face the first-place Bengals.
Chudzinski’s message since Day One was for the Browns to win each day, to not think past what’s right in front of them.
He had a plan, and despite some unexpected bumps he smoothed over, it’s gone the way he hoped.
“Everybody is buying into it,” said cornerback Joe Haden. “Everyone just wants to keep winning.”
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