Cleveland Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski earned the highest honor possible during the team's bye week: praise from the almighty Joe Thomas, the team's All-Pro left tackle.
"He’s such a good leader," said Thomas. "He’s shown smarts as a coordinator and it’s a little bit sometimes hard to translate if you’re good as a coordinator into a head coach. But 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."
Things could have easily unraveled earlier this season for a first-year head coach like Chudzinski. The team started 0-2, faced questions at the quarterback position, and traded their first-round running back from a year ago. For Chudzinski to get the team to respond the way it has -- when a lot of people thought the front office was already "setting up the tank job for next season" -- is a testament to his legitimacy as a head coach. Whereas building teams like the Buccaneers and Dolphins have faced locker room issues, Chudzinski has been able to steer what could have been a fragile locker room into one that has a lot of confidence.
Now, Chudzinski will have to hope all of his players on offense, defense, and special teams collectively put together a heck of an effort this Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals to avoid a case of déjà vu.
During Week 16 of the 2007 season, Chudzinski was the offensive coordinator for Cleveland. The Browns had a 9-5 record heading into that week's matchup on the road against the Bengals. It was basically a "win and in" scenario for the Browns to make the playoffs. Sadly, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
In the first quarter, with the score 0-0, the Browns botched a field goal attempt. On their next possession -- also in Cincinnati territory -- they faced a 4th-and-1. The Browns went for it and RB Jamal Lewis was stuffed for no gain. That sequence actually wasn't so bad, compared to what was about to come.
The Bengals had kicked two field goals in the second quarter to go up 6-0. The Browns got the ball back with 1:27 left before the half. On the first play of the drive, QB Derek Anderson basically threw a pick six -- the interception was taken to the five yard line, and the Bengals scored a touchdown one play later to go up 13-0.
With 0:57 left in the half, the offense still wanted to be aggressive. The problem? Anderson was again picked off on the first play, and the Bengals added another touchdown to go up 19-0 heading into the half. The Browns eventually lost 19-14 (see my game review here), as Anderson finished the game with four interceptions. When asked on Monday about his recollection from that game, Chudzinski admitted that the disappointment still lingers in the back of his mind:
"It was a game that we needed to win and were not able to win. Certainly that was a disappointment for us and for me, and one of those games that you’ll always remember."
This year's opportunity is a little bit different for Chudzinski's Browns. Even if Cleveland beats Cincinnati this week, there is still a lot of football left before a playoff spot will be decided. Still, this game represents a "do-or-die situation" of sorts when it comes to winning the AFC North -- if the Browns win, they are the favorites; if they lose, they will pretty much be fighting for a wildcard spot the rest of the season.
Based on the way the players and the coaches have been talking, they are all well aware of this. More importantly, and more so than in past years, they all seem ready for the challenge. The defense is starting to click on all cylinders, and Jason Campbell has provided some unexpected and perhaps unprecedented stability at the quarterback position.
Beating a Bengals team that is 4-0 at home certainly won't be easy, but look at this from Cincinnati's perspective: they obviously didn't match up very well against Cleveland back in Week 4, when they failed to net a single touchdown, only completed 29% of their third downs, and were 0-of-2 in the red zone. On top of all of that, the Bengals have lost two games in a row and Andy Dalton has fallen back into one of his slumps. Despite what the odds say (6 points in favor of Cincinnati), if anyone should be a favorite this week, it should be Cleveland.