CLEVELAND — The man on the sidelines who once lived for Browns football had waited more than 45 years for the intersection of personal and professional fantasy that came Sunday.
Now, Rob Chudzinski just wants to forget the day happened.
For one afternoon, another Browns reboot gave way to the same old heartbreak in Cleveland’s 23-10 loss to the Dolphins at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“Obviously, that was a disappointing game,” said Chudzinski, a Toledo native making his Browns coaching debut. “A tough start.”
A sold-out crowd of 71,513 watched the wrong Ohio native enjoy a feel-good homecoming as former Ohio State standout Brian Hartline pulled in a 34-yard game-winning touchdown catch in the third quarter.
A day that began with larger-than-usual optimism ended with a near-empty stadium and doubts of whether the Browns — the league’s second-youngest team — can take a noticeable step forward from their five-win edition last season.
Second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden threw three interceptions and was sacked six times, running back Trent Richardson vanished from the offense after a strong start, and a defense that allowed the Browns to take a lead into the second half eventually tired.
Hartline’s catch off a double move down the left sideline — one of the third-year pro from Canton’s nine receptions for 114 yards — put the Dolphins ahead 13-10 midway through the third quarter and a one-yard touchdown run by Daniel Thomas with 6:58 remaining cleared the stands.
It was another long start to the season for the Browns, who continued to save their worst for first in dropping their ninth straight opener and falling to 1-14 in Week 1 since football returned to Cleveland in 1999.
Whether it is the start of a long season remains to be seen. The Browns next play the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens and Vikings on the road.
Asked if the setback changes the team’s outlook for the year, Richardson replied, “No, no.”
“We’ve got pride,” he said. "This time last year, if this had happened, we would have been in here arguing. Don’t lose hope in us, and we won’t lose hope in us.”
He added: “We’re going to come back and play hard. This season ain’t over with.”
Chudzinski, too, remained confident. The St. John’s Jesuit graduate and the addition of two high-profile assistants — offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive coordinator Ray Horton — have infused the franchise with a degree of excitement belying its lowly recent history.
The vast Municipal Lot outside the stadium closed more than four hours before the 1 p.m. kickoff, unable to pack in any more tailgaters, and the stadium rattled as the Browns took a 7-6 lead on Weeden’s seven-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Cameron just before halftime.
“The fans were great,” Chudzinski said. “They were awesome.”
But the reality of the Browns’ inexperience — and the absence of top wideout Josh Gordon to a two-game suspension and hyped rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo to a bruised lung — settled in during the second half.
Weeden was scattershot and under unending pressure, much of which came through the right side of a patchwork line. Third-string lineman Oniel Cousins, forced to start at right guard, was whistled for four penalties and got tossed aside time and again by Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake, who finished with 2 ½ sacks.
Weeden did not have Richardson to relieve the heat, either. The second-year running back’s quick start yielded a final line of 47 rushing yards on 13 carries.
Weeden completed 26 of 53 passes for 289 yards and threw the three first-half picks — two of which came off deflections. “Obviously, I had some missed opportunities,” he said. “I felt like I did some good things. It’s hard to look back on a game you lose and really think you played halfway decent. It’s just tough to do. But I felt like I stood in there and continued to battle.”
Said Chudzinski: “I’ll need to go see the tape on that to really give you an accurate assessment of that.”
Meanwhile, a defense that held the Dolphins to six points and 89 yards in the first half could not sustain the same pressure. Though the Browns held Miami to 20 rushing yards, quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 24 of 38 throws for 272 yards.
“It is just one game, and that’s our focus and that’s what I talked to the guys about afterward,” Chudzinski said. “We will learn from this and we will move on. There is a lot of football left to be played.”
FIELDS DELIVERS: Miami’s Brandon Fields showed again why he is one of the NFL’s top punters.
The St. John’s Jesuit graduate booted two punts inside the 20-yard line, boomed a 66-yarder, and averaged a net of 47.6 yards on five punts.
A seventh-round draft pick of the Dolphins in 2007, Fields has steadily improved over seven NFL seasons, from averaging 43.2 yards per punt as a rookie to more than 50 last year.
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.