CLEVELAND — Brandon Weeden made coach Rob Chudzinski’s debut a success, and may have stopped any quarterback controversy before it started.
Weeden threw a touchdown pass and led Cleveland on two scoring drives, and Travis Benjamin returned a punt 91 yards for a TD as the Browns won Chudzinski’s first exhibition game, 27-19 over the St. Louis Rams on Thursday night.
Weeden finished 10 of 13 for 112 yards, a performance that should help end any talk of a quarterback competition in Cleveland. Chudzinski has not yet chosen Weeden his starter, but the second-year QB did everything he needed to secure the job.
Weeden hooked up with running back Dion Lewis, starting for Trent Richardson, for a 2-yard TD on the first play of the second quarter.
St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford threw a 3-yard TD pass to Chris Givens as Rams coach Jeff Fisher left his starting offense in after Benjamin’s runback made it 17-0. Bradford went 5 of 8 for 102 yards, including 59 on a deep ball over the middle to Givens.
Greg Zuerlein kicked field goals of 54 and 55 yards for the Rams.
The Browns are counting on Weeden to take a major step following an up-and-down rookie year. Chudzinski and new coordinator Norv Turner have tailored Cleveland’s offense to better suit Weeden, who has won over his teammates with his work ethic during the offseason.
Now, all the soon-to-be 30-year-old has to do is convince skeptical Cleveland fans that he can be the man. This was an ideal start.
Weeden looked composed as he led the Browns to 10 points on their first two possessions.
He went 5 of 8 on Cleveland’s first drive, which included wide receiver Greg Little — a former basketball player — making a leaping catch of a pass that deflected off tight end Jordan Cameron’s facemask. Brian Bogotay’s 25-yard field goal gave Cleveland a 3-0 lead.
Weeden was even better the second time the Browns got the ball. He completed all five passes, connecting on a 30-yard crossing route to Cameron before capping the drive with his TD strike to Lewis, who juked Rams rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree before hauling in Weeden’s throw.
“I thought he did a good job,” Chudzinski said of Weeden. “He was efficient and led us to some drives. Ultimately, doing that is what his job is all about.”
Cleveland’s revamped offense clicked even without Richardson, kept out as a precaution as he recovers from a shin injury. Weeden saw plenty of progress.
“We maneuvered well,” he said. “We didn’t have any penalties. We didn’t do anything to move backwards. We were moving forward. For the first game out, I think we did some good things.”
Benjamin gave the Browns reason to believe they won’t miss spectacular return specialist Josh Cribbs, who signed with Oakland. With Cleveland leading 10-0, Benjamin backpedaled and caught a punt at his 9. He broke toward the left sideline, picked up a couple blocks, one by rookie Barkevious Mingo, and went untouched to the end zone.
“Freaky fast,” Weeden said, describing Benjamin.
One of the NFL’s youngest teams, the Rams showed more growing pains.
Running back Isaiah Pead fumbled away St. Louis’ first possession at Cleveland’s 26, the Rams’ punt coverage team had several breakdowns on Benjamin’s return and the defense did little to slow Weeden.
The Rams, though, did bounce back nicely after Benjamin’s return.
Givens got behind reserve cornerback Trevin Wade to haul in Bradford’s beautifully lofted throw. Two plays later, the pair connected again for a score that pleased Fisher — even if it came against Browns backups.
“A little frustrating on the first drive,” Bradford said. “We put something together, had a nice third-down conversion and we were moving the ball, and to turn it over in scoring position is always a little bit frustrating. But, it’s nice to finish the night with a touchdown.”