Weeden has had a rockier time, which should come as no surprise for a player whose development has been atypical at every stage of his career. He was an undersized junkball pitcher at Santa Fe High in Edmond, Okla., when he had a growth spurt before his junior year, prompting the school's football coach to coax him to come out for the team. He played sparingly until his senior season, when a new coach, Dan Cocannouer, took over. "I came in, saw this guy—about 6'4", 6'5"—and I was like, Holy cow, let's go," says Cocannouer. "It took him probably eight games before he caught on to what we wanted him to do. But he caught on. He lit everybody up."
Santa Fe made the state playoffs for the first time, reaching the Class 6A semifinals, and that, plus Weeden's size, should have had recruiters salivating. But he'd already chosen baseball—by then he had a 97 mph fastball—and the Yankees made him their first pick in the 2002 draft.
One of Weeden's teammates those first two years on the Yankees' rookie league club in Tampa was Eric Hacker, another righthanded pitcher who had played quarterback in high school, and the two would drive to Clearwater Beach and throw the football around. "Brandon and I had similar paths," says Hacker, who pitched for the Giants last season. "We had conversations about how if baseball didn't work out by a certain age, we'd go back and play football."
Weeden spent his off-seasons as the quarterbacks coach back home at Santa Fe High, and by the end of his fifth season in baseball—by then he was with the Royals' Class A affiliate—his restlessness came to a head. He enrolled at Oklahoma State in 2007 as a 23-year-old freshman walk-on who hadn't played organized football in five years. Time on the scout team knocked off the rust, and by his junior season he was starting—and being reminded constantly by his teammates of how old he was. "For my 27th birthday [safety] Markelle Martin bought me a cane and some Depends," recalls Weeden.
After a senior season in which Weeden threw for 4,727 yards, Mel Kiper projected him as a top 10 or 15 pick in the draft—if he were a more traditional age. So it was no surprise that the QB-needy Browns passed on him and took Richardson at No. 3. Then came the 22nd pick, one of the five that Cleveland had gotten a year earlier from the Falcons in exchange for the pick that Atlanta used on wideout Julio Jones....
If football fans ran drafts, it's safe to presume that every first-round pick would be a skill-position player. NFL front offices tend to be more conservative, offsetting an exciting new running back with something more responsible, like a defensive tackle. Not these Browns. Rolling the dice on Weeden, they became just the second team since the advent of the common draft in 1967 to select a quarterback and a running back in the first round. (The first: the '79 Bengals, with Charles Alexander and Jack Thompson.)
After a week and a half of perfunctory open competition with Colt McCoy at camp, Weeden was handed the job. He'd racked up big numbers at OSU in a shotgun, no-huddle, air-it-out attack that was a far cry from Shurmur's West Coast offense. "The under-center stuff wasn't [a difficult adjustment] at all," Weeden says, "but the tempo was. Slowing down, getting in the huddle, verbally communicating.... If you take my offense at Oklahoma State and compare it with what I do now, there are no similarities. In college you signaled one or two things and had the whole play. Here, some of the plays are this long"—he holds his index fingers a foot apart—"and there's a lot more moving parts."
Understandably, he looked lost in his Week 1 debut against the Eagles: four interceptions and a passer rating of 5.1—this after having to be rescued from underneath a giant American flag that unfurled on the field in a pregame ceremony. The Browns dropped five games before Weeden got his first win, over the Bengals on Oct. 14. It was his 29th birthday. That day's program listed his age as 129.
The knock on Weeden (age aside) has been that he forces too many passes, leading to interceptions. "They're very aggressive and heroic," Shurmur says of rookie passers. "But there's a fine line between being aggressive and being efficient."
Few in Cleveland have been shy about examining where Weeden stands relative to that line. The local paper, for example, grades his every throw on a scale of one to five. Meanwhile, those who said that he forces too many passes also criticized him for not taking enough chances against the Ravens in Week 9, when the Browns settled for five field goals in a 25--15 loss. "If I try to squeeze the ball in there, [Ravens safety] Ed Reed picks it off; then people are ridiculing me," he says. "There's give and take."