In every conceivable statistical measure, Brandon Weeden's rookie debut as the Cleveland Browns starting quarterback couldn't have gone much worse. He completed just 34.3 percent of his passes, for 118 yards and four interceptions—leaving him with a mind-boggling quarterback rating of just 5.1.
Actually, if there's any game that can help Weeden build his confidence and allow him to display the talents that caused the Browns to draft him in the first round this year, it's Sunday's.
Yes, the Bengals are going to be fighting hard considering they were just embarrassed themselves in a 44-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens that was broadcast on national television, but some of the reasons they fell to the Ravens are also ways that Weeden can have himself a good game.
Obviously, as a rookie, Weeden and the Browns offense cannot operate out of the no-huddle, but the Browns can present him situations that are more comfortable for him—namely, allow him to throw out of the shotgun.
Yes, the Browns run a West Coast offense, but that doesn't mean it should be rigid and unadaptable. Weeden's a first-round pick, a quarterback the team hopes can remain the starter for the long term. To make that a reality, head coach Pat Shurmur needs to loosen the reins on Weeden and allow him some leeway to play the game in a way that gives him more comfort.
Weeden also needs to come to the understanding within himself that he's a rookie, despite being on the brink of 29 years old. He has a big arm, that is true, but as Bud Shaw of the Cleveland Plain Dealer said earlier this week, that carries with it "the itch to take chances." Chances that, for a rookie, are far too risky.
Weeden needs to ease himself into the game much as Shurmur must also handle him conservatively to start the season. His decision-making has been called into question numerous times over the preseason and it seemed, based on the four picks and the incompletions in Week 1, that it's an issue he's still struggling with.
He needs to hold himself back from trying to make splashy plays. Conservative throwing works just fine with rookie quarterbacks—just look at how Robert Griffin III performed in his debut while not taking many risks.
Shorter, quicker throws will give the Browns the yardage they need; it also helps that the Bengals' secondary is still a unit in flux. Weeden can thus pick them apart by spreading the ball around to his receivers without having to constantly look for the deep ball.
Another important thing to consider for a a rookie quarterback is the release. If Weeden can get the ball out faster, it'll the lower the amount of pressure he's facing considerably. Defensive pressure is the bane of every rookie quarterback as they continue to adapt to the speed of the NFL. Quick throws help mitigate this learning curve, and, again, will get the Browns the passing yardage they need.
Think back to last Sunday. Weeden's biggest successes came on quick, short throws—slants, screens and the like. If we see more of those, his completion percentage will go up while his interceptions will drop.
All Shumur and Weeden need to do is speed up the release of the ball and instruct receivers to run more conservative routes. After what happened last week against the Eagles, Weeden needs completions to boost his confidence.
Furthermore, if he can drive the ball down the field by throwing short and intermediate passes, it may open up the single-coverage deep matchup worth exploiting later on.
As long as Weeden's strengths can be maximized with smarter play-calling, he should have a far better performance against Cincinnati this Sunday. There's nowhere for Weeden to go but up, and there's a very clear way he can do so. After one week, all hope cannot possibly be lost.