Groundhog Day: Browns Calling On Qb3 For 13th Time In Expansion Era

Groundhog Day: Browns calling on QB3 for 13th time in expansion era

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.

Four downs on Browns (2-2) v. San Francisco 49ers (5-0)

First down: Third quarterback trivia.

P.J. Walker is the 13th QB3 to start a game for the Browns in the expansion era. This is not the earliest in a season the Browns have needed to start their QB3. In 2016, rookie Cody Kessler started Game 3. For the record, Browns QB3s are 0-12 in their first starts and have lost by an average score of 27.6 to 10.8. Combined, Browns QB3s are 203 of 345 for 2,166 yards, 8 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and have been sacked 33 times. Their passer rating is 70.51. Best performance was turned in by Jason Campbell in 2013 (22 of 36, 293 yards, 2TD, 0INT, 1 sack, 105.44 rating). Worst performance: Rookie Spergon Wynn in 2000 (5 of 16, 17 yards, 0TD, 0INT, 5 sacks, 40.63 rating). The QB3 who came closest to pulling out a victory was Nick Mullens (a former 49er). In a 2021 game with 18 players out with COVID, including 10 starters, and head coach Kevin Stefanski, Mullens led a 14-play, 8 minute-22 second drive to put the Browns ahead, 14-13, with 3:45 to play. The Browns actually got the ball back on an interception by Greedy Williams but were unable to gain the game-clinching first down on three rushing attempts by Nick Chubb. After a punt, the Raiders marched 41 yards in 8 plays after the 2-minute warning and won it, 16-14, on a 48-yard field goal by Daniel Carlson on the final play. By the way, the Browns have had to start a QB4 one time. In Game 16 in 2008, Bruce Gradkowski was 5 of 16 for 18 yards and 2 interceptions, and 3 sacks, in a 31-0 loss to the Steelers. Gradkowski’s official passer rating: 1.04.

P.J. Walker is seeking to become the first QB3 to win his first start in the Browns' expansion era. (Cleveland Browns)


Second down: Meet P.J. Walker.

Phillip “P.J.” Walker, 28, was signed to the practice squad on August 30, six days after the misguided trade of Josh Dobbs to Arizona for a pair of sweat socks. Signed by the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent from Temple in 2017, Walker spent two seasons on their practice squad and then signed with the XFL. He was allocated to the Houston Roughnecks and tossed four touchdowns in his first game, earning the upstart league’s first Star-of-the-Week award. After the XFL folded in the middle of the 2020 spring season, Walker joined the Carolina Panthers. He won his first NFL start in 2020, blanking the Detroit Lions, 20-0, with a 24-of-34 passing day for 258 yards, 1 TD and 2 INT. In three seasons with the Panthers, Walker was 4-3. He completed 57.5 percent of his passes for 1,461 yards, 5 TD, 11 INT and a passer rating of 63.9. Walker signed a two-year contract with the Chicago Bears this season, but was released at the 53 cut. On Friday, Walker said, “You can’t go out there on Sundays … and think you’re going to go out there and just wing it. You got to go out there prepared. This is a business where you got to go out there and perform on Sundays and play. So for me, just to go out there, take care of business and go handle my job.” Walker’s best season was 2022 when he started five games and won two with Carolina. “It felt good just to see guys rally around me and just to feel the energy and excitement of the guys around me,” he said. “I go out there and pray for myself. I go out there and pray for every one of these guys in this room, in this building. That’s all that matters at the end of the day, taking care of business on Sunday and going out there and playing as a team.”

Third down: The Shanahan v. Schwartz Show.

Kyle Shanahan’s teams are 1-7 against Jim Schwartz’s teams dating back to 2008 when either was a coordinator or head coach. However, Shanahan’s quarterbacks in five of his losses were Matt Schaub, Brian Hoyer, Robert Griffin III, Donovan McNabb and C.J. Beathard. The only offensive powerhouse Shanahan had was the Atlanta Falcons in 2016. The future NFC champions were the league’s highest-scoring team with MVP quarterback Matt Ryan. Schwartz, as Eagles defensive coordinator, held the Falcons to 15 points and season-lows in third-down conversions (2 of 11), first downs (11) and rushing yards (48). Now Shanahan coordinates a star-studded offense that is second in passing, first in fewest giveaways, first in first downs and second in points. Schwartz said this week, “You’re not out there trying to stop a play-caller. You’re out there trying to stop his players, and we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”

Fourth down: Let’s get exotic.

Browns special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone was a core special teamer on the 2010 Browns team that used two trick plays on special teams to shock the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, 30-17. On their first punt return, the Browns had a cross-field throwback from Josh Cribbs to Eric Wright result in a 62-yard return. Later, punter Reggie Hodges rumbled 68 yards on a fake punt. The trick plays accounted only for two field goals because the offense was constipated, but they served to change the momentum of the game and rattle Sean Payton’s Saints. The Browns’ special teams coordinator that day was Brad Seely, whom Ventrone considers one of his two coaching mentors. Ventrone played for Seely with three teams – the Patriots, Browns and 49ers. “I learned everything I know in the kicking game from Brad and Bill [Belichick],” Ventrone said. So I asked Ventrone if he has his own bag of tricks at the ready. “Look, we all have bags of tricks. It’s when you’re going to use them,” Ventrone said with a glint in his eye.

The pick: 49ers, 24-10.

My record: 2-2.