INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — The Cleveland Browns will have their fourth starting quarterback of the season when they face the Los Angeles Rams.
Four quarterbacks started a game for the Rams last season. Sean McVay wouldn’t recommend it.
The coach also realizes the adversity of 2022 played a role in his team’s rebound into playoff contention this year.
“You can’t establish grit unless you go through real challenging experiences,” McVay said. “I can’t speak for other people, but I do know that I was spoiled with a lot of the good things (early in my career), and (adversity) forces you to continue to grow and mature as a leader.”
That might not be much comfort to Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski and the Browns (7-4), who will have Joe Flacco behind center on Sunday after a week of training in the Southern California sun. Cleveland will attempt to avoid its first losing streak of a season that’s going remarkably well, considering the turmoil at quarterback.
“Across the league, and this year is no different, there’s a lot of backup quarterbacks that are playing,” Stefanski said. “We’re no different, and we have a certain standard that we play by as an offense, as a team, and it doesn’t really change based on who’s in there.”
With the 38-year-old Flacco making his first start since closing out the 2022 season for the New York Jets, Cleveland will lean on its powerhouse defense to shut down the Rams (5-6), whose hopes of an unlikely playoff run probably hinge on the health of Matthew Stafford. The veteran’s injured thumb is getting better, and he’s excited by LA’s two-week surge into the postseason conversation.
Cleveland’s defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz, was Stafford’s head coach for his first five NFL seasons in Detroit.
“Really all phases on (Cleveland’s) defense make it an uncomfortable day for the quarterback, both in what they’re giving to you look-wise and also just the challenges they present personnel-wise as well,” Stafford said.
Safety John Johnson is back with the Rams after spending the past two seasons with Cleveland, which cut him last March. Johnson was drafted by the Rams, and he has reclaimed a prominent role this month.
The hard-hitting Johnson’s role changed when he changed teams, and many observers thought he wasn’t suited to his coverage-heavy responsibilities in Cleveland.
“I felt like I stayed stagnant, if anything,” Johnson said. “I didn’t really take off. My game didn’t elevate. I was just like in limbo, kind of. I just did what I’m told, you know. … Just me thinking about it now, I feel like I probably could have did some things differently, but the past is the past.”
The Browns have spent the entire season on crutches.
But while the offense absorbed most of the major early injuries, Cleveland’s top-ranked defense has been feeling it the past two weeks.
All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett played much of last week with one arm after hurting his left shoulder, which he originally hurt last year when he flipped his Porsche following practice.
Fortunately, Garrett, who is having his best season, didn’t sustain any new structural damage. His teammates are confident he’ll be on the field with them on Sunday.
“He’s Superman,” cornerback Greg Newsome II said. ”We’re never too worried about Myles.”
Before last week’s game, Garrett joked that “everything hurts” this time of the season and the 28-year-old blamed his aches on being “just old.”
The Browns won’t have star cornerback Denzel Ward for the second straight week because of a shoulder injury. Ward’s absence was felt from the outset as Cleveland’s secondary seemed out of sorts without him.
Running back Kyren Williams is having a breakout season for the Rams with three 100-yard performances in the past four games, including the last two.
Williams is appropriately wary of Cleveland’s vaunted defense, even if it gave up 169 yards rushing to Denver last week. He’s looking forward to the chance to fight off tackle attempts by Newsome, a close friend, and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, his teammate for two seasons at Notre Dame.
And no matter how the game goes, Williams is planning a postgame jersey swap with Owusu-Koramoah.
“I’m gonna let him know early, before I start getting to him, ‘I’m gonna need that jersey,’” Williams said with a grin.
During their extended stay in Los Angeles, the Browns met with some local basketball royalty. No, not LeBron James.
Legendary Lakers guard and Hall of Famer Jerry West spoke with Cleveland’s players, who were struck by the 85-year-old’s presence and passion.
“It was great,” said All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio, a California native who grew up rooting for the Lakers. “His illustrious career as a player, coach and executive in the NBA is second to none.”
“He said he hates losing more than he loves winning,” said Newsome. “So a guy like that, you definitely learn a lot from.”
Beyond being a 14-time All-Star, one of the NBA’s all-time best players, and the silhouetted image for the league’s iconic logo, West was also the architect of the powerhouse “Showtime” Lakers teams in the 1980s.
West’s visit with the team at UCLA was made possible through Stefanski’s father, Ed, a longtime NBA executive. West told the players he grew up in West Virginia as a Browns fan.
Bitonio said West’s message centered on togetherness.
“The overall picture was just being a good teammate, playing for your guys, executing and having a bigger purpose out there,” Bitonio said. “It was very cool. He’s getting up there in age, but he’s still sharp and still really cool to hear a legend.”
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers and freelancer Dan Greenspan contributed to this report.
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