He stood on the Metrodome sideline with a knot in his stomach and a glimmer of hope in his heart, waiting on the happy ending that never comes.
So often in D'Qwell Jackson's eight-year career with the Cleveland Browns, the underrated linebacker has been gut-punched by the football gods at pivotal moments. Only once during that span has the team won more than five games in a season, and the beginning of Cleveland's 2013 campaign played out like the early stages of a horror flick, with the inevitable carnage to follow.
On Sunday in Minneapolis -- three days after the shocking trade of highly regarded running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts -- the Browns were assigned the role of "helpless victim" by just about every football fan in America. Yet, as the team's former third-string quarterback marched Cleveland down the field while trailing the Minnesota Vikings by three points in the final minutes, Jackson experienced a strange sense that this time, things would be different.
"You couldn't write the script any better than what happened this past week, from everyone telling us around Cleveland that we were tanking the season to a quarterback coming out of nowhere and no one giving us a shot," an exhausted and elated Jackson said Sunday night via telephone. "Everyone thought they knew what the trade meant, but it was too early to know our fate.
"Man, I tell you what: I've seen a lot of ball played here, and I haven't seen a lot of those types of drives -- game on the line, us behind, and we take it down the field and win the game. And to see it finally happen to a young group of guys that everyone had counted out ... man, it does wonders for our confidence."
It was Jackson's defiant tone during the week that helped lay the groundwork. "This is the week to go out and show the character of the guys in this locker room," he'd told reporters in the wake of the Browns' decision to trade Richardson (the third overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft) for the Colts' first-round selection in 2014. "The ship is still sailing."
On Sunday, the ship's new captain, a fifth-year journeyman quarterback, seized the moment. Jackson admitted he didn't have high expectations for Hoyer, who took over for injured starter Brandon Weeden, leapfrogging veteran Jason Campbell. And though Hoyer (who completed 30 of 54 attempts for 321 yards) made his share of mistakes, throwing three interceptions to go with his three touchdown passes, he likely did enough to convince Chudzinski to give him a third career start -- and possibly many more, even after Weeden (sprained thumb) -- who, like Richardson, was a first-round draft pick in 2012 -- is cleared to return.
In fairness, it should be noted that Hoyer benefitted greatly from the presence of second-year receiver Josh Gordon, who returned from a two-game suspension like a man determined to cram a month's worth of games into one Sunday. Gordon caught 10 passes for 146 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown catch on his team's second possession of the game, prompting one veteran Browns player to say this: "Bottom line, if you have a quarterback and a stud wide receiver, nothing else matters. See: Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne, Tom Brady and Wes Welker."
That might be a bit overly enthusiastic, though after Hoyer took over with 3:21 remaining and drove the Browns 55 yards to silence a cacophonous Minnesota crowd, some residual excitement was understandable.
"He was cool," Thomas said of Hoyer. "We could barely hear anything (in the huddle), which makes it easy. No speeches needed."
Instead, the Browns made a collective statement that brings a measure of hope to a long-suffering fan base.
"It changes the storyline," Jackson said. "One game made the difference. If we'd lost, I don't know how it would be around here this week -- I don't even want to think about it. But we won, and now it looks like our front office made a brilliant move."
Will Jackson and his teammates sustain their sudden momentum? That's a question we can't answer yet -- but we can ask three-dozen-minus-four others in the meantime, beginning with our reigning penthouse dwellers and ending with brand-new outhouse occupants:
1) Seattle Seahawks: Did Pete Carroll and his former defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley, think about taking a page from Miami's 77-7 win over Savannah State and shortening the fourth quarter of Sunday's game to 12 minutes -- and is it overly harsh to view the Jacksonville Jaguars as the Savannah State of the NFL?