How Dorian Thompson-Robinson kept Browns' season on track

CLEVELAND -- Cleveland Browns quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was on his way to the stadium parking lot when he realized he'd left something precious behind.

When he beelined back into the locker room, there, sitting on his locker shelf was Sunday's game ball. He picked it up and stuffed it in his designer weekender bag.

"My mom would've been pissed," Thompson-Robinson joked as he walked out again, high-fiving defensive teammates who were still getting dressed at their stalls.

The rookie quarterback vowed all week that his second career start would be "night and day" different from his first -- when he threw three interceptions in a 28-3 Week 4 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

Thompson-Robinson even rewatched some of his old UCLA college games, including his six-touchdown performance in a rout of USC two years ago, to, in his words, "get my swagger back."

That swagger returned at an opportune moment Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

With the game tied, Thompson-Robinson got the ball back at the Cleveland 35-yard line with 1:18 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

To that point, Thompson-Robinson had passed for just 28 yards in the second half. He had also thrown an interception, robbing Cleveland of a field goal opportunity in Steelers territory.

But now, Thompson-Robinson had the ball with a chance to win. And as he took the field for the final drive, chants of "D-T-R, D-T-R" began reverberating around Cleveland Browns Stadium.

"It's been a whirlwind," he said of this week.

Thompson-Robinson found out Tuesday -- his 24th birthday -- that the Browns' regular starting quarterback, Deshaun Watson, would miss the remainder of the season with a fracture in his right (throwing) shoulder. Like most of his teammates, Thompson-Robinson didn't even realize Watson had injured his shoulder again during a walk-off 33-31 victory over the Ravens last weekend. An MRI last week stunningly revealed that Watson would need surgery to repair the displaced fracture.

Thompson-Robinson was on his way to the Marble Room steakhouse in downtown Cleveland to celebrate his birthday with his girlfriend and a few teammates when general manager Andrew Berry called and told him he would start against the Steelers. That night after dinner, Thompson-Robinson got to work.

A five-year starter for the Bruins, Thompson-Robinson was among the most experienced quarterbacks in the 2023 draft. He was so impressive during training camp and in Cleveland's preseason games, the Browns felt comfortable trading quarterback Joshua Dobbs to the Arizona Cardinals for a fifth-round pick in August and naming Thompson-Robinson their backup to Watson (that trade would later be panned, after Dobbs won his first two games after being traded from the Cardinals to the Minnesota Vikings).

Leading into the Browns' Week 4 game against the Ravens, Watson privately told teammates that he had planned to play despite having suffered a strained rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder, according to multiple sources. But during a pregame test, Watson couldn't push the ball downfield. Watson and the Browns determined he couldn't play, and Thompson-Robinson found out he would be starting just a couple of hours before kickoff.

Thompson-Robinson played poorly against the Ravens, completing 19 of 36 passes for 121 yards and three interceptions. He lost the backup job to PJ Walker, who played Cleveland's next three games while Watson recovered. But when Watson was lost for the year last week, the Browns gave Thompson-Robinson another opportunity, this time with a full week of preparation knowing he would be the starter.

Thompson-Robinson said he learned from that Ravens experience: He needed to be ready to play, no matter what.

"They believed in me, they trusted in me," he said of the organization. "I've been working my tail off [to get another chance]."

That finally came Sunday.

Thompson-Robinson started the game so amped up that he was screaming the calls in the huddle -- so loudly that All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio was concerned that Pittsburgh's defenders could overhear Cleveland's plays.

"The first drive, I was like you're a little loud right now," Bitonio said of Thompson-Robinson, who had trouble speaking during his postgame news conference having all but lost his voice. "But besides that, he was locked in all week."

Thompson-Robinson came out sharp, despite any nerves, completing 13 of his first 16 passes. He even threw a block on Steelers cornerback Patrick Peterson on a reverse for his Las Vegas high school buddy, Browns receiver Cedric Tillman.

Thompson-Robinson's only real mistake Sunday came in the third quarter. On third-and-15, he tried to squeeze a pass to wide receiver Amari Cooper. But the pass was behind him and rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr. tipped the pass into the air, allowing Chandon Sullivan to dive in for the interception at the Pittsburgh 23-yard line.

"I probably needed to get to the checkdown on that one instead of trying to force it to Amari or just throw a better ball," he said. "I was hurting, I was frustrated. I didn't know how the game was going to end."

But Watson had a message for Thompson-Robinson.

"He told my a-- to smile," Thompson-Robinson said. "I'm pissed at the pick. ... But Deshaun was in my ear the whole second half, just comforting me, making sure that I'm good, motivating me, letting me know that, 'Hey, I've been here before and you're gonna have another shot.'"

On the final drive, Thompson-Robinson blocked out the earlier interception and the "D-T-R" chants and the more than two dozen family members and friends who had flown in from all over the country to watch him Sunday.

"He looked like he had been there before," said running back Kareem Hunt, "and that's what we needed."

On the first snap of the final drive, he fired a 15-yard strike to wide receiver Elijah Moore at midfield. Then, he dumped the ball to Hunt for another 5 yards. He found Cooper on a slant for 8 more yards. Finally, he delivered another first-down completion to tight end David Njoku, pushing the Browns well into field goal range at the Pittsburgh 26-yard line.

"Those are big moments where you're looking for your guy to come through. He came through," Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski said. "It wasn't perfect at all times. But he came through when it mattered."

Three plays later, Browns kicker Dustin Hopkins nailed a 34-yard field goal to give the Browns a critical 13-10 victory to boost their playoff push. Thompson-Robinson squatted down with his face looking toward the ground, before standing up and hugging several of his teammates, including Watson and Walker.

As he made his way to the tunnel, "D-T-R, D-T-R" chants cascaded down from the stadium stands. He signed a couple of autographs, passed his wristbands out and even took a selfie with a fan before exiting the field.

"I'm super happy -- glad that I could get this one for my teammates," said Thompson-Robinson, who finished 24-for-43 for 165 yards.

The victory marked the fourth time this season the Browns won with a game-winning score in the final two minutes of regulation, breaking a franchise record.

"I just can't thank the fans [enough], Stefanski, our whole program, and all the guys that are there in the locker room, everybody's been helping me out," he said. "Everybody's been letting me know that they got my back."

Thompson-Robinson later swung on an oversized black jacket complementing an all-black outfit he'd been saving for the day.

And eventually, he walked out with his first victory -- and the game ball in his bag.