TAMPA — Sift through the rubble of this harsh season and you’ll eventually come to one of the most exhilarating NFL stories of the decade.
After five games, the Cleveland Browns are relevant.
That may not sound like much of a feel-good item, but let’s apply a little perspective.
Heading into the 2013 season, the Browns had played 160 games in the previous 10 years and won 52.
That lost decade also included a 20-60 mark on the road, zero playoff appearances and an 8-26 record in September that quickly dashed the hopes of long-suffering supporters.
Don’t look now, but the Browns are off to a 3-2 start, tied with Baltimore and Cincinnati atop the AFC North.
The last time Cleveland had a piece of first place at this point of the season? Try 1995, when Vinny Testaverde was under center and Bill Belichick stalked the sideline. The Browns ended up 5-11 that year, and Belichick was canned.
That was also the season owner Art Modell announced he was moving the franchise to Baltimore.
After five consecutive years of double-digit losses, these Browns are causing a stir. Whether second-year wide receiver Travis Benjamin is returning a punt for a touchdown or third-year tight end Jordan Cameron is grabbing a scoring pass, Cleveland fans have had a lot to celebrate.
“They’re relentless,’’ said rookie head coach Rob Chudzinski. “They don’t flinch, and they have each other’s backs.’’
It helps when you have the No. 4 defense in the league, bolstered by the free-agent signing of veteran linebacker Paul Kruger from the NFL champion Ravens.
Cleveland has boasted a decent defense in recent years, but the club was continually undermined by a sloppy and boring attack. Chudskinski, an offensive coordinator in Cleveland and Carolina, has instilled confidence in a unit that has absorbed some hits this season.
“(Chudzinski) has kept us laser-focused on exactly what we need to do,’’ Kruger said. “He’s done a great job making sure we don’t take ourselves too seriously.’’
When the 0-2 Browns traded running back Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, to Indianapolis last month, some Cleveland fans figured the white flag had been raised.
After all, they’ve seen it before.
Instead, the Browns reeled off three consecutive wins heading into today’s home matchup against the Lions.
Besides making adjustments after the Richardson trade, Cleveland’s offense has dealt with injuries at quarterback.
Brandon Weeden lost his job to Brian Hoyer after spraining his thumb, but now Hoyer is out for the year with a knee injury and Weeden is back under center. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner has helped with the transition.
In the process, Weeden gained the respect of teammates and coaches for remaining a professional.
“Brandon did a really good job showing everyone on this team how to handle a tough situation,’’ Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said.
Road games against the Packers and Chiefs are dead ahead for the Browns after Sunday’s matchup, but the overall schedule doesn’t appear imposing.
While a postseason berth remains in the hazy distance, Cleveland fans have a reason to believe.
And for right now, that’s enough.