BEREA, Ohio — As the Browns stretched before practice on Friday, a peculiar song blared from the four loudspeakers lining one side of the team’s outdoor field.
Lionel Richie’s voice filled the air.
Usually, the musical selection on such days is by artists like Jay-Z or Eminem or Kanye West, something current and upbeat to help get the players loose. But as the Browns went through final preparations for their biggest game of the season on Sunday in Cincinnati, they listened to something much softer — Richie’s “Hello.”
The strange choice turned out to be a joke aimed at starting quarterback Jason Campbell, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the smooth singer-songwriter. Following practice, Campbell was greeted with a photo of a smiling Richie taped in his locker.
“I’m going to find out who did this,” Campbell promised, pulling off the picture and taking the playful gag in stride.
Richie’s photo was accompanied by a famous — and fitting — lyric from his hit song: “Is it me you’re looking for?”
As it turns out, Campbell could be exactly who the Browns have been looking for this season.
Overlooked and all but forgotten earlier in the season, the veteran quarterback has emerged as somewhat of a savior for the Browns (4-5), who can close the gap in the AFC North on Sunday with a win over the first-place Bengals (6-4).
Campbell’s strong performances in the past two games — a close loss at Kansas City and win over Baltimore — has helped push Cleveland to the precipice of a possible playoff push. The 31-year-old has never sought the spotlight, but it has found him nonetheless, and after enduring a career of highs and lows, Campbell is savoring every moment.
“I am in my ninth season,” Campbell said, “and I have stressed and pressured myself before in the past and now it is just about having fun and win games and do the best I can to help this young football team grow and continue to keep competing.”
Typical Campbell. He’s humble, hard-working, generous and loaded with experience. After signing as a free agent with Cleveland in March, he was beaten out by Brandon Weeden in training camp and passed over by third-stringer Brian Hoyer after Weeden was injured. But the Browns had no choice but to turn to Campbell when Hoyer suffered a season-ending knee injury and Weeden struggled.
Campbell has delivered, throwing five touchdown passes without an interception in two starts. He has stabilized a turbulent position — he’s Cleveland’s 20th starting QB since 1999 — and given Browns fans hope that the dark days are dwindling.
And perhaps above all, Campbell has provided leadership to a young team needing guidance.
“He’s a true pro, man,” said Browns cornerback Joe Haden. “He controls the O. He’s a really good leader. I look at him like a big-brother figure. He carries himself really well and you can just tell that he’s used to being a leader. He’s doing a really god job.”
Campbell’s personal comeback will bring him full circle on Sunday.
Two years ago, the former first-round pick was playing the best football of his career for Oakland, starting the season 4-2 when he broke his collarbone against the Browns. His injury prompted Raiders coach Hue Jackson to trade him to Cincinnati for Carson Palmer, who not only took his job but then failed to take the silver and black to greater heights.
This week, Campbell will start against Jackson, now on Cincinnati’s coaching staff.