5 Questions in 5 Days: the Browns running game
It what was arguably the worst performance in franchise history, the Browns were 27th in the NFL with just 86.4 rushing yards per game and rushed for a league-low four touchdowns. By comparison, the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, widely considered the worst team in NFL history, managed to rush for five touchdowns in an 0-14 season.
Willis McGahee “led” the Browns in rushing with 377 yards – the fewest rushing yards to lead the team since Ray Renfro’s 352 yards in 1953. (Although Renfro only ran the ball 60 times that season and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. McGahee? He averaged 2.7). Things were so bad that (too) many fans were excited about Edwin Baker, a seventh-round draft pick who was on three teams during the season, thinking he was the answer simply because he was better than what the Browns were trotting out for most of the season.
And while we know that the running game is supposed to not matter anymore in the NFL, six of the top 10 rushing teams last season made the playoffs.
Enter Ben Tate and Terrance West.
The Browns signed Tate in free agency and selected West in the third round of the draft in an attempt to make sure we don’t see a repeat of last season.
“We all know talk is cheap. But right now, (Ben’s) the guy,” Browns running back coach Wilbert Montgomery said in published reports. “He’s the guy, and he has to set the bar to how he sees himself in the National Football League.
“Terrance West has some shades of Brian Westbrook. He can break you down with his right leg. He can break you down with his left leg. He has that Ricky Watters, Walter Payton, lure-you-to-sleep-on-the-sideline move that I can accelerate or play like I’m going to accelerate and come back inside. Those are traits I haven’t seen in a while.
“This is the first time I had talent this good as a running backs coach.”
While Tate has the talent to be a top back (if he can stay healthy), and West is sure to become a Peyton Hillis-type fan favorite (hopefully without the extraneous nonsense), the running game does not exist in a vacuum.
The uncertainty over Josh Gordon’s status this fall means the Browns could be without their top offensive threat in the passing game. And with questions still surrounding Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel at quarterback, opposing defenses may choose to stack the line of scrimmage to stop the run and take their chances against the passing game.
Which brings us to today’s question: The Browns running game has to be better this year if for no other reason than they no longer will start Willis McGahee’s corpse. Will that be enough to overcome the fact that without Josh Gordon, the team’s best wide receiver may be Andrew Hawkins?
Today’s panel of Browns deep thinkers includes Ryan Alton from Draft Browns, Mike Burgermeister from jimkanicki.com, Dave Kolonich, Murray Alexander from East of Ehlo, Jeff Rich from More Than A Fan – Cleveland, Rick Grayshock from Waiting for Next Year, and Mike Krupka from Dawgs by Nature.
Ryan: You still have to be able to throw the football when you want to. But this isn’t going to be 2013 by any stretch of the imagination, when the Browns led the league in pass attempts. The running game won’t ensure success on its own, without a complimentary passing attack, but it will be the identity of the offense and will help the Browns moves the chains and hopefully sustain long scoring drives. In theory, this approach will wear opposing defenses down and the Browns will become a team that puts games away in the fourth quarter, rather than giving them away like we’re so accustomed to seeing.
Mike B.: Yeah it will.
My favorite Jim Brown highlight reel starts off with this Lombardi quote: “Football is first and foremost a running game. That will never change.”
I’ve always thought this, and have long thought that the “it’s a passing league now” hubris was ripe for exploitation. I love, love, love that this seems to be Pettine’s direction.
I also love everything I see and read about Terrence West. I may be overboard on West and underselling Tate, but all I know is 41 freaking touchdowns last year. I don’t care who you did it against, that’s a nose for the end zone that will not need to be taught. Also, you don’t need to be a professional scout to recognize that you will never tackle Terrance West.
By the way, I’m not counting out Josh Gordon for the whole year. Though embarrassing, the “speeding-ticket-with-weed” and “DUI-in-the-Carolinas” incidents are not part of the suspension-eligible incident for which he is (maybe) being disciplined. If the deal really is that he missed a scheduled drug test due to a verifiable flight delay, then his case is very strong. I also think that if he was going to be suspended and the case was cut and dried, it’d have happened by now.
Seriously, I think he gets nothing; four games tops.
Dave: The Browns definitely upgraded their running back talent – going from McGahee and practice squad guys to what could be a young and deep rotation. However, the loss of Josh Gordon basically invites opposing defenses to crowd eight guys onto the line of scrimmage. On paper, it looks better but we’re going to quickly see a one-dimensional, sluggish 2014 offense – reminiscent of something Pettine’s former Jets boss would throw out.
Murray: I think it’ll probably be OK. They clearly aren’t going to have Gordon’s explosive element, but the passing game is going to be much, much less of an emphasis this year. It’s going to be a “run the ball and play defense” team, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they average in the low 20s for pass attempts. They are clearly invested in the running game, not only with Tate, West and Isaiah Crowell, but also by drafting Joel Bitonio, the big mauler from Nevada. Aside from all the extra talent, an actual commitment to running the ball will help. They threw it aside far too often last year when there wasn’t any immediate success.
Oh, and we still have Pro Bowl tight end and match-up nightmare Jordan Cameron so, I don’t think it’s as bad as has been made out.
Jeff: Opposing defenses will be left with little guess-work beyond “will they be running it left or running it right?” with the offense. Not that folks in these parts hold the opinions of Tony Grossi in any type of regard, but I did catch his mention that he doubts Dion Lewis and Crowell both land on the Final 53. Tate gets 20 to 25 carries per game, West probably eight to 12, and the remaining survivor at the end of camp gets the “change of pace” touches. So yes, the running game will be better. Also, Jordan Cameron is the best receiver on a team that can’t dress Josh Gordon, since I’m not sure the distinction of whether a receiver is of the wide or tight variety matters much these days.
Rick: As I said in yesterday’s post, the running game is going to have to shoulder a lot of the load if the offense is going to be effective. Color me a little skeptical. Maybe more than a little. Unfortunately, I think a phrase we are going to hear a lot is “field goal position.”
Mike K.: Given the context of the question, I’ll take the non-committal answer and say – it depends.
Mike Pettine has made it known that we’re going to be a team that heavily runs the ball. To support this, the team has acquired players via the draft and free agency that really aligns with this approach. If the offensive line can really take hold of the new zone blocking scheme (which isn’t always easy during the first year of install), then there’s a chance our running game can be a strength for us throughout the season. We definitely have upgraded our talent at the running back position; it all comes down to how well the offensive line can do what they need to do.
That being said, if we have a steady run game, I feel our receivers should be able to move the chains and make plays. We have some talented veterans and we have some talented, unproven youngsters. I’m of the opinion that at least one or two players in a positional logjam have to be able to step up to contribute. As it stands, there’s nobody on the roster that can replace Gordon or his production, but between Nate Burleson, Miles Austin, Hawkins and Cameron we should be able to move the ball and score points. The icing on the cake that will help add some extra octane to this offense will be if Chandler Jones, Willie Snead, and/or Charles Johnson can emerge as a consistent and dependable threat.
Nice work, once again, everyone. And if you missed Day 1 of the series, you can find it here.
Coming tomorrow: Is Mike Pettine the next Marty Schottenheimer, or will he be the next Bud Carson?
(Photos courtesy of clevelandbrowns.com)