Countdown to The Draft
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By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The Morning Kickoff …
No rush? No worry?: The Browns are having their worst season running the ball in 14 years. And it’s not as if we have been living in a golden era of Browns running backs, anyway.
They are on pace for 1,304 yards rushing. Only in the first two seasons of the expansion era did they have fewer yards – 1,150 in 1999 and 1,085 in 2000.
They have one rushing touchdown, and that was of 1 yard, the shortest possible, by Willis McGahee. Even kicker Phil Dawson, who scored the first rushing touchdown in the expansion era, had a longer run (4 yards). Lowly Tampa Bay is the only other team this season with but one. The NFL average is six.
The season began with expectations of Trent Richardson lugging the ball 300 times, in accordance with previous feature backs in the Norv Turner offense. Remember the storyline: Three different backs under Turner won five NFL rushing titles.
So devalued was Richardson within two games that he was traded to Indianapolis. (Richardson is still the team’s No. 2 back with 105 yards.) There is no fullback, so 225-pound backup tailback Chris Ogbonnaya was switched to the role of lead blocker. After Richardson was traded, McGahee was brought in “off the street” to be the feature back. At 32, he is the second-oldest player on the roster.
Somehow the Browns have won four games. Circumstances have positioned them to be in the AFC North playoff hunt with a 4-5 record. But to some, the sky is falling without a more productive running game.
The predominant feeling is you can’t possibly win in the physical AFC North without running the ball, especially as the weather turns cold and windy.
“I’m not sure it’s going to be that important,” said left tackle Joe Thomas.
Say it ain’t so, Joe: What did he just say?
“To be able to run the ball is nice at times,” Thomas went on, “but it’s not a make or break-type thing because every team that goes to the playoffs and wins Super Bowls, it’s won by the arm of the quarterback.”
At this point, I’m thinking that Thomas has been brainwashed by the team’s analytics department, which must have fed him reams of computer printouts supporting the notion that running the ball is no longer important. I am particularly worried about Thomas’ state of mind because offensive linemen are born with a gene that predisposes them to insisting on running the football. It is in their DNA.
Are you OK, Joe? I mean, has your attitude changed 180 degrees on this elementary fundamental of football?
“Yes, it has,” he said. “I came from Wisconsin that ran the crap out of the ball, so I always felt you had to run to win. But even since my rookie year I feel the league has changed. I don’t know if it’s because of the rules, or just because of the talent at quarterback, or the talent at defense, but honestly I feel you HAVE to be a throwing team to be successful in the NFL now.”
But wasn’t the game fun for Thomas in 2009 when Jerome Harrison was running for 200-plus yards behind that wrecking-ball fullback Lawrence Vickers and Peyton Hillis followed with 1,147 yards and won the popular vote for the cover of Madden 2012?
“Yeah,” Thomas replied. “And how many wins did we have that year? (The Browns were 5-11 both seasons.)
“You run if you’re not very good at passing. The Vikings are 1-7. They’ve got an excellent running back and it’s not winning them a lot of games. The NFL today is all about the quarterback and all about the passing game.”
Playing with facts: I asked Thomas if he were surprised the team has not acquired a traditional lead-blocking fullback.
“I guess it was interesting that we didn’t because I know in (coach Rob Chudzinski’s) and Norv’s system, they’ve always had kind of a big, heavy-hitting fullback,” Thomas said. “I don’t know why the philosophy changed, but it seems like we’re working in (defensive end) Billy Winn in a little bit.
“But if you saw what happened (against Baltimore), soon as it’s an obvious run situation, they’ve got nine guys in there (close to the line of scrimmage). They’ve got more than we can block, so you’re almost wasting your time because defenses are so good defending the run now. It’s so hard to run. That’s why you see us throw on 4th and 1.”
It’s not quite true that teams run because they can’t pass.
Green Bay is second in rushing and sixth in passing (before Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone). Other teams with high-ranked running games have stellar quarterbacks, but are suffering at the receiver position.
San Francisco is first in rushing and 32nd in passing with QB Colin Kaepernick. Seattle is fifth in rushing and 27th in passing with Russell Wilson. New England is 10th in rushing and 17th in passing with Tom Brady. Carolina is eighth in rushing and 25th in passing with Cam Newton. Those teams have a combined record of 31-11.
But the truth is, rushing totals are down significantly league-wide. Passing yards per game have hit record numbers in each of the past four seasons. The current rate of 485.1 passing yards per game is more than 24 higher than last season’s record.
“It used to be kind of a quarterback league and everyone else was kind of important,” Thomas said. “But now that’s all that’s important.”
So the Browns are at the cutting edge of at least one-half of the NFL trend. Crappy running games rule!
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to email@example.comFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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