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Signing of Ben Tate signals the return of the run to the Browns' offense

Mar 17, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/USA Today

The Morning Kickoff …

Lifting the cover, a little: The Browns have been purposely quiet about specific plans on offense and defense. The coordinators had one brief introduction last month, but follow-up interview requests have been denied. In truth, we know remarkably little about coach Mike Pettine’s objectives on the field and General Manager Ray Farmer’s plans to fill them.

What we did we learn in the first week of free agency came from Ben Tate, the new running back.

Talking about the offensive system planned by coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Tate said, “It’s a good scheme. I like it because they find the running backs are important. They hand you the ball, they throw you the ball. He likes to use them …”

Hand the running back the ball.

Throw the running back the ball.

What a concept.

A lot of what happened on the field last year was hard to explain. At the top of the list was the Browns’ offensive philosophy.

They attempted 681 passes, which was the most in the league.

They ran the ball 348 times, which was the third-least in the league.

Their pass-to-run ratio of 66 to 34 was the most imbalanced in the league.

That should never happen again.

Running’s back: I never bought into the idea that the running game was dead in the NFL. Running the ball will always be essential to winning. “Throw to score, run to win” remains the most tried-and-true offensive formula in the NFL.

The Seahawks showed that with Marshawn Lynch. When the Patriots struggled at receiver, they plowed to a division playoff win by hammering the ball on the ground. The Steelers climbed back to 8-8 after a terrible start because they committed to rookie back Leveon Bell. And the Ravens struggled because Ray Rice had a horrible year.

I still believe the Browns are not going anywhere until they identify and cultivate a franchise quarterback to lead them. But to forsake the running game is insane, and that’s what happened last year.

It was almost like the coaches revolted after Joe Banner traded Trent Richardson.

You don’t think running the ball is important? Ok, we’ll show you how “unimportant” it is.

And they went about proving that throwing the ball 42 times a game is suicide. Especially when the quarterbacks throwing the ball are Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell for essentially 14 of 16 games.

Clearly, the front office didn’t do a good job of replacing Richardson. Willis McGahee, Chris Ogbonnaya, Fozzy Whittaker and Edwin Baker are not going to instill a lot of confidence in coaches. But the will to run the ball simply wasn’t there last year. Thus, whenever the Browns had leads in the fourth quarter, they couldn’t preserve them.

The signing of Tate on Saturday is the first real step, besides the hiring of Shanahan, in restoring a running mentality to the Browns’ offense.

Tate’s running style fits Shanahan’s “one-cut, zone-blocking” run system perfectly. He doesn’t jitterbug or stutter-step to a hole. He may not break many runs beyond 10 yards, but Tate, when healthy, can wear down a defense with a powerful, physical attack.

“When healthy,” of course, is the key. Tate’s injury history is real enough to raise concerns. In four years as a backup with the Houston Texans, Tate had a broken ankle, hamstring and foot injuries, and broken ribs.

The Browns’ concerns about Tate’s durability were reflected in their firmness not to break the bank for him. The two-year deal for a maximum of $7 million is team-friendly.

Tate’s history also may mean the Browns have to use a higher pick in the draft than anticipated on a running back. Although Shanahan’s system – going back to his father, Mike – has made rushing stars out of fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-round draft picks, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Browns devote a third-round selection, or higher, on a running back.

Respect for backs: The trend in the NFL is to “devalue” the running back. That means to not devote a lot of dollars or a high draft pick to the position.

I think the trend has more to do with the attrition at the position than the true value of the position. Running back has always been the most brutal position on the field. No player is tackled more than the running back. With bigger, faster, stronger players colliding more often with the running back, rare is the one who makes it through 16 games unscathed.

Which is why the Browns have to bolster the position further in the draft after signing Tate.

Tate lugs a chip on his shoulder, aiming to prove he can be a workhorse in hopes of eventually being paid like one. It’s the best transaction the Browns made in the first week. Running backs may not be on top of any team’s draft board. But running the ball is back in vogue.

“I think in the grand scheme of things (teams) know it’s important,” Tate said. “They know how those teams won games in the playoffs and the Super Bowl.

“Right now, I feel they think they can get away with not giving us running backs our real worth. They’re not paying running backs what they’re really worth because maybe they just think they don’t need that one guy, that they can just plug in anybody and let them do it. I think some teams are finding out that’s not true. If you’re going to be a real contender, you do need that guy.”

 

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. Use the hastage #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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