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How third-and-1 can become a coach's epitaph

Oct 24, 2012 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi


The Morning Kickoff …

Thirty-six inches from glory: This Browns’ season is only seven games old, yet the title of its 2012 highlight film is becoming fairly obvious. Call it The Longest Yard.

Never have I seen a single yard so dramatic to ponder, so difficult to achieve.

Through seven games, the Browns have had 14 situations of third-and-1 or fourth-and 1. They have converted seven times. That’s a pretty poor success rate.

Third-and-1 is a situation where, if you are a strong-willed offensive team, you line up a fullback in front of your running back and you pound the ball forward. Maybe you sell out in a “jumbo” formation, never masquerading your intentions, and include a tackle-eligible and two tight ends.

However you decide to execute the situation – either by sheer brute force or by schematic deception – it is a play that must be made. If not, it is deflating and often a costly momentum-changer.

The T-Rich problem: Two years ago, third-and-1 was an easy task for the Browns. Coach Eric Mangini planted fullback Lawrence Vickers in front of Peyton Hillis and let ‘er rip. It was a predictable alignment and a predictable result. More times than not, Vickers would blow up the first man in his way and Hillis would plow through for the first down.

When Pat Shurmur replaced Mangini, the running back situation devolved into a daily drama. Hillis was out with a strep throat, out with a hamstring injury or in La La Land pondering a big payday someplace else.

Vickers – the best blocking fullback I’ve seen in a Browns uniform – was allowed to leave in free agency. He was replaced by Owen Marecic, a fourth-round draft choice from Stanford. Ultimately, Shurmur didn’t have a reliable play to dial up on third-and-1.

That was supposed to change with the trade-up of one spot (at the cost of three late-round picks) to insure the selection of Alabama’s Trent Richardson. Shurmur personally instigated the pick of Richardson, who was built low to the ground and was immensely strong in both the lower and upper body. Richardson would give Shurmur a simple option in short-yardage plays: Hand him the ball and watch him convert.

It hasn’t happened that way, of course. Richardson missed all the preseason games after arthroscopic surgery to clean up a “loose particle” creating discomfort in his left knee. He needed the first regular-season game to knock off the rust, then looked like a franchise runner in the second game.

But in his sixth NFL game, Richardson hurt his ribs early and was ineffective the rest of the first half. In Indianapolis on Sunday, Richardson tried to play wearing a flak jacket protecting the ribs and was an absolute wreck – rushing eight times for 8 yards – before being taken out for good.

Richardson’s No. 33 has been called five times on third-and-1. He has converted on one occasion – early in the Cincinnati game, before his rib cartilage injury – when he ran for seven yards. The other times Richardson has netted zero, minus-2, zero and minus-1.

Now Shurmur and the Browns are contemplating shutting down Richardson to allow his rib injury to heal. This may incapacitate him for one game or two leading into the team’s bye weekend.

The breakdown: On 14 third-and-1 or fourth-and-1 situations in question, the Browns have run the ball eight times (converting four) and thrown, or dropped back to throw, six times (converting three).

Richardson is 1-for-5 in short-yardage carries. The other three conversions were made on Brandon Weeden quarterback sneaks.

Here is the breakdown of all 14 short-yardage situations:

Game 1 v. Philadelphia

1. Third-and-1 from Browns 40: Richardson over left guard for minus-1.

2. Third-and-1 from Browns 45: Brandon Weeden pass to Brandon Jackson for 6 yards and first down.

Game 2 v. Cincinnati

3. Third-and-1 from Browns 16: Weeden pass to Alex Smith for 10 yards and first down.

4. Third-and-1 from Browns 29: Weeden QB sneak for 2 yards and first down.

Game 3 v. Buffalo

5. Third-and-1 from Browns 18: Richardson over right guard for zero yards.

Game 4 v. Baltimore

None.

Game 5 v. New York Giants

6. Third-and-1 from Giants 12: Richardson up the middle for minus-2 yards.

7. Third-and-1 from Giants 25: Weeden pass for Josh Gordon, intercepted by Stevie Brown and returned 46 yards.

8. Fourth-and-1 from Browns 36: Weeden QB sneak for 2 yards and first down.

Game 6 v. Cincinnati

9. Third-and-1 from Browns 29: Richardson over left guard for 7 yards and first down.

10. Third-and-1 from Bengals 16: Weeden sack for minus-4 yards.

11. Third-and-1 from Bengals 29: Weeden QB sneak for 2 yards and first down.

12. Third-and-1 from Bengals 26: Weeden pass to Jordan Cameron for 23 yards and first down.

Game 7 v. Indianapolis

13. Third-and-1 from Browns 35: Richardson up the middle for zero yards.

14. Third-and-1 from Colts 41: Weeden deep pass for Gordon incomplete (drop).

The last failed attempt led to the controversial fourth down decision to punt, with the Browns trailing, 17-13, and 6:38 left in the fourth quarter.

Here’s the thing about third-and-1: If you fail to convert, it can open a can of worms of second-guessing. It can become a coach’s epitaph.

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 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

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