Cleveland Browns: Is the running game OK?
By Thomas Moore
Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson is excited about the team’s running game. But is his optimism warranted?
In his brief time in town it has become abundantly clear that no one can accuse Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson of being a pessimist.
From quarterbacks (they’re all wonderful!) to draft picks (we got a group of great guys!) and even the minor-league uniforms (that new orange grows on you, baby!), Jackson has a positive vibe to any situation.
The latest example came this week when Jackson addressed the team’s running game, which was 22nd in the league last season and only produced five rushing touchdowns. But despite holding 14 picks across the seven rounds of last weekend’s NFL Draft, the Browns did not select a single running back.
“Those two guys are as good as I’ve seen in a while,” Jackson said of incumbents Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, according to cleveland.com. “Their talent is extreme. Obviously Isaiah is very explosive. He’s got quick feet, he’s fast in the hole, he runs with good pad level.
“I truly believe we have the potential there to be really good at the position.” – Head coach Hue Jackson on the running backs
“I think (Duke’s) he’s going to have a great year as well. Duke has suddenness and quickness and he can go catch the ball with anybody. He does so many different things that gives your offense a boost.”
Putting aside Jackson’s proclivity for positivity for a moment, there are reasons to like the duo of Crowell and Johnson, specifically Johnson’s ability as a pass catcher as his 61 receptions last season were a nice reintroduction of the running backs into the passing game.
But when it comes to actually running the ball, Jackson’s optimism may be a bit too extreme.
Crowell (3.8 yards per carry) and Johnson (3.6 yards per carry) both struggled to run the ball last fall, and that was while operating behind one of the league’s best offensive lines – which is now 40 percent weaker following the free agent departures of Alex Mack, one of the best centers in the league, and Mitchell Schwartz, one of the best right tackles.
Taking over at center will be second-year player Cameron Erving, who learned some hard lessons during his rookie season in 2015. While there is every reason to believe that Erving will be fine at center, it is completely unrealistic to think that he will seamlessly move into the role and not have additional growing pains.
On the right side of the line, third-round draft pick Shon Coleman will get the first shot at replacing Schwartz, with fellow draft pick Spencer Drango, Michael Bowie and Alvin Bailey also in the mix. Coleman played primarily at left tackle for Auburn, but has seen some limited time at right tackle. And, just like Erving, Coleman is going to have his share of rough days while he works on filling the hole created by the departure of Schwartz.
That is especially true since Coleman will be making the switch from one side of the line to the other, which is not as simple as some people make it out to be. Former Browns lineman LeCharles Bentley, who trains NFL players at his OLine Performance center, broke down the issue on his website:
"It’s my understanding the current plan for Shon Coleman is to play him on the right side. In theory, it addresses a need. In reality, it’s a poor idea, unless there’s a plan in place to address his flaws. Shon Coleman is a project, he’s not a plug and play draft pick. If he’s expected to be the “answer,” without the organization giving him an answer key, this will be another wasted draft pick and Browns fans will be singing the same old tune."
"This is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You ever try writing with your left hand, when you’re right handed? That same uncoordinated feeling is what it’s like to switch sides of the line. … Will this be an easy transition? Not at all. Is it impossible? Absolutely not. Will it all happen prior to your quarterback being placed on injured reserve because a defender blew by your right tackle and decapitated him, I hope so."
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Then there is Crowell, who is presumed to be the No. 1 running back heading into training camp this summer.
Fans still look at Crowell as the running back who averaged 5.4 yards per carry in his first five games, but we haven’t seen that running back for a long time now. In his past 27 games he has averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and only surpassed the 100-yard mark in a game once.
While there is no reason to doubt Jackson’s sincerity when he talks about the running backs, it is also likely that the Browns realized they have numerous other holes on the roster that needed to be addressed – notably at wide receiver and along the defensive line – and decided they could live with the current situation at running back for another year. That seems even more likely as the 2017 NFL Draft is projected to be filled with talented running backs.
Taking the changes on the offensive line into account along with the lack of progression from Crowell, even Jackson may be forced to admit that the Browns may take a step or two back before they can move forward in the running game.