In trading up to use the third overall pick on Trent Richardson, the Browns made their play. As they likely hope the team won't be drafting in the top 10 for a long time now, they must maximize the return on their investment in Richardson.
How can the Browns build their offense to ensure they get the most out of Richardson?
Naturally answers like building an offensive line around Richardson and establishing a credible passing attack first come to mind when prioritizing the pieces around the rookie back out of Alabama.
However, history reveals that one of the most important complements to extend careers and ensure quality carries out of a marquee back like Richardson is— another running back.
So, who can emerge as the Robin to Richarson's Batman in the backfield? Why is it that important? What sort of importance does this need carry in relation to things like the passing game and ensuring the young offensive line gels?
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If you think the Browns can simply ride the Trent Train all the way to the top of the AFC North, you're sorely mistaken. I point to the examples of Peyton Hillis and Jerome Harrison. In the only post-1999 stretches where a semblance of NFL football has occurred on the shores of Lake Erie, the Browns have run the ball effectively.
Players like William Green, Jamal Lewis, Jerome Harrison and Peyton Hillis have all shouldered the burden for two-game or two-season stretches, but ultimately, none proved a "long-term" (in the NFL, that means three-plus seasons) solution at running back.
In the cases of Hillis and Harrison, we can easily point to overuse as carry totals hovering around 30 per game took their toll.
The Browns can't afford to burn Richardson out in two or three seasons; to protect their investment, they must find ways to mix it up.
Brandon Jackson arrived in Cleveland with tempered excitement surrounding the powerful running back. Fresh off a Super Bowl season with the Green Bay Packers, the Browns felt a backfield featuring a one-two punch of Peyton Hillis and Jackson could devastate aging defensive fronts in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
While Hillis fell victim to physical and contract-related ailments under the national media spotlight, Jackson quietly suffered an entire season on the sidelines after a toe injury sustained during the annual preseason matchup with the Detroit Lions.
Jackson returns in 2012 with two new colleagues in Trent Richardson and Chris Ogbonnaya. Ogbonnaya demonstrated some encouraging skills in the backfield at the end of the Browns' futile 2011 season and should see some opportunities in preseason.
Montario Hardesty also returns from yet another injury-plagued campaign with perhaps one more season to prove he's worth his roster spot. Fans have pointed to the selection of Hardesty as one of very few "misses" to GM Tom Heckert's name in the draft during his tenure with the Browns.
Consider the statistics below, recording the rushing habits of the 12 NFL playoff teams from 2011. Note teams like Houston, whose rushing attack allowed it to sustain an injury to their starting quarterback and still win a playoff game.
The average NFL playoff team features one running back with 15-20 carries a game and a change-of-pace back with 7-12 carries per game. Both typically average over four yards per carry.
|AVG Att/G||AVG Yds/Att||AVG Record||AVG TOP|
With a schedule featuring some of the league's most physical defensive fronts, the Browns must find a way to gain yardage on the ground while Richardson sips Gatorade and prepares for the next play.
Should the rookie from Alabama electrify Browns Stadium in the early weeks, like the Cleveland faithful desperately hope, Pat Shurmur, Brad Childress and company will have to resist the urge to ride Richardson for 25-plus carries a game down the stretch.
While this approach could achieve success in the short run, it could spell long-term disaster if Richardson suffers injury as a result of overuse.
Examples like Darren Sproles, Ben Tate and Ricky Williams abound across the league: Whether for a play, a series or a game, these guys can produce at four yards per attempt despite not seeing regular work.
Brandon Jackson's physicality makes him an interesting candidate to serve as the change-of-pace; he could potentially emerge as the thunder to T-Rich's lightning.
Regardless of whether the Browns find a pass-catching scat-back in the model of Sproles or a square-shoulders power-runner resembling the Giants' Jacobs and Bradshaw, a sidekick will greatly reduce the pressure on Richardson and, in all likelihood, extend his career.
San Diego has found success with this model; consider its rushing record over the past decade with a cycle that began with LaDainian Tomlinson, a running back with a high profile not unlike Richardson.
With a combination of bruisers like Mike Tolbert, scatbacks like Darren Sproles and classic do-it-all backs like Michael Turner and Ryan Mathews, the Chargers successfully built around Tomlinson for his tenure in San Diego. This sound development made Tomlinson's departure a net-gain for the Chargers, as they had developed more effective backs in-house even while Tomlinson enjoyed his prime.
If the Browns hope to maximize the value of Trent Richardson, they must find a way to turn the Ogbonnayas and Jacksons into the Turners and Tolberts Richardson will need to succeed and the Browns will need to survive in the long-term.
If the Browns truly do seek to maximize Trent Richardson's value, the fresher they can keep his legs, the better.
Cleveland hopes Richardson can rip off some long-distance carries similar to his highlight reel at Alabama. Next to bolstering the offensive line and establishing a credible passing game, finding the guy to go give T-Rich a breather after those long runs will prove the most important aspect of building around the Browns' 2012 third-overall selection.
The sooner Brandon Weeden develops chemistry with his tight ends and receivers, the safer Trent Richardson will find the running lanes in the early season.
One credible critique of Colt McCoy was that, weak arm or not, defenses regularly stacked eight, nine or even 10 players in the box against the Browns with zero repercussions. When the Browns ran the ball, defenders regularly outnumbered blockers, as the lack of a credible deep threat enabled opposing safeties to cheat upfield on first and second down.
If Brandon Weeden's reputed cannon and Travis Benjamin's alleged speed manage to draw the Polamalus and Ed Reeds off the line of scrimmage, that should greatly alleviate the pressure on Richardson to gain yardage through an über-congested defensive front.
Aside from McCoy's inability to connect deep with Greg Little or Mohammed Massaquoi, Tony Pashos' immobility attributed to his foot injury amounted to blood in the water for opposing linebackers.
Blitzes and four-man rushes alike regularly overwhelmed the Browns' right side as the offense tried in futility to gain momentum.
This year, second-round pick Mitchell Schwartz out of California, and third-year guard Shawn Lauvao will be expected to establish themselves on the right side of the line.
In a division featuring linebackers like Ray Lewis and safeties like Troy Polamalu, the Browns cannot feature enough athleticism and physicality on their right side.
Schwartz's progress as a rookie will in large part set the tone for the entire offense: As Schwartz goes, so go the Browns.