Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson expressed his frustration after his team's 38-21 loss to the Washington Redskins on Sunday, and with good reason. Richardson had just 11 carries on the day, for 28 total yards.
Though he had two touchdowns—two of Cleveland's total three scores—both his yardage total and number of carries was disappointing. Nine of those rushes and both of his touchdowns came in the first half, while in the second half he ran the ball just twice—despite the Browns heading into the final 30 minutes with the lead.
In Richardson's postgame comments, he apologized to the Cleveland fans and suggested that the offense chose to abandon a game plan that had been working in favor of a pass-heavy approach that ultimately failed.
However, with Pat Shurmur as the team's head coach, it shouldn't be surprising that Richardson wasn't as central to the offense as he should have been, just as it shouldn't be surprising that for the second season in a row, the Browns rank near the bottom in rushing yards and attempts per game.
Though it may be a mischaracterization to say that Shurmur has disdain for the run game—no head coach and former offensive coordinator could ever be employable with that attitude—it's clear that Shurmur has trouble planning out a run game, even when he has a talented back as his starting point.
The two years prior to becoming Cleveland's head coach, Shurmur was the offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams and had Steven Jackson as his No. 1 running back. In 2009, Jackson had 1,416 rushing yards to his name but St. Louis was still the No. 20-ranked rushing offense, with 1,784 total yards; in 2010, it was more of the same, with Jackson rushing for 1,241 yards but the rushing offense ranking No. 25 overall.
Though Richardson hasn't been 100 percent healthy this season, undergoing first knee surgery in the summer and then suffering a rib cartilage injury that is still healing, that doesn't excuse his sometimes bafflingly low number of carries (he's had only five games with 20 or more carries, with three of those being Browns wins) and the ways he's been used and misused all season long.
Presently, Richardson has 258 carries for 897 yards and a touchdown—an average of 17 carries per game and 59 yards per game—though he's had 100 or more rushing yards in just three games this season. He also has 11 rushing touchdowns, the most scored by any Browns non-quarterback rookie in franchise history, and he's just 45 yards away from tying Jim Brown's rookie yardage record of 942 yards.
There's little question that Richardson is Cleveland's most valuable offensive weapon, even more than quarterback Brandon Weeden if things like turnovers are taken into account (Richardson has three fumbles on the season, but has lost none of them). However, Richardson is often playing second fiddle to the passing game, and that will continue to be the case as long as Shurmur is the head coach and the architect of Cleveland's offensive philosophy.
It seems crazy that the Browns would rely so little on a talent like Richardson after moving up one pick in this year's draft to be assured they could get him. Injuries of course have played a part in his limitations, but he's also proven he can handle the 25-carries-per-game workload that often comes with being a true NFL featured back (he's had no fewer than 85 rushing yards when carrying the ball 24 or more times).
Considering the type of season that Weeden has had—erratic, with more interceptions than touchdowns, while on a steep learning curve—it would make more sense for Shurmur to have called Richardson's number more than he has. In Sunday's game, in which Weeden never once fell into a sustained rhythm in the passing game and Richardson's scores are what put them ahead of the Redskins in the first place, it should have been a no-brainer to have Richardson be the offensive centerpiece for all four quarters.
Instead, however, Shurmur chose to advance his passing-is-always-better viewpoint, and the Browns lost the game. This would have been just fine had Weeden proved that his arm was a better weapon than Richardson's legs, but that has rarely been the case this season and certainly was not on Sunday.
If Cleveland's overall run game is going to improve and make up more of their overall offensive production, this won't happen with Shurmur as the head coach. The track record is there, stretching back to his two years running the Rams offense. He treats the run like a garnish on a roast when it should actually be the main course. If you want to see Richardson at his NFL best, the only way that will happen is if the Browns move on from Shurmur—or, if not, once he lands on another team in a few seasons.
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