With rookies populating many key positions, how did the Browns' offense fare in 2012?
Though the Cleveland Browns made significant upgrades to their offense in the months leading up to the start of the 2012 season—adding a new quarterback, running back and a pair of wide receivers to their arsenal—they managed to improve by just one game from 2011, ending the season at 5-11.
While the offense takes some of the blame for that outcome, it's not as though the Browns didn't have any positives to take away from the season. Let's take a look at what Cleveland's offense did in 2012, Pat Shurmur's final year with the team.
The Passing Game
With the Browns taking quarterback Brandon Weeden in the first round of the 2012 draft, it pretty clearly signaled that Colt McCoy would not be their starter this year. Indeed, with little competition, the job fell to Weeden, who turned 29 years old a month into the season.
A rookie under center means hiccups are inevitable and that was certainly the case with Weeden, who had to learn Shurmur's West Coast-style playbook and work with receivers who themselves were still trying to master the system. His season was rife with interceptions, overthrows and batted passes.
Of the 38 quarterbacks ranked by Pro Football Focus, Weeden came in dead last, thanks to his low completion percentage (57.4), his 21 batted passes, and his 17 interceptions to 14 touchdowns. Like any first-year starter, his game-by-game production was also wildly varied.
His season started with an enormous thud, completing just 12 of his 35 intended passes (34.3 percent) for 118 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions in the Browns' Week 1 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, but Weeden did rebound somewhat in Week 2. Though that game, against the Cincinnati Bengals, was another loss, he completed 70.3 percent of his passes, for 322 yards and two touchdowns.
The Browns lost their first five games of the season, but it's hard to look at Weeden or the passing offense as the number one reason why. Finishing out games because a problem over the course of the year, with the fault equally split between offense and defense. That Eagles debacle aside, Weeden threw for no fewer than 237 yards per game in the next four weeks and had a completion percentage below 50 only once. He also threw five interceptions and five touchdowns—that, clearly, wasn't so good.
There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to Weeden's performances in his rookie year and no detectible pattern. He had five games with under 200 passing yards and four with more than 250. He had a 40.7 completion percentage in a win (Week 8, against the San Diego Chargers) and helped his team both string together a trio of victories near the end of the season as well as three separate losing streaks.
With a rookie quarterback, there's bound to be some inherent inconsistency to their game play. Even playoff-bound phenoms like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson had their own peccadilloes (Luck's completion percentage was lower than Weeden's to end the year, for example).
He did improve under pressure, going from near the bottom of the league to 20th (out of 38 ranked) in his response to the pass rush—more emphasis on throwing the ball away helped prevent both sacks and interceptions later in the season. He spent too much time in the pocket, however—it took him an average of 2.8 seconds to throw, for example, longer than most quarterbacks in the league. A quicker delivery and faster decision-making will be necessary to his development.
Cleveland's receivers are mostly a young group, which also attributed to some of Weeden's struggles. The most veteran among them, Mohamed Massaquoi, was in his fourth season in 2012, but couldn't contribute much as he was hampered by a series of injuries, including one to his knee that landed him on injured reserve. He played only nine games and caught just 17 passes for 254 yards.
To start the year, Greg Little reprised his role as the team's No. 1 receiver, a situation that didn't generate a lot of excitement considering he was tied for the second-most drops in the league in 2011, with 14, despite having the 17th-most targets.
Little ended the 2012 season again leading the Browns receivers in drops, but that number at least fell to nine, as his targets also decreased from 113 in 2011 to 87. He had 53 catches (increasing his catch percentage from 54.0 in the previous season, to 60.9) for 647 yards and four touchdowns—all told, a significant improvement from his rookie year.
There are three reasons why Little had a better 2012 than 2011—first is additional comfort in the offense, something he couldn't fully establish in his first season with the Browns considering he did not play college ball in the year before being drafted and then had no offseason with his new team thanks to the lockout. Second, Weeden was an upgrade at the quarterback position. Third is that Little didn't end the year as the team's No. 1 wideout, and with the pressure taken off of him, he could concentrate better.
That No. 1 spot eventually became rookie receiver Josh Gordon's. The supplemental draft pick had a similar background to Little, having not played college football in the previous year, but the risks outweighed the rewards, especially for a team that desperately needed more talent and depth at receiver.
Though the first six games, Gordon alternated between being a starter and a backup, but his four touchdowns in Weeks 5 through 7 earned him the starting job permanently. Gordon played 840 snaps on the year, was targeted 89 times and had 50 receptions for 805 yards. He caught five touchdowns, and had four drops and one fumble. Impressively, he averaged 6.3 yards after the catch per reception, ranking him 13th in the league among receivers.
In Gordon, the Browns finally found their deep-threat receiver—something they sorely needed and something they had come to learn that Little could not be. His presence on the field added a dangerous new dimension to their offense, and though he proved a little raw, there's every indication that he could be a star in time.
Rounding out the Cleveland receiving corps was rookie Travis Benjamin. Benjamin appeared in 10 games this season, mainly as an alternative to Little on the right side of the field. He led all Browns receivers in yards per reception, at 16.6, but he did only pull down just half of the 36 passes thrown his way. His 298 yards, however, did also include two touchdowns.
Also contributing to the passing game was another rookie, Josh Cooper, who was Weeden's Oklahoma State teammate. Cooper mainly performed the duties of a slot receiver in his six games, with eight catches on 16 targets, for 106 yards and an average of 6.4 yards after the catch.
Josh Cribbs saw his involvement with the passing game decrease in 2012—he played only 63 offensive snaps and was thrown to just 10 times, with seven receptions for 63 yards. Slot receiver Jordan Norwood also saw action in two games but injured his foot and landed on injured reserve.
Of note is that no one clear front-runner emerged as the Browns' go-to slot receiver. There was none who was designated as starter, and none who played the position had very many snaps. This will likely change with Rob Chudzinski now their head coach.
At tight end, the hope was for Jordan Cameron to emerge as a true receiving threat, however the former basketball player still ended up the year playing second fiddle to Ben Watson. Cameron's issues with blocking in particular held his snap count to just 338 on the year (compared to 883 for Watson).
Watson was targeted 74 times, with 49 receptions for a 66.2 percent catch rate. He had 501 yards and three touchdowns. Cameron caught 20 of the 31 passes thrown his way (a 64.5 catch percentage) for 226 yards. He certainly showed progress when it came to his receiving and route-running skills, but he'll need a lot of offseason work to become a well-rounded tight end who can play every down. This may become even more of a priority for Cameron in the coming months with Watson headed to free agency.
In total, the Browns ended their year with the 19th-most average passing yards per game at 214.7, the 15th-most attempts, at 35.4, and 24th in yards per completion, with 10.5. They ranked 16th in passing first downs per game, at 11.6, and 28th in passing touchdowns per game, with one.
The Run Game
The visions of the Browns' anemic 2011 run game seemed to fade into nothingness once the team selected running back Trent Richardson with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. However, the rose-tinted glasses soon were lost after Richardson had to undergo a cleanup procedure in his knee that kept him out of the preseason and limited his effectiveness in his first few games.
In fact, Richardson didn't play a single game with 100 percent health. Just in time for his knee to heal, he suffered two broken ribs in the team's Week 6 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, which he played with for the rest of the year. He then sprained his ankle in Week 16 and sat out the season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Perhaps Richardson's health was a major reason why the Browns ranked just 24th in average run attempts per game, but Shurmur's play calling also had a lot to do with it. It was a pass-first offense, with almost 60 percent of all plays going to the air. This, despite Richardson proving he could be effective even when not healthy and with his backup, Montario Hardesty, also running capably and avoiding injury.
Richardson rushed 267 times for 967 yards and 11 touchdowns to two fumbles. His 568 yards after contact was the 15th-best in the league and likely would have been significantly higher had he not broken his ribs. He had three games with 100 or more yards, with his best coming in Week 8 against the Chargers, with 24 carries for 122 yards and one rushing and one receiving touchdown. His best work came when he had at least 19 carries in a game.
Hardesty's role was more marginal behind Richardson, playing only 163 snaps to Richardson's 725. He had 65 carries for 271 yards, averaging a rather impressive 4.2 yards per carry. He also had one touchdown and two fumbles.
Fellow back Chris Ogbonnaya played almost as many snaps as Hardesty—153, in fact—but spent most of them on third-down passing situations and as a blocker. As such, he carried the ball just eight times for 30 yards. In contrast, he ended the year with 187 receiving yards.
With better running, the Browns could have not just had a better overall offense but also a more successful passing game. Richardson and Hardesty will need to have bigger roles in 2013.
The Offensive Line
Four of the Browns' five starting offensive linemen managed to play every single one of the team's 1,064 offensive snaps—right guard Shawn Lauvao, center Alex Mack, left tackle Joe Thomas and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. At left guard, Jason Pinkston started for the first six weeks before being placed on injured reserve with a blood clot in his lung. He was then replaced by John Greco.
Though Thomas and Schwartz could have been better at run blocking, in total the Browns offensive line had a very good year. Thomas was ranked sixth overall amongst tackles and gave up just three sacks; Schwartz gave up five, but with a 21st overall ranking, outperformed the majority of the tackles in the league, an impressive feat for a rookie.
Among the guards, Lauvao had the worst season, struggling in run blocking and giving up three sacks, nine quarterback hits and 15 hurries. Mack, however, had a top-10 season according to Pro Football Focus.
For Weeden to have taken just 28 sacks on the season, despite his penchant to hold onto the ball for so long, really speaks to the talent of the Browns offensive line. If he can shorten his delivery, there's no doubt that in coming seasons, their line will start to get the recognition they deserve. They should be the envy of most other teams in the league.