Two games, two losses—the Cleveland Browns are in familiar territory, but it wasn't supposed to be this way.
With new ownership came a new front office and coaching staff. The latter focused on establishing the run as much as the pass and augmenting that with an attacking defense that keeps opponents forever on their heels.
The defense thankfully is fine. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton has, for the most part, begun to accomplish what he set out to, and his side of the ball looks better than it has for years in Cleveland. The offense, however, has undergone an identity crisis, and it's the No. 1 reason why the Browns are winless through two weeks.
While much was made of head coach Rob Chudzinski's and offensive coordinator Norv Turner's plans to turn the passing game into one of deep downfield shots that vertically stretch the field, the known goal of this was to open up the run game behind back Trent Richardson. This wasn't to be a pass-first, pass-second team; rather, the passing was to be a complement to a strong rushing attack.
But, through two games, Cleveland's offense seems devoted to the passing game no matter the results it produces. Quarterback Brandon Weeden has attempted a total of 90 passes, while there have been only 33 rushing attempts.
It's not as though the Browns were playing from significantly behind in both games—in fact, against both the Miami Dolphins in Week 1 and the Baltimore Ravens in Week 2, the Browns went into halftime with the lead. It just appears that running—both well and often—is less of a priority than we all assumed it would be this year.
Richardson isn't terribly impressive at present, with 31 carries for 105 yards and a 3.4 yards per carry average. However, he hasn't been in on third downs. That job has gone to his backup, Chris Ogbonnaya, who hasn't run the ball once. None of Cleveland's 29 total 2013 third downs have been running plays, and the result is only six conversions.
If a team believes in its running back—and there's no reason why the Browns wouldn't believe in Richardson—it's important to get him the ball. Look at the Ravens, who defeated the Browns 14-6 on Sunday. Never leading by all that much, they didn't abandon the run, with 36 rushes to 33 pass attempts.
First of all, the Ravens know the talent level and importance of both their backs, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. They are also very aware that while their quarterback, Joe Flacco, has a strong arm and good accuracy, he also lacks weaponry. There's no reason for him to force passes to receivers and tight ends who are still learning the offense and gaining confidence as a unit.
The Browns are in a similar situation. Weeden doesn't lack arm strength, and when he's feeling confident in the pocket with receivers he can count on, his accuracy is good. But his receiving corps is shaky—so far, his best target has been tight end Jordan Cameron, who has caught 14 of the 20 passes thrown to him for 203 yards and a touchdown through two games.
Josh Gordon returns this week from his two-game suspension, which should improve things. Though Weeden may or may not play thanks to the sprained thumb on his throwing hand which forced backup Jason Campbell on the field near the end of the Ravens game. Regardless of who is throwing the passes, Gordon's return at least means less targets for fellow receiver Greg Little.
So far this season, Little has caught just eight of the 22 passes thrown to him, gaining only 59 yards. Drops are again a problem, with three through two games according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Chudzinski ascribes this issue not to Little failing to put in the necessary work to improve but as one of confidence.
#Browns Chud on Little's drops: It's not for a lack of work. Needs to gain more confidence.— Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) September 16, 2013
Whether that refers to Little's confidence in himself, in the offense as a whole or in his quarterback, it doesn't matter—it's his third year in Cleveland, and he should be performing better.
If the Browns truly do consider themselves a downfield-passing offense, then they aren't executing that either. Weeden has completed only 47 of his 86 attempted passes thus far for 516 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. He's averaging a mere six yards per pass attempt, while the true downfield passers of the league—think Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning—are averaging eight, nine or 10.
Weeden has also been sacked 11 times through two games, owing greatly to the weakness of the right side of his offensive line. With Shawn Lauvao working back from his high ankle sprain and Jason Pinkston on the injured reserve-recall list, Oniel Cousins has been the starting right guard.
His weakness at the position only further highlights the struggles of second-year right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who has been outmatched in both contests this season. Five of Weeden's sacks have been Schwartz's fault.
For all of the pressure Weeden has faced, he's curiously holding onto the ball longer than all but five quarterbacks before throwing a pass, with an average time-to-pass at 3.08 seconds. At the same time, however, he's not using those extra seconds to find a receiver open deep, as evidenced by his extremely low yards-per-attempt figure.
Weeden's downfield vision is failing him, and when that combines with a liability at right tackle, he takes sacks and throws short passes. He's not seeing open receivers, he's forcing plays, and he's revisiting many of his rookie mistakes despite Turner and Chudzinski working extensively with him this offseason.
With so much working against Cleveland's passing game, it's strange to see how much it is stubbornly relying on it through these two losses. Richardson was a third-overall pick in 2012 for a reason, so it's easy to wonder why he's getting so few carries and why the Browns simply refuse to run on third downs.
It's also strange to see no one else getting carries. It makes Cleveland's offense incredibly predictable. When Richardson is on the field, there's a chance it will run the ball, but history says it will pass.
However, when Richardson is off the field, like he was for every third down save one on Sunday, it is always a pass play. Ogbonnaya has only been a passing target, and their other back, Bobby Rainey, hasn't played a single snap.
Cleveland's offense isn't Denver's, Green Bay's or Cincinnati's. It doesn't have a top-flight quarterback nor the receiving talent that makes a quarterback look good. It has chosen to live and die by the passing game; however, and the Browns are reeling for it with their 0-2 record. Maybe things improve now that Gordon is back—they probably will—but that shouldn't fuel a continued disregard for the run.
What the Browns have been doing on offense simply isn't working because it doesn't suit their personnel or their strengths. And as long as they keep playing pretend with their passing game, the results will stay the same.