One of the Cleveland Browns' biggest offseason priorities this year was to improve the run game. In 2013, the Browns totaled just 1,383 rushing yards and a paltry four touchdowns.
When the team signed free agent Ben Tate, formerly of the Houston Texans, it appeared they had found their three-down starter. Tate, who spent his career running behind Arian Foster, has 421 career carries, a 4.7 yards-per-carry average, 1,992 total rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns over three years.
However, the additions of third-round 2014 draft pick Terrance West and undrafted rookie Isaiah Crowell muddy that plan somewhat, as do the presences of longtime third-down fixture Chris Ogbonnaya and the fast and promising Dion Lewis.
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Though Tate may believe that "there's nobody in that (running back) room that scares me," as he said to The Cleveland Plain Dealer in June, West in particular seems to be already pushing Tate for carries.
As Browns.com's Vic Carucci notes, "In fact, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if [West] ends up winning the starting job or at least getting a significant number of carries in what is expected to be a run-oriented offense," and "West seems like a natural in the Browns' outside-zone-blocking scheme."
That doesn't mean there won't be room for Tate and West—and Lewis, Crowell and Ogbonnaya—to all see playing time once the season starts. In fact, the Browns' stable of running backs seem well suited to the team taking a committee approach at the position.
Head coach Mike Pettine has already made comments indicating that's the direction the team wants to take, saying "I think in the AFC North, you have to be running back by committee. You'd like to have a guy that can carry most of the load, but also be able to alternate guys...you've got to be able to get fresh legs out there."
So despite Tate's protests that he's capable of being the team's bell-cow running back, the Browns seem to want to make the most of their new-found riches at the position.
It makes sense. Tate has had injury issues in the past—a broken ankle in his rookie year led to Foster being the starter in Houston and he finished 2013 on injured reserve after playing most of the season with cracked ribs.
West, meanwhile, is a very promising running back who re-wrote the record books in his senior season at Towson, rushing for 2,509 yards and 41 touchdowns. He has a complementary style to Tate—while both are north-south runners who operate well in an outside-zone-blocking scheme, Tate is more about power while West is about finesse and footwork.
Lewis, too, fits into the plan, with his speed and elusiveness. The only thing endangering his roster spot is how said speed and elusiveness have been affected by the broken leg he suffered in the 2013 preseason and the fact that he was brought in by the previous administration, Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi in particular.
Still, Lewis has a skill set that is different than those of Tate's and West's but yet one that fits the Browns offense. The same can be said for Ogbonnaya, who is a terrific blocker and has good hands to catch passes on third downs. He can also be used as a fullback and on special teams, which increases his overall value and will help secure him a roster spot.
Further, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is quite familiar with taking the committee approach with the run game. Shanahan inherited a Steve Slaton-heavy run offense in Houston when he took over as offensive coordinator in 2008.
However, in 2009, the Texans were more of a committee in the run game, especially after Slaton was benched by then-head coach Gary Kubiak. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Slaton played 453 snaps, followed by Chris Brown with 275, Ryan Moats with 198 and Foster with 127.
Shanahan then moved on to join his father, Mike, in Washington where Mike was named head coach. The elder Shanahan was a master of both outside-zone blocking in the run game as well as employing a committee of backs to run it.
No back saw more than 455 snaps for the team in 2010, and that approach continued until the 2012 season when Washington truly secured itself a star running back in Alfred Morris and also had mobile quarterback Robert Griffin III to move the chains in the ground game. Though Roy Helu played nearly as many snaps as Morris in 2013, it wasn't a timeshare—Morris had 276 carries to Helu's 62.
via Pro Football Focus (subscription required); *100 or more snaps only
Clearly, not all of Shanahan's offenses relied on a committee of backs, but he has been able to know when the situation is appropriate for it. And it certainly is in Cleveland this season.
The need for the "fresh legs" that a running-back-by-committee provides will be even more important for the Browns this year. Last season, with no run game to lean on, the Browns averaged the most pass attempts per game, at 42.6. Though they cycled through three different quarterbacks, those passers had league-leading receiver Josh Gordon to lean on.
Now, it's expected that the Browns won't have Gordon's services for the 2014 season and the rest of their receiving corps appears thin heading into training camp. Yes, they have a weapon in Andrew Hawkins, an experienced veteran in Nate Burleson and a promising unknown in Charles Johnson but at this point, only tight end Jordan Cameron seems like a true playmaker.
Should the Browns go running-back-by-committee this season?
The Browns will have to rely on their run game this year in ways they did not and could not last year. Though they could manage to do this with Tate or West as their workhorse, it serves the run game's and offense's purposes better to lean on a committee. It both protects their backs' health and helps the rushing attack be more multidimensional.
If nearly every rush was in the hands of Tate or West, defenses would know what to expect. Having three or four—or even five—running backs getting carries depending on the situation or on who has the hot hand gives the Browns an advantage they wouldn't have in the more traditional, one-back-carries-the-load approach.
For what the Browns lack or may lack in the passing game, they do have an embarrassment of riches at the running back position. Maybe one running back eventually emerges as a star, but for now, the plan to split carries between Tate, West, Lewis, Ogbonnaya and perhaps even Crowell would benefit the Browns.
Using those backs in a committee would be the best use of their talents and gives the Browns their best chance to field a competitive offense. And Shanahan, in particular, is the right coach to install such a system and make it work.