Browns' Running Game Is the Key to Success

Tom HammerContributor IAugust 18, 2009

BEREA, OH - AUGUST 07: Jamal Lewis #31 of the Cleveland Browns flips the ball in the air during training camp at the Cleveland Browns Training and Administrative Complex on August 7, 2009 in Berea, Ohio.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

If I had a dollar for every Brady Quinn versus Derek Anderson article I've read this preseason, I'd be able to afford a dozen overpriced 16-ounce beers at any NFL stadium.

The overly-publicized QB battle is clearly the focus, but I'm here to say it will have significantly less impact on wins and losses than many other crucial aspects going into the season, most importantly the Browns' run game.

The reality of pro football is if you can't run the ball, then your quarterback will have a difficult time throwing it. 

The only caveat to that is Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. They proved last year you can still be successful in the pass game with a dismal running game.  But Peyton Manning is a once-in-a-generation quarterback and the Colts' offense is a pass first offense to begin with.

When the Browns were successful in 2007, Jamal Lewis was bulldozing through holes and establishing a solid run game.  They called it a career-rejuvenating season for Lewis, but more importantly, from a team perspective, it opened up a plethora of other options for the Browns' offense.

Play action was a staple that year, with Anderson and Braylon Edwards stretching the defense vertically.  Safeties had to respect the run, forcing them to play closer to the line of scrimmage.  Defensive ends and tackles couldn't just sell out towards the passer but rather had to hold their positions and play gap responsibility. 

At the end of the day, teams had to stop the run first, which opened up the passing game and allowed Anderson and Braylon Edwards to have career seasons. 

Now I fully admit, drops and missed o-line assignments had a factor in the failure of the passing game and under performance of Browns QBs. But in my opinion, those were secondary to the fact that the team could not run the ball. 

In 2007, the team averaged 4.3 yards per carry for a total of 1895 rushing yards.  In 2008, the average dropped to 3.9 yards per carry for a total of 1606 rushing yards. 

That doesn't seem like a huge discrepancy, but when you consider football is a game of inches, and the number of close games the Browns lost, it's a significant delta.

Jamal Lewis suffered the most, as his yards-per-carry average went from 4.4 in 2007 to 3.6 in 2008.

Maybe even more importantly is what the running game means to time of possession. 

In 2007, the Browns averaged a time of possession of 29:30.  In 2008 that dropped to 27.32.  That's a two minute difference, and football fans know how many points are put up in the final two minutes of every half and game.

New head coach Eric Mangini loves the run game, which just amplifies its importance. 

And in the NFC North, the new black and blue division, with stellar Steelers and Ravens defenses, it is imperative you run the football.

The point I'll try not to lose is that the media can and will focus on Quinn vs. Anderson.  Each and every possession, snap and drop back will be analyzed and scrutinized. 

I, however, will focus on the run game and know the only way the Browns win this year and improve offensively is to get better up front and in the backfield.

So the real question I'd like to ask fans, media and coaches is how do the Browns get back to a yard-per carry-average of 4.3-4.5, which would indicate moderate success? 

Clearly, 59 yards in the preseason opener isn't getting it done.

Is Jamal Lewis past his prime and is it time for the younger backs to get a chance?  Do they need to dedicate themselves to the run and be willing to hand it off on any down and in any situation? 

I believe its a combination of both.  I think Lewis can still be effective if they can get him running downhill, which means the o-line has to create and maintain running lanes.  But I also think they should utilize Harrison more as a change of pace back.

I also think that any good run team has to commit to using the option to hand the ball off on each and every down, so the defense has to respect it.  Far too often, it seems coordinators think committing to the run means handing it off on first and second down. 

First down is the most crucial down in football and a team must keep a defense off balance.  I like teams that utilize the short passing game on first down to supplement the run.  Swing passes, quick slants, wide out and running back screens keep teams off balance.

A team that is successful on first down allows itself a running play option for second and third if needed.

In summary, I'd like to challenge somebody to keep track of the metric that correlates yards-per-carry to the overall performance of the quarterback in the passing game. 

You could use QB rating to gauge it for all I care. 

But I guarantee that the lower the yards-per-carry average, the lower the QB rating. That goes for whether the Browns line up Brady Quinn, Derek Anderson or Bernie Kosar under center.