This preseason finds most Cleveland fans and followers in a position of optimism that is somewhat unfamiliar.
The Cleveland Browns, and their fans, have been the butt ends of bad jokes, predictable criticisms, and insults for far too long, but it appears that the paradigm in Cleveland could be shifting.
And not a moment too soon either.
Perhaps the biggest reasons for optimism are, in order:
A revamped and capable defensive backfield, which has been a crutch for several years.
The new faces and people in key positions should improve that unit greatly.
A QB that will lend unquestioned leadership and stability to a position that has been in flux since the drafting of Tim Couch.
Jake Delhomme is likely not a savior for the Browns, but he is a proven leader that many believe can still play. I’m still out on that, but, I think it's easy to assume that he’ll have better numbers than Anderson and Quinn combined last season.
And finally, there’s a group of running backs intact that seem poised to breakout and go to the next level.
Harrison and Hardesty could combine to be a very lethal duo because both have speed and both run with tenacity.
In my mind, the third point is probably the biggest reason that Cleveland could shock a lot of teams this season.
The simple fact is that the running game is critically important to having a balanced offensive attack, and the lack thereof can prove to be detrimental to a team's offensive success.
And that fact could be the biggest reason that Cleveland’s offense struggled as badly as it did last year, in spite of Brian Daboll.
A poor performing, past his prime Jamal Lewis, and almost weekly changes at the RB position didn’t allow any chemistry to be built. Which certainly made it tougher than it probably should have been in the early going.
However, when they stuck with one guy (Harrison) for the last three games of the season, the improvement was vast as the stability and offensive progress cannot be denied.
Now, make no mistake, I’m NOT defending Brian Daboll and his coordination abilities or lack thereof last season, but I also do not think last season’s dismal performance was solely his fault.
There were a lot of parts and pieces that were inadequate last season and there was no doubt that Daboll was a little over his head, and it was obvious.
However, with a young running back poised to breakout in Jerome Harrison and now a standout draft selection at the running back spot in Montario Hardesty in the fold, there’s reason to believe the running game could be a catalyst for offensive success this season.
The question now becomes, how is the running game going to implemented?
In my mind, the smartest thing that Cleveland could do would be to implement their running game as close to the way that Carolina does as possible.
Carolina has proven that a “running back by committee” approach can be extremely effective, and can allow you to continually deploy a ready, fresh back.
Not to mention, Jake Delhomme understands how that works from his days in Carolina.
Last season, Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams combined for 2250 yards rushing and 18 TDs, and that was working behind a line that man for man I believe is worse than Cleveland’s.
Read that again...2250 yards and 18 TDs, behind an average line. That’s huge .
Obviously, expecting anything like that from the combination of Hardesty and Harrison would be somewhat unrealistic, but I think it’s possible they can combine for somewhere around 1700-1850 yards and 11-13 TDs.
I believe that Harrison will be the starting back, with Hardesty getting ample time to play and learn behind him, until middle to late this season when Hardesty may be ready for an expanded role.
If Cleveland can emulate the Panthers' offense, at least from a rushing standpoint, then the offensive success is going to improve greatly.
As stated earlier, the run opens up the pass, and the pass sets up the run.
Both elements have to be working cohesively within and around one another to work, and with the O-line in place right now and a QB that should be able to perform at least adequately, this season looks to be a major improvement over last year.
It remains to be seen what Hardesty and Harrison are going to do in camp and how that positional battle will play out, but I think we can all finally be content with the running game.
Harrison proved last season that he has the capability to carry the load, rushing 106 times for 561 yards over the final three weeks of the season.
The knock there is that it was against inferior competition, however I’ve said it before...NFL competition is the best in the world, even on a poor team.
And Harrison’s best performance, maybe not statistically, was against the playoff bound Jacksonville Jaguars.
Bottom line, he’s earned the right to be the starter, and he’ll get that chance in camp, however, I hope that Hardesty can come in a grasp the play book right away, in order to challenge Harrison.
Because that’s when most believe he’s at his best.
This is going to be an interesting season, and the success of Cleveland’s offense could depend heavily on the success of Harrison and Hardesty.
Here’s hoping that they flourish.