When team president Mike Holmgren selected Pat Shurmur to be the next head coach of the Cleveland Browns, it became all but a certainty that the Browns will make the switch to a variation of the West Coast offense in 2011.
While the implementation of the WCO is expected to boost the production of quarterback Colt McCoy and the struggling Browns offense, exactly where does it leave Browns running back and offensive MVP Peyton Hillis?
The short answer is that is leaves Hillis in a very promising position.
In 2010, Peyton Hillis was asked to be the featured back for the first time since his high school days and he responded by rushing for 1,177 yards, 11 touchdowns and a respectable 4.4 YPC average.
His bruising, dominating running style and ability to plow through the middle of the defense allowed the Browns offense to compete, even when the rest of the offense struggled to find any sort of rhythm. Not bad for an under-the-radar acquisition from Denver.
However, Hillis is far from just another Reuben Droughns. While Hillis is at home pushing his way up the middle, his quickness and agility allow him to also be effective running to the outside. Add in a devastating stiff-arm, a nifty spin move and one heck of a hurdle, and his running style is a far cry from the "three yards and a cloud of dust" seen by most backs of his stature.
Of course, the WCO features a pass-first mentality, often utilizing short, rhythmic passes in lieu of the run.
Well, Hillis shouldn't have much difficulty making the adjustment. One of Hillis' most underrated attributes is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Hillis is a natural receiver and has the uncanny ability to pluck the ball out of mid-air, often making it look easy as he catches the ball on the run.
Not only is Hillis a viable target out of the backfield, but his soft hands, vision and ability to adjust to the ball allow him to be a downfield threat as well.
In 2010, Hillis amassed 477 receiving yards on an astonishing 61 receptions.
Let that sink in for a second. A 6'1", 240 lb. power back managed to catch 61 passes in Brian Daboll's conservative run-based offense. Just imagine what Hillis could do as a pass catcher in Shurmur's variation of the WCO.
Hillis is also a very versatile player and should easily adapt to the offensive schemes implemented in 2011. At the University of Arkansas, Hillis spent time at multiple positions including fullback, halfback, tight end, slot receiver and on special teams as a punt and kick returner. Shurmur should have little trouble finding ways to get the football into Hillis' hands.
In order to get a good idea of the type of production Shurmur can get out of Hillis, one only need look to the last running back that Shurmur coached, Steven Jackson.
In two seasons as the offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, Shurmur coached Jackson to two very productive seasons. Between 2009 and 2010, Jackson rushed for 2,657 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also caught 97 passes for 705 yards.
In fact, Hillis and Jackson are very similar players, both in size and ability. Jackson is exactly one inch taller and four pounds lighter than Hillis and both are very versatile backs who combine the power, quickness and receiving ability needed to thrive in the WCO. Shurmur should feel right at home coaching Hillis to his own productive seasons.
While there is no question that there will be changes to be made in order to make the WCO work in Cleveland, at least one player should have no trouble finding a place in the new system.
Pat Shurmur inherits a lot of question marks on offense, but he also inherits a running back seemingly custom made for the West Coast offense. At least it's a good start.
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