Anxious to put a disastrous season behind them, many fans are excitedly speculating on what will happen in the front office: Who will replace head coach Romeo Crennel? Will GM Phil Savage lose his job or accept a lesser role? When will owner Randy Lerner be seen in public again?
But to me, the most interesting speculation is what needs the Browns should address on the field. With such a frustrating season, just about all 53 roster spots need to be fully evaluated.
But not quite all 53.
One player who has solidified his position on the team is running back Jamal Lewis.
Not all of my “fellow GMs-in-waiting” agree. They will tell you that he is getting old, that he doesn’t hit the holes as hard as he used to, even that he is too expensive for the team to benefit from having him.
Admittedly, I will say that these fans have been respectful in their dismissal of Lewis. Most, if not all, agree that Lewis is an extremely hard-working guy with an intense drive and passion for the game.
And that’s a guy fans want to phase out, if not get rid of altogether? Big mistake.
Browns fans, do not underestimate these characteristics. With a long, uphill road in front of them, the Browns are in need of solid veteran leaders to guide them. Not only does Lewis deserve the chance to lead in the locker room and on the field, he demands it.
This is a guy who, a few weeks ago, publicly demanded that Browns offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski give him the ball. This wasn’t a whiny wide receiver complaining because he wasn’t the star getting all the attention; it was a player who wanted to shoulder the responsibility and literally carry the team on his back.
Everyone has heard the ridiculous stat about the Browns’ record when Lewis carries 20 or more times. This year, three of their four wins have come when Lewis has hit that mark.
It’s not a coincidence.
So why not just give the rock to Lewis 20 times and be done with it? Game, set, match, right? Well it doesn’t work that way, and so Lewis has had struggled statistically.
But it’s far from his fault. The Indianapolis game was a perfect example.
Listening to Lewis’ plea for more carries, the Browns ran the ball with Lewis six times on a nine-play game-opening drive. Of course, like so many drives before and after it, this one resulted in a field goal.
Ironically, this drive was foolish in that in completely revealed the Browns’ game plan. By making it obvious that they planned on running all day, the Colts were able to adjust and eventually shut down the run.
Of course, this predictable play-calling has been a signature of the Browns’ offense all season. The Browns percentage of running plays on first and second down is staggering. By not keeping the defense off-balance, Lewis’ effectiveness is limited.
Not only has the play-calling hurt Lewis, but so has the ineffectiveness of the players surrounding Lewis. With a star receiver who can’t be relied upon along with a host of injuries across the board, it’s been difficult for Lewis to succeed.
The Browns have not had a downfield passing game all season. Regardless of who’s throwing the ball or who is trying to catch it, the Browns have lacked big-play ability.
With no threat of a passing game that would stretch the field, defenses are able to load up and sell-out against the run. Believe me, the trio of Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, and Ken Dorsey doesn’t scare anybody. Opposing defenses all have the same game plan: Stop Lewis and make the Browns throw.
Not only have injuries and inconsistency hurt the passing game, but their effect has been felt on the offensive line as well.
First and foremost, the Browns have missed Ryan Tucker sorely. Tucker is regarded as arguably the Browns’ best offensive lineman, and he has missed virtually the entire season. Eric Steinbach has also played hurt, and the unit has lacked overall cohesion since the get-go.
Yet despite the poor play-calling and injuries, Lewis has still managed to rip off explosive runs and fight for the tough yards. Other than against Tennessee, Lewis has shown a burst through the hole in many games—when the hole is actually there.
He’s also picked up a number of first downs in short-yardage situations and has been reliable as a receiver out of the backfield.
Another fact that is commonly overlooked is Jamal Lewis’ durability. Lewis has started all but one game since joining the Browns. For a guy who is supposed to be old, he sure doesn’t miss action like an old guy.
Speaking of old, Lewis will be 30 when next season opens. He’ll be two months younger than LaDanian Tomlinson, whom he trails by 85 rushing yards this season. I don’t hear anyone talking about what L.T.’s future with the Chargers should be.
Fans’ best case for replacing Lewis seems to be Jerome Harrison. Harrison is a nice player, but even he has thrived mainly as a change-of-pace for Lewis. Nonetheless, Harrison does not strike me as an every-down type of back, and even if he was, today’s most successful NFL teams have a steady one-two punch in the running game.
Once the Browns have a play-caller who knows how to use all the weapons the right way, Lewis will flourish.
Drafting a running back next spring would be pointless. Sure, it would be nice to have a stud prospect like Beanie Wells, but it would be a complete oversight to not address the team’s other glaring holes.
Just one season ago, Jamal Lewis rushed for over 1,300 yards, evidence that he’s still got a lot of yards left in him. If the Browns can make the right moves in the front office and on the roster, Jamal Lewis will be the foundation of the Browns’ turnaround in 2009.