5 Ways the Cleveland Browns Jump-Start Their Offense in 2012
Make no bones—Mike Holmgren doesn't—the Browns intend to make a big jump this fall, perhaps pumping lifeblood into a fanbase and a city that has been besieged by seemingly every possible travesty, heartbreak and humiliation but continues to stand fierce in its loyalty.
The Browns' 2011 product on the scoring-points side of the football left vast quantities to be desired, pulling in a picayune average of 13.6 points per game, winning them 30th in the league. They averaged 288.8 yards per game, straggling in at 29th, with a 193.1 passing yards average (good for 24th) and a 95.7 rushing yards average—good for 28th.
Oh whoa, whatever is a hapless franchise to do? Here are five ways the Browns intend to jump-start their woebegone offense in 2012.
1. Pound the Rock
"Unless 32 teams are wrong," said one AFC North rival team president, Cleveland has a new star. Trent Richardson brings bell cow cred to a team with a long tradition of great running backs. He gives defensive coaches somebody to worry about and somebody to account for, lest they find themselves gashed.
He's already saying all the right things.
“I want to be the best thing that ever happened to Cleveland,” the Browns rookie running back told FOX Sports last week at the NFL’s Rookie Symposium. “I want to be that type of all-time guy when it comes down to it.”
The Browns will need every ounce of that motivation from the man who seems to have lived his life fueled by his determination to muzzle his doubters.
2. Add the Vertical Dimension
The Browns are counting on the outrageous speed of rookie fourth-round selection out of the University of Miami, Travis Benjamin, who is reported to have run a 4.26 40-yard dash and clocked a 4.36 during the NFL Scouting Combine, good for second best.
There's been speculation that Benjamin will compete for a role in the slot, but that may be an assumption mistakenly placed on his 5'10" and 172lb. measurables. Benjamin's talent may lend itself more to use his quickness to beat bump-and-run and then stretch the field vertically out wide. It now appears that he will be used to add skill variety behind Mohammed Massaquoi. The goal? Decongestion.
A telling Mike Holmgren quote from May: "He's smaller and quicker. He's a different receiver. We have bigger guys, not slow guys, but they're bigger."
Speed has been an area the Browns have been sorely lacking for some time. Speed is a quality that adds another dimension to the field—stretches it, opens it up—especially when teams are stacking the box to stuff Trent Richardson.
At the U, Benjamin caught 41 passes for 609 yards and three touchdowns in 2011 and, notably, ended his time there with 2,146 total reception yards. Only five other players have put up more than 2,000 receiving yards in Hurricane history. The Browns brass like to call Benjamin "fast-on-fast," which will no doubt help, as long as he has the hands to match.
Of course, let it not go unnoticed that Browns rookie QB Brandon Weeden has the arm to make defenses take the vertical threat seriously.
3. Protect the Passer and Open Up Holes in the Trenches
The Browns will trot out five of their own draft picks as their starting offensive line in 2012. The Canton Repository's Steve Doerschuk points out that the average draft position of the five Browns "is No. 58.4 overall, including rookie No. 37 overall pick Mitchell Schwartz," and, "if one excludes the Browns’ lowest pick, 2011 fifth-rounder Jason Pinkston, the average is 38.2."
Mitchell Schwartz, the Browns' 2012 second-round draft selection, is already winning heavy praise from Thomas and should prove an easy upgrade over the injury-troubled Tony Pashos, who played 12 games with a ruptured ankle last year.
The success of the line will hinge on the development of third-year guard Shawn Lauvao and second-year guard Jason Pinkston.
Here's what Pat Shurmur had to say of it in June: "I think they are improving. I see Pinkston improving tremendously. Shawn Lauvao, who I think you correctly assessed him, he’s a young guard as well, he has made good progress in my mind. I feel like they’ve done a good job.”
This unit will have to gel and be consistent to keep Brandon Weeden on his feet as much as possible and open up running lanes for Richardson.
4. Dig Deeper into the Playbook
No offseason in 2011, a rookie head coach, a very young offensive unit learning on the fly—we've heard it all before. The time for action is nigh.
With a full offseason for the Browns players to develop chemistry, Shurmur needs to open up his playbook to keep opposing defenses' nerves raw. A strong offensive line, a reliable running attack and a vertical passing threat will add legitimacy to the Browns offense that defensive coaches will have to account for.
That being the case, Shurmur should have the opportunity to spring some surprises. And he needs to do it to avoid the "predictable" label that plagued the 2011 campaign.
Meanwhile, Shurmur will have Weeden's touch to help add variety. One example would be the red zone fade route that frustrated the Browns last year.
5. Develop Talent
Talent development defies the laws of physics when it comes to the Cleveland Browns. It's been missing in abundance.
Three former head coaches in Defensive Coordinator Dick Jauron, Offensive Coordinator Brad Childress and Defensive Assistant Ray Rhodes. Mike Holmgren, natch. Mark Whipple, former tutor to Donovan McNabb and Ben Roethlisberger. Defensive Line coach Dwaine Board who as a player and coach has been to the Super Bowl six times, and with the winning team five out of those six. Gil Haskell, who was with Holmgren during the '90s run in Green Bay.
And Nolan Cromwell—a senior offensive assistant, the loudest guy in camp, a four-time Pro Bowl defensive back turned wide receiver coach—brought in specifically to bring along the Browns' own young WR corps.
Some claim that Holmgren is stocking the franchise with cronies and stealing Randy Lerner's money, which Lerner categorically denies: "I can say with total personal clarity that Mike Holmgren is as honorable and committed a football leader as I’ve been around. I know he wants this team to do well. I know that he suffers the losses miserably."
But there's another reason to deny the logic on its face: The reputations at stake.
This staff has obviously been assembled—designed, at it were—to develop promising young talent into the thunder on the turf of tomorrow. That is its pedigree. To not accomplish that again would be shameful—a failure of a capstone, as Holmgren himself says this is his last job. But if they can revive the Browns franchise, they will secure their legacies on the shores of Lake Erie for as long as the heart of Cleveland is beating.