Cleveland Browns: 7 Reasons Starting 4 Offensive Rookies Could Be Problematic
All signs point to a first-team lineup featuring QB Brandon Weeden, RB Trent Richardson, OT Mitchell Schwartz and WR Joshua Gordon. Should fans shake with trepidation or quiver with anticipation?
The Browns apparently imminent sale (Mary Kay Cabot, The Plain Dealer) could be great news for those four rookies. There’s only so much fan ire to go around, after all. Give the rookies a break; let’s demonstrate in front of Randy Lerner’s house!
No one begrudges someone selling what is rightfully his or hers. However, this is the brand of bald-faced mendacity emblematic of the contempt with which the one percenters treat everyone else. Furthermore—
Where was I? Oh, right. Rookies on the offense.
The new CBA may help to preserve players’ bodies, but it is not helping rookies' minds.
Just look at poor Blaine Gabbert’s struggles in Jacksonville last season after the lockout. Of course, Mr. Gabbert was trying to play professional football with slow WRs and a Swiss cheese O-line—but you get the point.
The less time in practice, the more important the I.Q. The Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians waxed positively poetic this week (according to NFL.com’s Dan Hanzus) when enthusing about Andrew Luck’s mental acuity:
I've never been around a guy who can learn that fast…his learning curve is so quick…those young receivers, young tight ends, he'll leave them in the dust.
In Cleveland, Brandon Weeden and Brad Childress can’t afford to let anyone lag behind as they attempt to add water and score in 2012.
Defense, Defense and More Defense
Isn’t this article supposed to be about rookies on the offense?
Sure, but how is an offense led by a 28-year-old rookie QB supposed to succeed in a vacuum?
One need look no farther than the Browns' own AFC North for successful freshmen signal-callers: Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton.
All started virtually immediately; all made it to the playoffs in their inaugural NFL campaigns. Can Weeden make it four?
The primary factor in these three QBs' immediate success was defensive dominance.
No matter how old Ray Lewis may be, he is always going to be a defensive coordinator on the field. It’s no coincidence that the Ravens have had approximately 14 defensive coordinators since 2000, and yet, that defense just keeps on chugging and tackling.
In 2008, the Baltimore defense made 34 sacks, 34 interceptions, 13 turnovers and five touchdowns. I think we can just stop there.
The Steel Curtain, 2004 edition, featured the following athletes in their prime: James Farrior, Larry Foote, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Clark Haggans, Kimo Von Oelhoffen, Casey Hampton, Ike Taylor. Plus they had 2002 draftees James Harrison and Brett Keisel.
Honestly, how many points did the offense need to score?
Filling in for Scott Fujita
The Browns' passing defense ended 2011 as one of the top units in the NFL. The run D—not so much.
That may be a slightly inaccurate depiction of their true performance levels since (due to an offense that couldn’t manage more than 13 points per week) opponents stuck to a ball-control offense while protecting their late-game leads.
However, there's no doubt that the Browns rushing defense must improve for a rookie-filled offense to have a prayer.
According to yahoosports.com (via Associated Press), Pat Shurmur is rotating linebackers in and out of the Scott Fujita linebacker slot, hoping to find a replacement for the first few games, and eventually, for Fujita’s not-too-distant retirement.
Rookies James-Michael Johnson and Emmanuel Acho have both taken turns at OLB. Acho will probably start his NFL life on special teams, but he has impressed Pat Shurmur thus far.
Johnson isn’t disappointing coaches either:
He’s one of those linebackers that’s got position flexibility. He can play both outside spots and he’s played some snaps in the middle, so we feel good about him joining that group.
—Pat Shurmur for Clevelandbrowns.com
In the “News Browns Fans Do Not Wish to Hear” department, The Plain Dealer reported that run-stuffer and sack-master Ahtyba Rubin is recovering from a “slight pelvic tear.” Say it ain’t so!
Bookend DT Phi Taylor is out for an extended period with a pectoral tear, so there isn’t room in optimistic Cleveland thoughts for an injury to Rubin. Rubin in currently on the PUP list, though he's far enough along in recovery to run sprints.
Rookies John Hughes and Billy Winn are already competing with Scott Paxson for Taylor’s spot on the D-line. No wonder they’re working so hard!
Rookie QBs and the Running Game
Ben Roethlisberger took over as the starting QB in the fourth game of his rookie year (2004). He competed 66.4 percent of his passes. Wow. He also only attempted 295 passes.
As an historical comparison, in 2011 Drew Brees attempted 657 passes on his way to a record-setting season and a QB rating of 110.8. Who even knew the rating went that high?
So, the 2004 Steelers offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt, didn’t exactly let Big Ben loose in the passing game. He didn’t need to.
Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley rushed 442 times for 1,771 yards and 14 scores (13 of them by “The Bus”).
Rookie Joe Flacco attempted 428 passes on his way to the playoffs. He finished the year with 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Well, that’s not going to keep Joe Montana up nights worrying about his legacy.
Ah, but he had Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee and Ray Rice on his side.These three men ran the ball 509 times for 2,027 yards and 17 scores.
Andy Dalton had a bit of help, too. Bengals Cedric Benson, Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard combined for 402 carries, 1,532 yards and nine touchdowns.
While they were not the rushing stats put up by a Steelers team one year away from a Super Bowl, it’s easy to see how the rookie Red Rifle had some breathing room.
The 2011 Bengals controlled the ball for 30:17 minutes per game.
The 2004 Steelers had the ball for 33:59 minutes every Sunday. (Or Monday, or—well you get the picture.)
The 2008 Baltimore Ravens controlled the clock for over 33:20 minutes per game.
And that's what a running game gives you.
We might as well start at the top: Maurice Jones-Drew
The tiny (well, short anyway) powerball played in all 16 games of his rookie campaign. He carried the ball 166 times for 941 yards, 13 touchdowns and 46 first downs. He fumbled once too.
And, he was on a team that still had Fred Taylor toting the rock.
Ray Rice also played behind some older starters, and yet, had similar success.
Rookie rushers asked to carry their offense in the last couple of years? Not quite so successful.
Darren McFadden, Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams proceeded to become immediately injured.
Ryan Matthews and Mark Ingram followed suit—though with injuries less severe.
DeMarco Murray—injured. Are we seeing a pattern?
When people aren’t comparing Trent Richardson to the incredibly durable Emmitt Smith, they are likening him to Adrian Peterson of Minnesota.
Teams were afraid to draft Peterson due to injury concerns, and he has proven to be a cross between a tank and a missile. (No, that freak-twisting tackle that caused his knee injury does not count as injury-prone.)
Peterson has done everything that he can to lift the Vikings offense.
If the offensive line's pass protection had been just a few plays stronger, Minnesota would have faced Indy in the Super Bowl instead of the Saints.
In 2011, that same O-line couldn’t protect veteran Donovan McNabb or rookie Christian Ponder.
Peterson did the best he could—which is pretty good. He carried the ball an average of 17.3 times per week. That’s actually not enough for a team whose passing game struggled that badly.
Had Adrian been given the rock 25 times per game, Ponder might have found Percy Harvin a few more times. Or…Peterson would have been injured in Week 2.
What other bell-cow rushers in the NFL carried their teams as rookies?
LeSean McCoy? Nope—he had Brian Westbrook for eight games.
Michael Turner? Nope—remember LaDainian Tomlinson?
DeAngelo Williams? No—DeShaun Foster.
Then, there are the huge rookie fizzles. One may not wish to declare C.J. Spiller, Knowshon Moreno and Shonn Greene to be official “busts.” Whatever. None of them are Adrian Peterson.
Then, there’s Steven Jackson. No, his rookie numbers weren’t enormous because he played with Marshall Faulk.
However, No. 39 has been the sole ray of light in St. Louis since Kurt Warner got run out of town by Mike (“We don’t need no stinkin’ O-line") Martz.
That’s eight solid years of toiling in rugged, oft-tackled offensive purgatory. One hopes for Jackson’s sake that Sam Bradford can rocket up the production curve before it’s time for this most studly of power rushers to enter his five-year wait for Canton.
In Sam Bradford’s rookie season, Jackson carried the ball 330 times (no, that’s not a typo) for 1,145 yards. He also received 46 passes.
Those are the kind of numbers that Cleveland fans hope to see out of Pat Shurmur’s play-calling in 2012 for Trent Richardson.
Anything less will not do it.
OK, let’s just admit it. Cleveland fans desperately hope that Brandon Weeden to Josh Gordon is going to look a lot like Andy Dalton to A.J. Green.
Last year’s rookie Bengals ball-catcher extraordinaire hauled in 65 balls (regular season) for 1,057 yards, seven scores and 43 first downs. Yeah, the Dawg Pound could live with that.
Is it likely? That depends upon how trustworthy Josh Gordon turns out to be now that he’s gotten paid.
Is he repentant, grateful and a changed man? Or is he a con artist destined to be a poor man’s JaMarcus Russell?
On the plus side:
1. Gordon is big (6’3” and 224ish lbs).
2. He’s fast for a guy who's big (4.52-4.54 consistently in the 40-yard dash). He’s fluid and naturally gifted at the position.
3. He’s a smart young man who has already played in a West Coast-style offense at Baylor. Asked about it on the first day of camp, Gordon told the Associated Press: “I know the terminology. It’s not too hard.”
On the downright terrifying side:
1. Three failed drug tests—one of which he was, shall we say, less than forthcoming about until this week according to multiple sources. Oh dear.
2. Hasn’t played a game since 2010.
3. Family concerns. One of the reported reasons that Gordon declared for the supplemental draft is that his family was very much in need financially. Young Joshua is now pulling the money train for his relatives. One hopes that it doesn’t have too many cars.
Arguably the best WR in the NFL was fortunate to come from a solid family background with adequate means and to have early contact with professional football. His character was thought to be (and has indeed proven to be) beyond reproach. I'm referring to Larry FItzgerald. Hmmmm.
In 2004, with quarterbacks John Navarre, Shaun King and Josh McCown, Fitzgerald caught 58 balls for 780 yards and eight touchdowns. Hmmmm.
Cleveland Ohio would prefer that Weeden turn out to be more like Andy Dalton and not at all like Matt Leinart.
Shhhh—don’t even think it!
Rookie Offensive Linemen
Sean O’Hara, former New York Giants center, said this week on NFL Total Access (July 23rd):
When you hear the words “rookie” “quarterback,” your first thought is, “Man, I’m going to have to hold onto my block forever."
The man who broke in a baby Eli Manning ought to know.
Can Mitchell Schwartz hang onto his starting spot at RT? And if he does, will he be the Joe Thomas mirror that the Browns need in both the pass and run games? We’ll know in September.
Recent rookie tackles has been successful:
1. Seahawk James Carpenter was a starter at RT prior to a knee injury.
2. Charger Stephen Schilling was drafted as a developmental project but broke the lineup due to injuries and shows true promise.
3. Eagle Danny Watkins became a starter at guard after four games and has turned into a dependable blocker.
4. Second-generation Raider Stefen Wisniewski delivered on the hope that he will anchor that line for the next decade.
5. Patriot rookie Nate Solder could step in for the retiring Matt Light.
6. The Pouncey brothers have made quarterbacks in Pittsburgh and Miami healthier and happier.
Colleges are clearly turning out NFL-ready linemen, and we haven’t seen anything this summer to think that Schwartz is an exception.
See Weeden and Trent Richardson smiling?
How History Sees It
The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Tom Reed helpfully provided the three teams in NFL history that have started a rookie running back and a rookie quarterback:
The 1968 expansion Cincinnati Bengals (Dewey Warren/Paul Robinson), the 1969 Dallas Cowboys (Roger Staubach/Calvin Hill) and the 2008 Baltimore Ravens (Joe Flacco/Ray Rice). Two of the teams (Cowboys and Ravens) made the playoffs, one of the quarterbacks (Warren) never played in the NFL after his rookie season.
Since Ray Rice shared the backfield with Willis McGahee, comparisons need to be made with the other two teams.
The 1968 Bengals won three games. OK—moving on.
In 1969, running back Calvin Hill was named Rookie of the Year.
The 27-year-old rookie QB Roger Staubach did not start and finished the season with a 48.9 completion percentage.
Two years later (at the hopefully magical quarterback age of 29), Staubach started 10 games, threw for 15 touchdowns and achieved a rating of 104.8.
Kind of like looking into the Browns’ future, right?