This summer, much of the chatter coming out of the Cleveland Browns training camp was about the ever-growing chemistry between quarterback Josh McCown and Brian Hartline. They connected on pass after pass, and Hartline could not stop raving about the man presumed to spend all of 2015 under center for Cleveland.
"It is a very favorable ball to catch. He throws a great football. It is easy on you. He is fun to play with. You guys see him how he communicates out there and talks to everybody and getting things situated. He definitely makes it easy on a lot of other guys," said Hartline of McCown in early September.
And Hartline also drew the praise of his coaches. Head coach Mike Pettine said that, "All this guy does is get open and catch the ball... He continues to prove that here. Ultimate professional, comes out and works every day. I think he has great body control. His catch radius is tremendous and he's a veteran. He just knows how to get open. He understand[s] it."
|Brian Hartline Through 2 Weeks|
|via Pro Football Focus|
But yet, Hartline has been a non-factor in the Browns' first two games of the 2015 season. According to Pro Football Focus, Hartline has played 70 of the Browns' total 120 offensive snaps, or 58.3 percent. While he played 50 of the Browns' 71 snaps in Week 1, that number went down to just 20 of 49 in Week 2.
He saw five passing targets against the New York Jets, catching two passes for 20 yards. And in Week 2, against the Tennessee Titans, he had only two passing targets with zero catches. So what happened? Where was the Hartline who was supposed to be a centerpiece of Cleveland's passing offense?
For one, McCown's concussion happened. With McCown off the field after the Browns' first offensive series of the year and being held out from the team's second game, the quarterback duties fell to backup Johnny Manziel, who has not built the same rapport with Hartline as McCown.
And secondly, Pettine said on Thursday (via the Akron Beacon Journal's Nate Ulrich) that the Week 2 game plan and "personnel groupings" resulted in reduced playing time for Hartline.
The switch back to McCown, who was cleared to practice and play by the NFL earlier in the week, from Manziel should result in Hartline seeing increased involvement. But even while Pettine pointed out that McCown and Hartline do have chemistry as a quarterback-receiver tandem, he couldn't commit to saying that Hartline's passing targets would go up.
This makes sense, of course. While the Oakland Raiders are certainly looking for ways to limit the home run passes thrown to Travis Benjamin, they are just as certainly aware of the burgeoning connection between Hartline and McCown, and will game-plan accordingly. There also are the in-game adjustments to consider; if McCown and Hartline click early, the Raiders are going to attempt to find ways to stop that pipeline from being productive.
Pettine's right: There's no way to truly predict or anticipate Hartline's targets on Sunday and if there were a way to do so, there's also no way that Pettine would make that information public.
But that doesn't deny the fact that Hartline needs to be more involved with the offense, especially with Benjamin on defenses' radars and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo conceding on Thursday that Dwayne Bowe is not 100 percent healthy from his August hamstring injury and will continue to be limited for the time being.
The thing that McCown needs the most, now that we've seen that Manziel has some capability as an NFL quarterback, is someone he can make plays with. Hartline spent the summer being that player, but it's a whole different animal when asked to replicate that success in a live game. The Browns, though, are running out of playmaking options and cannot afford Hartline to be a shrinking violet any longer.
The first step is to get Hartline on the field for more than 50 percent of the Browns' offensive snaps on Sunday. The second is for McCown and Hartline to create opportunities for themselves. If Hartline "just knows how to get open," as Pettine said, then he needs to actually show that ability in order to help his quarterback and his team.