Entering the 2011 offseason, there was much uncertainty awaiting the Cleveland Browns. On January 13th, president Mike Holmgren made the call to hire new head coach Pat Shurmur and from there the final steps in the process began.
Shurmur declared himself as the offensive coordinator, the position he recently held with the St. Louis Rams. He then brought in Mark Whipple as quarterbacks coach, the man that many feel will take over as offensive coordinator after a few seasons, and Chris Tabor to lead the special teams unit.
A short offseason with a complete team makeover led most analysts to believe the Cleveland Browns were primed for another miserable season.
Fast-forward to now, entering Week 4, and the Browns are sitting at 2-1 in the AFC North after victories over both the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins. The one loss came in a very winnable opening day against the Bengals, where the Browns offense struggled to get over their nerves and adjust to the new scheme.
Records and stats are one thing, but how does their offensive performance break down by position?
Second-year starter Colt McCoy has had his share of growing pains in the early part of the season. He has completed 60-of-111 attempts for a 54.1 percent completion rate. McCoy has thrown for 634 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions for a 78.4 quarterback rating.
What the numbers don't reveal, however, is the leadership and poise in the pocket McCoy has shown. He has hit 10 different receivers already while spreading the ball around, and looks to be grasping the nuances of a West Coast offense.
While Peyton Hillis hasn't given fans a highlight reel like last season in the early going, he has been a steady hand in the backfield. In the first two games, Hillis has run 44 attempts for 151 yards and two touchdowns, while adding 10 receptions for 53 yards. He then missed Week 3 with strep throat, opening the doorway for 2010 second-round pick Montario Hardesty. Hardesty, this season, has rumbled for 86 yards on 22 rushing attempts, while adding three receptions for 19 yards.
As the season progresses, expect Hillis to settle into the offense and be the explosive back he was last season, while the workload for Hardesty should increase as the staff gains confidence in his health.
In the West Coast scheme, tight ends are supposed to play a vital role, getting the tough yards and being dependable while converting in key situations. For the Browns, they have a trio currently being utilized: Ben Watson, Evan Moore and Alex Smith.
Watson, easily the most seasoned pass-catching option on the roster, has 10 receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown. Moore has brought down six receptions 70 yards and two touchdowns, while Smith has rounded out the lineup with four catches for 28 yards.
The lack of production from the tight end corps has been surprising; it was expected Moore would be a bigger part of the offense after signing an extension in the offseason. Clearly, he has been a red-zone target since he leads the team in touchdowns, but the dependable hands of Moore need to be used better as a safety blanket for the Browns' young quarterback.
When you have only had four actual wide receivers catch a pass this season, and none of them are in your team's top two receiving targets, you know there is a problem with the offense. Currently Mohamed Massaquoi and Greg Little both have eight receptions, while Josh Cribbs has seven and Jordan Norwood has one.
That is an average of eight catches per game from the entire wide receiving group. Massaquoi has shown flashes of explosiveness, and Little has shown spurts of toughness that made him a dominant target at North Carolina. For the Browns to succeed, these two need to establish themselves as receiving threats to allow the middle of the field to open up for the offense.
So far, the offense has looked one-dimensional. To say it has underachieved would be accurate, if not an understatement. No real deep threat has emerged, nor do the plays being called seem to indicate their should be a receiver open downfield. Too many times there are empty-backfield sets, and it seems that Shurmur has yet to realize the strengths of Hillis.
When the weather starts to get colder, it is expected Shurmur will learn the value of being able to pound the ball relentlessly in the AFC North. Running the ball roughs up the defense and leaves them tired, opening up the box for passing attempts. Cleveland will need to figure out their offensive identity in the coming weeks, or else the four games against the Ravens and Steelers to end the season could demoralize the success they have built early.