Talent is lush at the running back position for the Cleveland Browns, but competitiveness is lacking, according to the team's running backs coach.
Wilbert Montgomery criticized his players Sunday afternoon for a lack of desire, saying that "nobody wants the role" of starting running back.
Following a 2014 campaign that saw the Browns offense sputter at the end, the club came up with a revised plan: Pound the rock to set up the pass.
The Browns beefed up the offensive line with Cameron Erving and added running back Duke Johnson in the draft to fulfill this plan of action. Add in Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West, who each notched over 600 rushing yards last year, and the Browns appeared to have the makings of a fearsome rushing attack.
This plan has not come to fruition in training camp. West has missed the past week with a calf strain, Johnson is dealing with a hamstring problem, and Shaun Draughn suffered a thumb injury on Thursday, further depleting the depth chart.
On top of the injuries, Crowell has not performed all that well in training camp.
The bleak state of affairs led to an unhappy Montgomery press conference on Sunday.
Below are Montgomery's main points. You can watch a portion of Montgomery's press conference here, courtesy of Cleveland.com.
Montgomery doesn't understand why a back wouldn't want to be the starter:
"How can you play and not want to be a starter? It just bothers me that guys don't want to be the lead bell-cow guy. I always talk to them about what this game gives you as a young person, what it does for them in life and to their families. So if you want to be a backup then be a backup, but I mean you're gonna get replaced. At some point you've got to be a starter if you want to hang around ... The guys that were here last year, you look for somebody to take that next step. Is it going to happen? I don't know, and that's why I let them know every day, the competition is still the same. It hasn't changed. Nobody wants the role."
Montgomery wishes one player would step up and be a "bell cow guy":
"You always [got] the one bell cow guy. These kids here have to realize what's important for them now. If I want to make money and get the next contract, I've got to show something. I really have to show something and right now I think the importance of that is missing. Why can't West take the big step? Why can't [Glenn] Winston take the big step? Again, it's like why can't a young guy like Duke come in and take that step? Somebody has to say, 'You know what, hey, this is my team. I want the lead role. I want to be the guy.''
The injuries at the position could have been avoided with better preparation, and that's frustrating to Montgomery:
"The disappointing thing was that all those guys approaching here and not being in tip-top shape. I think that was a total setback and now they are climbing back up hill and that's why they're taking a backseat right now. In this game right here, if you're going to be a running back, your job is to get hit and your job is being able to bounce back from injuries really quickly because it's most like playing a game every week. Each day you've got to be healthy and ready to go and you've got to play injured, you've got to play sore and you've got to play banged up, and if you can't play with those thing there, you really can't play."
A repeat of last year's rotation situation is the last thing Montgomery wants:
"You need multiple backs, but I want one guy to be able to say, 'Hey, we know who the starter is, like the other 31 teams in the National Football League. All the backs are doing well. It's just that you're looking for the guy you can strap the saddle on and they just say, 'Hey, I want the job.'''
Crowell isn't using the current situation to earn the starting role:
"He's got to show me that he's hungry. And [what] I mean by hungry, if you want to be a starter, you practice like a starter and you do the things that you'd want. You take care of your body. You show up and do the things that are going to keep you healthy, get treatment after practice, hydrate, do all the little things you have to do in order to be that guy ... I'm not saying he's not showing it, but as a coach, you're looking for more. You're looking for more because I've coached the Marshall Faulks, the Steven Jacksons, the Ray Rices, the Willis McGahees. I know Crow was [an undrafted] free agent. These guys were first-round draft picks, so I want to put him at the top of the ladder like these guys were. They wanted the ball, and they demanded the ball. And that's what you want. You want somebody to demand the ball."
West is working hard, but he's missing critical time to earn the starting role.
"Terrance has done everything that we've asked him to do up to this point,. He worked hard. He's working hard every day that he's out on the field. His demeanor is definitely not the same as it was last season. In classrooms, he's always asking the questions. If he's not clear about something, he asks questions. Terrance has done a great job. I'm proud of where he's at right now.''
Johnson can still be the top gun this season. He's missing key reps in training camp, but he's not far behind Crowell and West:
"I can't say that Duke won't be the bell cow or Crow won't be the bell cow or West or the other guys, but I do think at looking at what we went through last year... that you have opportunity to showcase your abilities and what you can do when you get out on the field. He's just missing reps. He's sitting in meetings all the time, taking notes, doing what we ask him to do, but Duke showed so much in the OTAs and the mini-camp, and before his injury, he showed us the things that we wanted to see, so as long as he stays focused and stays into it, I think he's going to be okay because he had done a lot of things already. The running part of it, he's a running back. Put him on his track and tell him his keys, and he's going to be fine. Plus, he played in the system before, so he has a little bit of an advantage than the other guys like Crowell and West. They've never played in the system, and last year was the first time. Duke has been in it all three years in college."
Montgomery raved about Johnson's versatility. The two-time Pro Bowler believes Johnson can be the feature back, in addition to an all-around weapon:
"He gives you another dimension that we don't have in the group that we had last year because Duke can be a slot receiver, he can line up wide, and you can move him all over the field. It's like he's a total mismatch. In my report, I wrote him up as a Thurman Thomas-type running back when he came out because he can be in any spot and he can take full advantage of his athleticism. When you're on this level, everybody can be a lead back/ It's what you're looking for. We don't have a bell-cow guy. The game today is a situational game, and you don't know what personnel you're putting out there on the field. You can go three wides, four wides or two tight ends-one back. It all depends on what the coordinator calls and what personnel he wants out on the field, and Duke can fit into all the personnels.''
The competition is still young, and wide open. Anything can happen, as Montgomery realizes:
"It's early. We only had the pads on for one week. After that, after we start to get into these preseason games, someone step up. The good test starts this week and then we'll practice against Buffalo and that's a big change there. We'll go on from there."