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The Cleveland Browns Paradox - Ez Like Sunday Morning 6/18/17

Finding The QB Worth Developing May Take Precedence Over A Winning Gameplan

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers
Isaiah Crowell leads a talented backfield for what could be a dynamic rushing attack in 2017
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Previously, I have offered during bygone offseasons my proscription for how we win. Essentially, I have held that the fastest way to turn around the fledgling attempt at pro football done by our beloved (r)orange helmets every year would be to simplify our offensive approach and run the ball much, much more than we ever do (since, like week 5 in 2014). As we are in year 2 of Analytics’ reign over the Browns’ operation, I’ll dispense with the annual forewarning about the importance of not blowing everything the eff up so quickly after having just having done so two years previous. As things stand right now, this group looks pretty solid (from a job security standpoint), and even if they don’t, not worth worrying about right now.

While certainly many of my assumptions/conclusions about individual situations at the time(s) of those previous offerings did not exactly work out, the underlying point remains that were we to commit to the ground-attack in a much more serious manner than we have, we would have been (and would be) more successful.

Not to shock you, but we have had some pretty lousy quarterback over that time, yet still have managed to abandon the run since pretty much 2013 (with 2014 as the exception). True, we have been trailing in much of that timespan, but even before that we have not been serious about asserting ourselves on ground, even though we have had (IMHO) the personnel to pull it off.

Cleveland Browns v Kansas City Chiefs
Jerome Harrison rushed for 561 yards in the final three games of the 2009 season (including a team record 286 against Kansas City, the same game in which Joshua Cribbs set the KO Return TD record, the Browns won all three games after having started the season 1-11.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Last season, we ran the ball fewer than any other team in the league which, combined with a series of other factors, led to our 1-15 record. Our having played six guys at quarterback, our facing multiple injuries along the offensive line, having a really, really terrible defense and yes, starting more rookies than any other team all played a role in the historic season-fail. However again, for a team that had six dudes playing QB (one of them being a WR), you’d think we would have put premium on running the ball. You’d have been wrong.

This is not to say that we couldn’t run the ball last year, we clearly were able to (prolifically in fact), at times. However, one would be wise to examine closely the ways at which we were effective and weren’t, as NTN pointed out last month. Still, we certainly could have done better at trying to run the ball than we were (which is really the point here), especially with the likes of Charlie Whitehurst and Kevin Hogan taking snaps.

In fact, it was NTN that challenged me once on my assertion that running the ball (or in the specific case I’ve made, that even just trying to) results in a higher win probability. I have offered individual instances such as in the picture above of Jerome Harrison, and the end of the 2009 season. If you don’t recall, we were flat-horrible that year; starting 1-11 (with that one win being a 6-3 barn-burner in Buffalo) before Eric Mangini decided he had seen enough of our putrid passing effort and decided to execute a gameplan that was basically ‘run-it-until-they-stop-you’. The result was we won the final three games.

Nevertheless, that really can be viewed as an outlier or maybe even anecdotal, considering it had not been replicated. I thus endeavored to find out if there was a strong correlation between rushing attempts and team success. The result is the graph below:

Some fluctuation, but the trend is pretty clear

Now this is certainly not definitive, and even if it were it doesn’t necessarily prove what I am saying. What I did was to look at team success over the last ten years as it relates to their respective team ranking in rushing attempts. As you can see, teams that are at the high end of that spectrum tend to have pretty consistent team success. In fact, beyond a certain point (looks to be about 25.5 carries) the team “floor” in terms of win rate is about .460, or approximately 7 or so wins.

That is to say that on average, if you rushed the ball over 25.5 times a game over the last decade, you were a 7 win team at worst. Now, plenty of exceptions to this and of course, mitigating circumstances. If a team gets out a big lead early then they are going to be running the ball later on, which explain why teams like New England and Green Bay seemed be ranked relatively and consistently high in these year-by-year rankings considering that most people assume those clubs to be pass-heavy offenses. Similarly, if you are always behind, you are going to be passing more than running in order to try to make up the deficit.

I certainly understand that and think it absolutely factors in. Still, there’s not nothing to the idea that simply increasing your proverbial swings of the bat in this regard will improve your hit-rate. There are fundamentals of the game of football that, while certainly have been somewhat deemphasized with the modern pass-heavy league, nevertheless remain fundamentals.

Essentially, what I have always advocated for is an approach which mitigates our chances for mistakes, and takes advantage of the strengths we have had on the roster. As bad as we were last year, we were still able to run the ball much better than would be believed if one were merely looking at the boxscore. Coach Hue Jackson sort of acknowledged this recently when lamenting that he probably should have run the ball more than he did in 2016. I agreeb, but I also think I understand why, and am sympathetic.

I will do the condensed version thus: increasing the number of carries does several beneficial things. First and foremost, it takes pressure off of the QB; if you run the ball twice and get two yards each time, that’s still 3rd and 6. If you do what we averaged last year, it’s 3rd and 1. Of course, increasing the carries very likely decreases that average, but not so drastically that this formula still doesn’t hold true in a practical sense. Way more often than not, if you run on 1st and 2nd down, you are going to have a manageable 3rd down.

Running the ball and structuring the offense in this way keeps the ball in the hands of your offense for longer, and also puts a strain on the other team’s defensive unit. Especially considering most defensives are not really built to stop this approach today, continuously leaning on that front line typically will lead to a break, eventually. Seattle and Carolina have had some success in recent years utilizing some of the tenants of the approach I’m describing (though their situations and ours are certainly very different).

At the same time, if our offense is on the field more, that means our defense is on the field less. The exact thing we hope to exert onto our opponents we likewise attempt to shield from our own unit, and that’s great considering the rotation of defenders we’ll be throwing out there on Sundays. Ground & Pound, this is the basic idea.

This creates an advantageous circumstance for the quarterback, as it not only takes the pressure off of him to make all the plays but in many cases masks his deficiencies. If you are successfully pounding the rock the QB gets easy looks due to WIDE OPEN play-action ‘scheming, which can inflate what his abilities appear to be and may cause a mis-evaluation on his actual ability at the NFL level (think Brian Hoyer for the first half of 2014).

Remember that we were 7-4 with Hoyer at the helm, but losing Alex Mack caused a big problem for our running game, one that we never solved. Hoyer’s deficiencies (which in retrospect were always there) were then exposed fully, and our most recent period of near-incomprehensible failure dawned (4-33 since that start). A lesson (perhaps not the lesson, but one of them) is that we could win with Hoyer and a powerful running game, but it wasn’t really real. Hoyer wasn’t ever really the answer, even if the boxscore made it look like maybe he could be.

This is not to kick Hoyer around either (not that I’m generally averse to doing so); I think much of the same can be said in recent times about Collin Kaepernick, but probably the best example ever is Neil O’Donnell. He was Pittsburgh’s quarterback during an era where they utilized the exact approach I am talking about, and were convinced he was the guy. Every time, when it got down to it in the playoffs, he (and thus, Pittsburgh) was exposed. They then made the exact same mistake with Kordell Stewart.

All this to say that this plan works, and you can be pretty successful even without a good QB. However, you won’t ever really get over that hump to win a championship until you have that QB. In Pittsburgh’s case, Bill Cowher might have been remembered as an abysmal failure who could never win the big game had Butch not taken K2 instead of Roethlessburger. It didn’t go down that way though and so the Steelers had the benefit of a good QB AND the safe approach. The result was 15-1 his rookie year, SB win his 2nd season and two by the time he was done with this 5th.

This is why, with the defense that we have assembled, with the terrific stable of running backs that we have, and with the tremendous investment made in the offensive line, I think a smash-mouth approach would be hugely effective. Furthermore, even fool’s gold like the Steelers had for all those years would be a damn sight better than the terrible football product we have been exposed to lo this entire generation. At the same time, I also want to see a championship before I slip the surly bonds of this mortal world.

Stay The Course

NFL: Cleveland Browns-Minicamp
DeShone Kizer would definitely benefit from this approach, but I’m guessing it won’t quite go that way
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

As of now, there are three (3) candidates for the Browns’ starting QB role, and all three have a credible shot, as things stand right now. Any of three, IMO, would be successful employing the strategy I am (more or less) outlining. The degree of success depends on a variety of circumstances certainly but I just think it’s not inconceivable that Brock Osweiler could Neil-O’Donnell his way to a winning season as our starting QB (not terribly unlike he did last year with the Texans). Is that what we should do then? No doubt would be more fun than going through 1-15 again.

Same of Cody Kessler or DeShone Kizer (pictured above); do we want either of them to be playing in a simplified offense where their weaknesses are never exposed until the stage gets large (which always, always happens in this scenario)? Or, conversely, do we want to try to find/develop a quarterback by playing him (in a pass-heavy scenario) and possibly forgo winning in the short term to do so? As starved for success as we all are, I think we all know what the right answer is here.

If we get to the point where we know we have a franchise-caliber QB on the roster, then a ground-n-pound, smash-mouth approach would, combined with that sort of talent, result in a juggernaut of a franchise, especially if projections of existing roster talent get anywhere close to being realized. That will be fun, but until then I think we have to throw our guys out there and let them sling it around, probably more than they should in order for us to be successful in the short term.

More than anything though, I hope that this is understood and accepted by everybody in the building, because this process could be painful. While things look good now I’d hate for us to be thinking about re-shuffling the deck-chairs again because we have a disappointing 2017. To my mind; finding the future at the QB position takes priority. If the 2016 offense is any indication, that would appear to be our operating philosophy as well. Let us hope that guy is either on the roster or coming soon.

Happy Sunday y’all, and also Let’s Go Tribe - go bust out them brooms on the Twinkies!


What Would You Like To See The Browns Do?

This poll is closed

  • 66%
    Pound the rock, give whoever is playing QB a chance to win and help out the D. I’m tired of losing
    (467 votes)
  • 22%
    Stay patient and stick with the approach of finding/developing the QB as the top priority
    (161 votes)
  • 10%
    I don’t accept the premise and disagree with this entire proposition/dichotomy.
    (73 votes)
701 votes total Vote Now