The Browns extended running back Duke Johnson’s contract this offseason, but they haven’t increased his role, or even maintained it through the season’s first five weeks.
Although he played 51 percent of team’s offensive snaps last week, a sharp increase, that bump was primarily due to game flow.
“Duke, I think he played more plays than normal,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said of Johnson’s usage in Week 5. “We were in third down a bunch and two-minute, and at the end of the game two-minute, we had a lot of situations that got him in there, but I thought he made the most of his opportunities.”
Johnson is being leaned on for his pass-blocking ability, and the threat he provides as a receiver out of the backfield, but he isn’t getting the ball very often. To this point he has just 17 attempts and 17 targets, although he’s performing well enough with 4.4 yards per carry and 9.1 yards per catch.
“In these last three or four weeks I’ve been blocking more than I’ve blocked since I’ve been in the NFL and I’m taking pride in it,” Johnson told cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot. “I’m having fun doing it because it gives Baker (Mayfield) and our team a chance to win.’’
Being a “team guy” doesn’t mean players should always feel completely satisfied with their roles, especially if they believe they can help make things easier for their teammates.
Johnson, somewhat disgruntled in what he feels has been an under utilization of his skills thus far, confided in veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor on Thursday.
“He told me to just be more positive,’’ Johnson said, per Cabot. “Just focus on all the good. It’s not all bad. It’s not all good. You’re going to have some days when you’re not feeling so well. Just find a way to get through it.”
“It could be frustrating but it wasn’t over the top,’’ Johnson added. “Just trying to figure it out.’’
While Johnson is getting “pick-me-ups” from his captain, Haley doesn’t view managing his running back rotation as a problem, although he recognizes the challenge it presents. He ultimately believes handling it properly is “part of the recipe” for fielding a successful offense.
“You want all of your players involved. At running back, sometimes that is a little tougher than others,” Haley added. “You can’t just run him out there.”
Coach Hue Jackson continues to advocate for a bump in Johnson’s role, but nothing appears to have changed. The head coach joined Haley in expressing the difficulty in keeping everyone happy with their individual gameday involvement.
Acknowledging that difficulty, Jackson didn’t hold any punches with his response to any potential role-related unhappiness in the locker room.
“This is about winning. It is not about personal stats or personal pride or any of that,” he said. “It is about our football team, and that is what we talk about more than anything.”
No one should suggest Johnson doesn’t want to win or do what’s best for his team. He has and continues to do whatever’s necessary. It just seems like it’s pretty obvious to everyone except for Jackson and Haley that he has the tools to contribute more towards that goal than they are allowing.
While lip service and praise from his coaches is nice, it’d be nicer if their words resulted in changes on Sundays.
“Duke is very talented,” Jackson said on Wednesday. “Obviously, when he has the ball in his hands, good things happen.”
It seems like doing “good things” is something that should be pretty high up there on the gameplan priority list.
Let’s hope Johnson is afforded some more opportunities to do them.