CLEVELAND: Players on the wrong side of a 31-13 drubbing should go away angry.
But rumblings of discontent in the Browns’ locker room after the visiting Tennessee Titans blew them out Sunday must be nipped in the bud by rookie coach Pat Shurmur before they turn into something bigger.
Running back Peyton Hillis and tight end Evan Moore could not hide their frustration about their involvement in the offense before they left Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Second-year running back Montario Hardesty shared the workload with Hillis, who was recovered from last week’s bout with strep throat. Down 21-6 at halftime and forced to throw, quarterback Colt McCoy targeted Hardesty seven times in the third and fourth quarters and Hillis five, even though Hardesty dropped four passes during the game.
Hillis finished with 10 rushes for 46 yards and five catches for 23 yards, and Hardesty contributed seven carries for 22 yards and five receptions for 49 yards.
But when Shurmur gambled on fourth-and-1 from the Tennessee 41 with the Browns trailing 14-6 with about six minutes left in the second half, he tried a flip to rookie Armond Smith, who was stuffed by Titans safety Michael Griffin. That didn’t show much faith in Hillis, who tied for 12th in the league in third-and-1 rushing conversions last season, making 10 out of 12.
“He’s the fastest guy we’ve got,” Shurmur said of Smith. “We felt like if we got him to the perimeter, it was a chance for a big play.”
Hillis had been dropped in his tracks on the previous down, a third-and-1, and didn’t sound like he liked that call very much. Hillis lined up at fullback with Hardesty at tailback, and Shurmur dialed up a dive play to try and surprise the Titans.
“Take it up with the coach. I’m just running the play as he tells me to do,” Hillis said.
That wasn’t the only question that drew that kind of reaction from Hillis.
Asked if he was frustrated over the way the offensive personnel were used, Hillis said: “You have to take that up with the coaches. That’s nothing I can predict. I have no control over that.”
Pressed on whether he needed more involvement to keep his rhythm going, Hillis said: “I’ve always found myself to be a guy who gets in a rhythm and gets things done. What the game plan and what the coaches presented, that’s what they wanted to go with. Being a player you follow the coach’s orders and do what he tells us to do and you respect that.”
Hillis rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, when he was the Browns’ workhorse, a worn-down one by the end of the season.
“I think having two running backs is an advantage,” Browns center Alex Mack said. “I think it keeps them fresh. I think they’re both good runners. Having the threat of either one helps our offense. I think we should find a way to use both of them effectively. I think that’s very possible.”
Shurmur hasn’t found a way yet, at least if the questions in Hillis’ mind are any indication.
Some of Hillis’ emotion could come from the fact that his agent and the Browns have failed to agree on a contract extension that seemed like a top priority as the season opener approached. Hillis, in his fourth year, will be an unrestricted free agent in 2012 if no deal is reached. He’s making $600,000 in 2011.
Then there was Adam Schefter’s report on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown that some of Hillis’ teammates had privately questioned why he couldn’t play a week ago, wondering if his contract status played a part.
The Browns do not seem to have a running back controversy, at least not yet. Most NFL teams have gone to a two-back system, and Hillis has to realize that being spelled by Hardesty will extend his career.
But if Hardesty’s playing time is eroding Hillis’ confidence and making him question his value to the Browns, it must be addressed by Shurmur immediately. This is not the time to divide the locker room, as the Tim Couch-Kelly Holcomb controversy did in 2003.
If the contract is Hillis’ issue, Shurmur cannot let it erode team chemistry.
Hillis is not the only player questioning the inconsistency of his role in the first four games.
Moore seemed just as miffed after contributing only one catch for 15 yards and being targeted only one other time in a game when McCoy set a Browns’ single-game mark with 61 pass attempts. Moore expected to be a big part of the offense after signing a two-year contract extension Sept. 8 for just under $3 million per year.
He played only eight snaps the previous two games against the Indianapolis Colts and the Miami Dolphins and judging from his mood, Sunday was no better.
Asked if he felt frustration over his number not being called, Moore laughed and said: “I know what you’re saying. Yeah, it’s tough. It’s very tough.” When the inconsistency of him getting in for a couple of plays and then disappearing again was brought up, Moore said, “Yeah, I agree.”
The Browns have a bye next weekend before traveling to Oakland on Oct. 16. Asked if that issue would be addressed in the next two weeks, he said: “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I don’t know.”
If Sunday’s discontent from Moore and Hillis was an indication of problems bubbling beneath the surface, Shurmur needs to hash them out with his players face to face. He has the perfect time to do it with this week’s bye.
If players have lost confidence in Shurmur as an offensive coordinator, that may need a month of Sundays to repair. If Shurmur can bridge the gap with Hillis and Moore, it could be a big step in restoring their faith.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MarlaRidenour.