Brandon Weeden is going to be the one under the microscope.
During training camp and preseason, there will be a social-media frenzy every time Weeden, the Browns’ second-year quarterback, throws an interception — or pats the ball, for that matter.
While the Browns must decide if Weeden is their future, running back Trent Richardson will be the key to the team’s success in 2013.
I know it’s a quarterback-driven league. I know that the running-back position has been devalued. I certainly questioned the wisdom of the Browns taking Richardson third overall last year, especially trading up to get him.
But new offensive coordinator Norv Turner will be calling the plays under new coach Rob Chudzinski. And while the arrival of Turner should be good for Weeden, it could be just as good — or perhaps better — for Richardson.
Seven times in the 22 years since Turner became an offensive coordinator in the NFL, his rushing attack has ranked ahead of his passing attack. Three times during those seven years, his team boasted the NFL’s rushing leader — Emmitt Smith with the Dallas Cowboys in 1993, Ricky Williams with the Miami Dolphins in 2002 and LaDainian Tomlinson with the San Diego Chargers in 2007.
Turner’s team has had the NFL’s leading rusher five times, with Smith also finishing atop the list in 1991 and ’92.
Richardson attended Pensacola’s Escambia High School, which also produced Smith. Smith has spoken to Richardson twice this summer, said Derrick Boyd, Richardson’s mentor and Escambia’s track coach. Richardson and Smith got together at an event to raise money for a Pensacola sports hall of fame, then had lunch a couple days later.
“He’s gotten a look at how Norv operates, what his expectations are and how successful Norv can make you,” Boyd said of Richardson. “Trent realizes Emmitt rushed for 900 yards as a rookie, his average was below 4.0, and then look what happened.
“Norv keeps a running back healthy. He calls plays that keep the guys on the field making big plays. Emmitt and LT very rarely missed game action. Trent is salivating at the idea of being able to play in Norv Turner’s system.”
Comparisons to Smith
Boyd said as soon as the Browns hired Turner, fans in Pensacola started looking at hall of famer Smith’s statistics before, during and after Turner. Turner was the offensive coordinator for the Cowboys from 1991-93. In his rookie year, Smith’s numbers practically mirrored Richardson’s. Smith totaled 937 rushing yards; Richardson 950. Smith averaged 3.9 yards per carry, Richardson 3.6. Both scored 11 rushing touchdowns. Richardson caught more passes, 51 for 367 yards and a score, than Smith, who finished with 24 for 228 yards.
Smith’s average per carry jumped to 4.3, 4.6 and a career-best 5.3 after Turner arrived. Smith finished third, second and second in the NFL in all-purpose yards during their three years. After Turner left, Smith led the league in rushing only once more, with 1,773 yards in 1995, despite never totaling less than 1,204 yards the remainder of his career.
Richardson has long been driven to emulate Smith. But there is more than that to motivate Richardson this season.
Not drafted by Chudzinski, Browns CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi, Richardson must prove his worth to the new regime.
The Browns re-hired hall of famer Jim Brown as a special adviser, so Richardson should be able to lean on Brown and draw inspiration from him. Brown criticized Richardson last year but eventually was won over as Richardson played much of the season with broken ribs.
In the six weeks he has spent in Pensacola, Richardson has also been hearing plenty about the Washington Redskins’ Alfred Morris, Boyd said. Also from Richardson’s hometown, Morris finished second in the league in rushing with 1,613 yards as a rookie.
“Do you think when you go get your shave and your haircut that he doesn’t hear people say, ‘Alfred Morris is better than Trent Richardson?’ ” Boyd said.
The specter of injuries
But above all, Richardson has to convince doubters he’s not injury prone. Knee problems kept him out of his first training camp and preseason. Then came broken ribs in Game 6. Richardson suffered a strained muscle in his right shin in May, and the Browns held him out of June minicamp.
It has prompted talk that Richardson is a bust. I must concede that I’ve questioned his value and his future. While none of his injuries has been career-threatening, in sum total they could be, especially if they continue.
Richardson hears the knocks and has been working with Boyd to silence them.
“There’s been no fallout from whatever people were freaking about — shin splints or whatever it was,” Boyd said in a telephone interview last week. “He’s been looking great. He’s being riding the bike, doing aquatics, the elliptical, running on the ground. The last week or so we’ve been doing more fast-twitch type things, the first 20 yards; we want to make sure when training camp starts he has that burst.”
With the first full-squad practice set for Thursday, the Browns need a healthy Richardson to become relevant again. They need Richardson to take the pressure off Weeden, just like Jamal Lewis did for Derek Anderson when Chudzinski was the Browns’ offensive coordinator in 2007. That year, Anderson threw 29 touchdown passes, 16 to Braylon Edwards, and Lewis ran for 1,304 yards.
Turner can use a healthy Richardson the way he used Smith in his second season, when he led the league with 365 rushing attempts. Richardson can open things up for the downfield passing game Chudzinski and Turner want to feature.
Certainly they’ll need Weeden’s big arm to make that work. But they’ll also need the same kind of performance from Richardson that he turned in Nov. 4 at home against Baltimore, when he became just the second rookie to rush for 100 yards against the Ravens.
Boyd called Richardson “the centerpiece” of the Browns’ offense. I recognize his bias, yet I’m in total agreement. For Weeden to become Anderson of 2007, he’ll need Richardson to carry a huge load.
“He’s in a perfect situation to have a breakout season,” Boyd said. “I can’t wait. Hey, buckle your seat belt.”
Browns fans should obsess less about Weeden and hope instead for more thrills and fewer spills from Richardson. That could make for the exciting ride his mentor envisions.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.