BEREA: Considering the Browns’ turnstile situation at quarterback this season, a strong running game might have taken some of the pressure off Brandon Weeden, then Jason Campbell for a few plays, then Brian Hoyer, then Weeden again, then Campbell again, then Weeden a third time for a few plays and finally Campbell again.
But the ground game has been grounded and is going backward in some cases. The Browns are on pace to finish the season with 1,304 yards rushing, which would be the third fewest (1,150 in 1999 and 1,085 in 2000) since the team returned to the NFL for the 1999 season.
They have just one rushing touchdown through nine games this season. To get it, Willis McGahee ran three times from the 1-yard line against the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 3. The only other team with one rushing touchdown: the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It’s been getting worse. In the past month, the Browns have had just one game in which the team’s leading rusher topped 40 yards. That was against the Detroit Lions, and it wasn’t by a running back. Wide receiver Travis Benjamin took an end around 45 yards down the sideline. He led the team in rushing that game on one play.
McGahee is averaging 2.6 yards per carry since joining the team Sept. 19 and last week against the Baltimore Ravens, he ran for 31 yards on 21 carries. In the past few weeks, he’s sat out of Thursday practices to rest his surgically repaired knees.
The Browns seem determined to fix the running game during their bye week and before the winter months hit the shores of Lake Erie. Coach Rob Chudzinski said Monday he and the staff would “refine” the running game during the week off and on Tuesday indicated that fullback Chris Ogbonnaya could receive a boost in carries. If that happens, Chudzinski said, the team probably wouldn’t need to bring in another fullback. Defensive end Billy Winn ran one play as the fullback Sunday in a 24-18 win over the Ravens and might continue to experiment with that role.
Ogbonnaya is averaging 5.3 yards a carry this season but has only 19 carries. He has also been an option in the passing game and a special teams player.
Ogbonnaya has been dealing with a rib injury, and his health could determine how many attempts he receives per game.
“If he doesn’t feel any better than he did the other night, no he won’t [get more carries] because we need him on third down and we need him to be able to play 15, 20 plays a game,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “If he’s healthy and recovered from where he’s beat up a little bit, then he’ll get more carries.”
If healthy, the Browns will have McGahee and Ogbonnaya sharing the duties more evenly than in past weeks. It’s another transformation for Ogbonnaya, who has gone from running back to fullback to viable threat in the passing game, all while contributing on special teams.
“That’s how the season goes. It’s up and down,” Ogbonnaya said. “You really never know how it’s going to pan out. For me, playing fullback, playing running back, playing special teams, a little receiver, that’s how I like it. I want to be that versatile player.”
His willingness to take on multiple roles, and his more-than-willing attitude, makes him an easy fit for just about any NFL locker room.
“He’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades,” Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said. “He’s done a great job. He’s the consummate pro, the ultimate teammate that could fit in with any NFL team because of the way he attacks his job and his willingness to do any position or any role.”
If all goes to plan, according to Chudzinski and Turner, Ogbonnaya will turn his attention moreso to running the ball. Though Thomas isn’t sure that’s the way to go.
“Well I’m not sure it’s going to be that important,” Thomas said of focusing on the running game the rest of the year. “I think in the NFL, games are won and lost in the passing game. To be able to run the ball is nice at times, but it’s not a make-or-break type thing because every team that mostly goes to the playoffs and wins Super Bowls, it’s won with the arm of the quarterback.”
Thomas went to the University of Wisconsin, which uses traditional power running scheme in the Big Ten that’s produced some gaudy rushing numbers the past 10 years. As he puts it, “I came from Wisconsin that ran the crap out of the ball.” But his attitude has shifted to a pass-first approach.
Thomas admits there’s value in having a balanced offense to keep defenses off balance. He also pointed to the Minnesota Vikings, owners of last year’s Most Valuable Player Adrian Peterson, a running back, and owners of a 1-7 record. And when asked about Jerome Harrison’s 286-yard performance for the Browns against the Kansas City Chiefs in December 2009, Thomas replied, “How many wins did we have that year? You run if you’re not very good at passing.”
Thomas is right. Quarterbacks are the prizes and running backs are run through the gantlet and discarded when finished. Campbell was just named AFC Offensive Player of the Week and has been a vast improvement over Weeden since taking control of the offense.
But unless the Browns are willing to pin their playoff hopes to Campbell’s right arm, some increase in production is needed out of McGahee and Ogbonnaya, bad knees or bad ribs aside.
“We work on it every day but we get different looks every time we go against a team. Sometimes, we adjust too late, but that’s neither here nor there,” McGahee said. “At the end of the day, all we can say is we’re going to keep fighting. We’re not going to give up.
“I’m not going to give up on the running game at all.”
If Chudzinski’s emphasis on examining the ground game during the bye week is any indication, neither are the Browns.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read the high school blog at http://www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.