BEREA: When a reporter began asking Browns coach Pat Shurmur a question about Greg Little on Tuesday by saying the second-year receiver was playing better as of late, Shurmur interrupted the reporter by quipping, “Shhh, don’t say anything.”
Shurmur’s intent was meant as a moment of levity while discussing the 2-7 Browns as they headed into their bye week, but there was plenty of truth to Shurmur’s off-the-cuff comment.
The last time the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Little began basking in the glow of a little success after his rookie season, he didn’t handle it so well.
He was selected by the Browns in the second round (59th overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft, and he went on to record a team-best 61 receptions for 709 yards and two touchdowns. His impressive catch total trailed only that of A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals among the league’s rookie receivers.
After finding such early success, Little (who was ruled ineligible during his senior season at North Carolina for his dealings with an agent), spent the offseason dreaming of ways to make even more of an impact for the Browns in his second season.
“I definitely expected more than last year just because it’s my second season, my second year in the offense, and I definitely know more now than I did then,” Little said. “But I was pushing myself to do more schematically than what things allowed.”
Trying too hard — that’s the reason Little said he became known as a guy who can’t hang on to the football. His issues began in the season opener when Little let a potential touchdown pass slip through his hands in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. As the team’s losses mounted, so did Little’s drops.
“I was trying to do so much more than just being myself on the field; just trying to create much more than the play was designed for,” he said. “I wasn’t just thinking about the first down, I was thinking about what more I could do.”
Instead of focusing on securing the ball and making sure he got the first down, Little’s mind was racing ahead to the next step, looking up field trying to rack up yards after the catch.
After he dropped a key third-down pass in the third game of the season in a loss to the Buffalo Bills — a reception that likely would have gone for a huge gain and set up a field goal — Shurmur’s frustration with Little’s case of the drops boiled over.
Immediately after the drop, Shurmur reacted angrily on the sideline. So did receivers coach Mike Wilson, who leapt in the air out of frustration over the missed opportunity on a catchable ball.
Fans’ tempers also began to rise as they voiced their opinions on local radio and TV sports-talk shows, not taking to a player who not only struggled to simply catch the football, but who also had the gall to strike track star Usain Bolt’s “lightning” pose on the rare occasions when he did manage to hold on to it — regardless of how insignificant the gain.
Add that to Little’s look-at-me lengthy end-zone celebration after a touchdown in the second game of the season against the Cincinnati Bengals despite the Browns still trailing.
Instead of shrugging off the criticism coming at him from all angles and simply working harder, Little further exacerbated the situation by engaging fans in wars of words via Twitter.
Finally, Shurmur had enough. Publicly, he spoke about the possibility of benching Little, especially with rookie Josh Gordon beginning to emerge as a legitimate and more mature threat for the Browns. Privately, Shurmur spoke with the 23-year-old about the need to tone down his act.
Although Little remained a starter, throws stopped coming his way as Gordon became rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden’s most reliable target. With Gordon making both the routine and sensational plays, Little’s role was mostly reduced to blocking.
But as it turns out, Little’s a darn good blocker. He also took a hiatus from social media and slowly began earning back his team’s trust by catching the ball the few times Weeden sent them his way. In rededicating himself to doing the little things and focusing on the right things, Little appears to be on track to have a solid finish this season when the Browns return to the field Nov. 18 at Dallas.
“Greg kind of refocused on some things, and I’m glad he’s having some success,” Shurmur said. “He doesn’t always catch the most balls, but he’s a tough sucker. He’s blocking and you feel his presence out there.
“He’s gotten away from doing some of the things that I don’t care for, so he’s listening. He wants to be a good player, he wants to be a good pro. … As for Josh Gordon being here, any time you have players that are competing to get better within your group, I think it helps.”
Shurmur is not the only one who’s noticed a change in Little, who’s made 27 receptions for 301 yards and two touchdowns in nine games so far this season.
“I think he’s really taken ownership of just putting his head down and playing football,” receiver and kick returner Josh Cribbs said. “He’d gotten a lot of criticism about dropping the ball and being out there saying anything to fans on Twitter. He hasn’t been on Twitter for a while and he’s really caught the football a lot better. He’s making plays for us — and with consistency. He’s consistently catching the ball, consistently making plays and has turned into a go-to guy with a good head on his shoulders.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.