It's now been several days since Pat Shurmur was announced as the fifth Browns' head coach of the expansion era. So far during his brief tenure in Cleveland, we have learned that Shurmur's football experience has been heavily slanted towards the offensive side of the ball. Of course, "offensive" is probably the best characterization to describe the collection of talent currently assembled among the offense. Therefore, it should come as no accident that Shurmur is being called on to not only lead the Browns as a team, but revive a dormant offensive attack.
Naturally, Shurmur has his work cut out for him. Besides assuming the play-calling duties in 2011, the new Browns' head coach will have to perform a delicate balancing act, as he will install a West Coast offensive system within a unit that is built more for power football. Simply put, the 2010 Browns were built to run the ball and not much more.
This overall void of offensive playmakers is startling, as Peyton Hillis and Ben Watson proved to be the only consistent performers in 2010. Having said this, it's obvious that any success Shurmur experiences in 2011 will be the result of some dramatic roster turnover in the coming months. And while the additions of new skill position players will rank among the more high-profile moves of the offseason, it's worth asking a simple, yet often overlooked question:
What about the offensive line?
Offensive line play is not exactly the most sensational of NFL topics, but it is one that still defines the success of an offense and ultimately a team. It's unfortunate that our current NFL universe is instead seemingly swept up in a ridiculous frenzy of fantasy stats. Perhaps it's even more unfortunate that the Browns currently do not possess many players capable of boasting such numbers. Either way, any offensive improvement starts up front, which is why I was delighted that Shurmur mentioned the following during his introductory press conference.
"I think the running game is very important," Shurmur said. "When you talk about offense obviously it starts up front you have to have a gritty, well coordinated group of offensive linemen that either block the run or protect the passer so I've learned that at a young age in this profession that without that you have no chance. From that standpoint the next most important guy would be the quarterback and how he operates, how he plays and how efficient he is. That being said, I think it's very important that we're able to run the football but in the NFL you have to be able to efficiently and explosively throw the ball and that's something that we're going to try and get done."
It is a relief to hear Shurmur call upon his offensive lineman roots. While it's clear that the Browns desperately need to add some playmakers, the state of the team's offensive line entering 2011 also needs to be addressed.
Currently, the only constants among the line are Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. While Thomas struggled early in the season, he returned to his prior Pro Bowl form during the final two months. Possibly because he has set such a high standard over his first three years in the league, Thomas' 2010 campaign was viewed as a bit of a disappointment. Of course, any criticism of Thomas needs to be balanced with a recognition of the names that came before him at left tackle.
Or, does anyone else want to revisit the Enoch DeMar era?
As for Mack, he is becoming one of the league's best centers. Mack is a very efficient blocker and rarely gets manhandled by opposing defensive linemen. Once Mack engages with opposing linemen, he has shown some great driving strength even against some of the best defensive talent in the league. Some of his best performances of the season came against Pro Bowl level talent in Haloti Ngata, Vince Wilfork and Kyle Edwards.
However, after Thomas and Mack, the offensive line is mostly a patchwork effort, and one that demands some offseason attention.
Although he gets a tremendous amount of media and fan support, the play of veteran guard Eric Steinbach has declined. Steinbach is ineffective against bigger defensive tackles and has proven to be a liability in pass protection. While he still is effective on the move, the combination of his declining skills and hefty free agent contract could prove fatal heading into 2011.
The rest of the current collection of offensive linemen are a cavalcade of broken down veterans, including Floyd Womack, John St. Clair and Tony Pashos. While Womack is still an effective blocker, his body is not capable of surviving an entire season. The same could be said for Pashos, who could only manage parts of six games. And in the interests of not raising our collective blood pressure, let's not review the legend of St. Clair. Instead, it's interesting to think of how much better the Browns' offense performed during Billy Yates' three starts last season.
Perhaps the biggest priority regarding the offensive line during the offseason is finding a new right tackle. For Shurmur's West Coast offense to take root in 2011, the Browns desperately need to find a replacement for St. Clair. Although this new offense should feature more quick timing throws, the pass protection along the right side of the line needs to be upgraded. Based solely on the great pass rushers that the Browns' divisional opponents possess, a new right tackle is nothing short of a solid investment for the future.
The same could be said for the revolving door at right guard. Based on the roster's limitations over the past two seasons, it seemed that Womack was the best option at right tackle, rather than guard. However, injuries forced Womack inside, which probably wasn't the best utilization of his skills. Of course, the hope is that Shaun Lauvao's development will accelerate under Shurmur's watch. If not, the running game will likely return to its predictable nature that occurred down the stretch of 2010.
However, an ideal situation would also see the arrival of a more physical left guard for the 2011 season. If Mike Holmgren's playoff teams in Seattle can be used as a reference, a dynamic running game was sparked by the play of Steve Hutchinson. While it may be a tall order for the Browns to find a player of Hutchinson's stature – circa 2005 – it's worth some consideration.
Yet, despite Shurmur's words, improving the offensive line may not prove to be the team's top priority during the offseason. Simply put, these Browns are a team with multiple needs on both sides of the ball. The advent of a new offensive system, along with likely changes among the defense will put draft picks and free agent acquisitions at a premium, which could prove costly.