Years from now, the narrative of the expansion-age Cleveland Browns should focus on one alarming fact. The last dozen years of football malaise have produced a passing game in Cleveland that has consistently ranked near the bottom of the NFL.
In terms of passing offense generated per game since 1999, the Browns have finished last in the league four different times, second to last twice more and with the exception of 2007's quirky aberration, have never placed higher than 23rd.
During this time, the NFL has evolved into some warped, ultra viewer-friendly type of postmodern game in which passing offenses are given every incentive to throw the ball. Alas, in the past decade the Browns have been led by a series of defensive-minded head coaches who have shuffled through the likes of some dozen quarterbacks and an endless fleet of stone-handed wide receivers.
This history is telling for the exact reason that Pat Shurmur was named the team's new head coach in January.
Arriving in Cleveland, Shurmur becomes team President Mike Holmgren's hand-picked successor of sorts. Much like Holmgren, Shurmur's NFL roots can be traced back to his experience learning the West Coast offense from a Super Bowl-winning coach. Shurmur's work under Holmgren and longtime Eagles' head coach Andy Reid granted 46-year old the chance to run his own system in St. Louis the past two years.
Coming full circle, Shurmur has now assumed nearly complete control over the Browns' offense. In addition to his head coaching duties, Shurmur has stated that he will call the team's offensive plays during 2011 – employing his version of the West Coast offense.
While the shift to an offensive mindset could be considered long overdue, it's not exactly clear what Shurmur will bring to the Browns on game days. During the past couple decades, the West Coast offense has grown so prolific that the exact phrase has nearly lost its meaning. Currently, there are at least a dozen teams in the NFL who operate some version of the offense.
The key term used to describe Shurmur's play calling by both Farrar and Broner was "conservative." In an eye-poke of sorts to Browns fans, Shurmur's offense was predicated on the types of "safe" mid-range and underneath types of throws that have already marked Colt McCoy's short time in Cleveland.
However, in comparing the prospects of Shurmur's Cleveland offense to the one he ran in St. Louis, two important distinctions have to be made.
First, it became apparent that the rapid development of Sam Bradford in St. Louis forced Shurmur to alter his weekly game plans as the 2010 season progressed. Bradford's surprising accuracy – especially on downfield passes – changed the Rams into a more vertical offense. Bradford's presence allowed Shurmur to be a bit less protective – which was quite the departure from Shurmur's first season in St. Louis, which featured Marc Bulger, Kyle Boller and Keith Null.
"It was really tough to get a read on what St. Louis' offense was supposed to be as opposed to what it was," Farrar said. "Except to say that it was very obvious right away that Bradford was going to be special, because he was able to transcend all those limitations. I've said that the way Shurmur used Bradford was a bit like driving a Lamborghini around a cul-de-sac, but I'm not sure what options Shurmur really had at that point."
The limited "options" Shurmur had at his disposal is a vital point – one that most Browns fans are all too aware of. Because of injuries, five different wide receivers started games for the 2010 Rams, including rookies Danario Alexander and Mardy Gilyard, along with second-year players Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson. Of this group, Broner points out that the speedy Alexander helped to open up downfield passing opportunities, while Amendola became Bradford's safe option underneath, as evidenced by his 85 receptions.
In attempting to translate Shurmur's St. Louis' experience to Cleveland, it is likely that McCoy will be kept on an even tighter leash. Considering that most of McCoy's nine interceptions in 2010 were the result of downfield throws, Shurmur should be able to employ a more conservative approach – one that benefits from the spacing of horizontal pass routes.
Although not the most exciting of developments, this approach could prove to be the most effective. During his limited time in 2010, McCoy showed that he is a very accurate passer within a twenty-yard range. Of course, the key to McCoy's success will continue to be the development of third-year receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie.
Second, despite Bradford making a quantum NFL leap, Shurmur may have been handcuffed by Rams' head coach Steve Spagnuolo. While it's hard to justify this argument when Bradford threw the ball close to 600 times, Shurmur's second-half play calling appeared to be overly conservative. In games where the Rams held a late lead, the offense became a run-heavy attack and the routes of St. Louis' receivers grew shorter.
It's nearly impossible to discover the extent of Spagnuolo's influence on Shurmur's play calling, but it is worth noting that running back Steven Jackson carried the ball 330 times during the 2010 season – which was the second-highest total of the veteran's career. In games decided by less than seven points, Jackson's average carries per game shot up to 23.
This is a Shurmur trend that should continue in Cleveland. The Browns' top two running backs, Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty, both play a more physical, between the tackles type of running style. The Browns' current running game resembles the Rams' squads of the past two years, along with a reminder of Holmgren's playoff contenders in Seattle.
"There should be a lot of two-back with an elite runner, although Hillis may be best as an I-back," Farrar said.
In terms of a pure West Coast offense, the Browns' running game shouldn't be dramatically different compared to last season. Although the temptation is to envision the Eagles' Brian Westbrook as the ideal West Coast offense running back, Hillis' ability to run and catch passes out of the backfield could make him an ideal fit for Shurmur's system. Evidence of this can be found in Jackson in catching 51 and 46 passes over the past two seasons.
In Cleveland, Shurmur will enjoy more freedom in his play calling. Among some of Shurmur's favorite plays are designed quarterback roll-outs. In 2010, Shurmur exploited Bradford's mobility and accuracy throwing on the move. Particularly in the red zone, Shurmur called numerous quarterback rollouts, bootlegs and play action passes. A similar development should occur in Cleveland, as Brian Daboll's 2010 offense was effective with both McCoy and Seneca Wallace rolling out of the pocket.
Speaking of Daboll, it appears that Shurmur's offense is a bit more wide-receiver friendly – at least in terms of the actual routes being run. Daboll's offense called for more vertical routes, which required the Browns' receivers to physically gain some separation from opposing cornerbacks. Both Massaquoi and Robiskie are not the types of physical receivers capable of muscling their way to a catch. Shurmur's version takes advantage of quicker quarterback drops and simple hitch routes, which ideally should benefit both third-year players.
"It's very obvious that Shurmur prefers a more conservative passing game with short, more diverse routes and yards after the catch," Farrar said. "Receivers tend to set up in pretty specific roles in that system because the idea is to know where everyone is and what everyone's doing."
As for those "specific roles", the Rams' litany of injuries in 2010 forced Shurmur to constantly juggle his starting lineup. When healthy, Gibson and Alexander lined up on the outside, while Amendola mainly played from the slot position. Shurmur's offense also featured a trio of tight ends, with only Daniel Fells being a tangible part of the team's passing offense. Players such as Micheal Hoomanamanui and Billy Bajema doubled as hybrid H-back types of players.
Despite the Rams' makeshift lineup at wide receiver, Shurmur's first Browns roster could be considered even weaker in terms of pass catching talent. Neither Robiskie or Massaquoi have proven themselves to be quality downfield targets, while the rest of the lineup includes untested players such as Carlton Mitchell and rookie Greg Little. However, Shurmur's St. Louis offense moved a lot quicker in terms of play development, which could reduce the burden place upon Cleveland's wideouts. Additionally, the presence of veteran tight end Ben Watson and younger talent such as Evan Moore and rookie Jordan Cameron could provide some wrinkles to the passing attack.
Finally, Shurmur will have one of the best mentors in the league in Holmgren and already has a key piece on his roster with McCoy.
"He's (McCoy) a guy that the combination of Shurmur and Holmgren – which I tend to believe is how it will go – will be able to use the right way," Farrar said.
Based on the "idle hands" theory of Holmgren, the former coach will likely become more involved in the game day aspects of the Browns. If not directly, Holmgren should have more input on the team's overall offensive direction this coming season. Currently, the closest thing the Browns have to an offensive coordinator is new quarterback coach Mark Whipple.
And Shurmur – the team's first offensive-minded head coach in some time.