Health a Must for Hardesty, Hillis

Browns' backfield could be a formidable force in 2011 with a healthy running back duo of Montario Hardesty and Peyton Hillis.

Montario Hardesty's rookie season with the Cleveland Browns boils down to three plays.

Three plays that occurred in succession during the first quarter of the Browns' fourth preseason game.

Three plays that weren't witnessed by many because it was that dreaded fourth preseason game.

Three plays that showcased the Hardesty's potential – when healthy.

It was Thursday, Sept. 2 and the Browns were playing host to the Chicago Bears. In the first quarter, the Browns recovered a Bears' first-quarter fumble and took over on Chicago's 13-yard-line. It was Hardesty's series. He ran off the right guard for six yards on first down. Same play, same result on second down. Finally, on first-and-goal from the 1-yard-line, Hardesty punched it in for a touchdown. The rookie was showing signs, but three carries later he suffered a torn ACL, which cost him the entire 2010 regular season.

Despite Hardesty's absence, Browns still had success in the running back department in 2010 with Peyton Hillis. Now as attention turns to the 2011 season, the Browns' backfield could be a team strength.

On June 20, Browns head coach Pat Shurmur said he expects Hardesty to be 100 percent by the time training camp starts in late July. Visions of a Hardesty-Hillis backfield commence.

Entering last season, Hillis was an afterthought while the excitement for Hardesty was high. The Browns traded a third- and two fifth-round draft picks to move up in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft to select Hardesty with the 59th overall pick. There was one problem: Hardesty (6-foot, 225 pounds) had injury concerns coming out of Tennessee and those concerns came to the forefront against the Bears.

Meanwhile, Hillis (6-1, 245) emerged last season, rushing for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns on 270 attempts and catching 61 balls for 477 yards and two scores. Those 270 carries were a career-high for Hillis. In his first two seasons at Denver, Hillis had a combined 81 rushing attempts.

Now with two healthy and seemingly capable running backs, the Browns can divide and conquer. Gone in today's NFL is the idea of a feature back. Instead it is running back by committee. In 1985, the Browns were ahead of their time with Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner. That season, the duo became only the third team in NFL history to feature two 1,000-yard rushers.

Now, the Browns have two big, bruising running backs who also possess speed and the ability to catch passes. That can be a formidable attack if both players can stay healthy. That's a big if.

Hardesty has had knee problems dating back to 2005. Five years later he has now had a torn ACL in both knees.

Hillis didn't emerge from last season injury free either. At times, he played through a pulled quad and crack ribs.

Yet when healthy, Hillis showed what he can do and in 2009, Hardesty had a breakout season for Tennessee, as he rushed for 1,345 yards on 282 carries with 13 touchdowns. He also caught 25 balls for 302 yards and one touchdown. Albeit on the college level, those numbers are on par with Hillis' 2010 numbers.

Hardesty's health will be something to watch in training camp, but if major problems are avoided the outcome could go a long way in helping the Browns win games in 2011.

Consider the Browns had one running back last season. When they rushed for more than 100 yards in a game as a team, they were 4-5. When they were held to less than 100 yards in a game as a team, they were 1-6. Moreover, when Hillis rushed for more than 100 yards, the Browns were 3-2. The two losses were to the New York Jets 26-20 in overtime on Nov. 14 and to the Buffalo Bills 13-6 on Dec. 12.

Teams that can run the ball are in position to win games. Shocking, right? One quick way to exceed five wins in 2011 is if the Browns have Hardesty and Hillis gunning for that 100-yard milestone every game.

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