Ben Watson is a realist.
The Cleveland Browns' tight end knows the 3-6 Browns are struggling offensively. As an eight-year veteran and former member of some potent New England teams, Watson can authoritatively state his case regarding NFL offense. Yet when called on to specify what exactly the Browns' offense needs to do to show improvement, Watson realizes the issue isn't so simple.
"As an offense, we've got to keep plugging away and face the criticism," Watson said.
Criticism of the Browns' offense – which currently ranks 30th in the NFL in yards per game – has grown heated in recent weeks. Outside of the Browns' locker room, many have suggested that the offense's lethargic pace is the result of everything from head coach Pat Shurmur's tepid play calling, Colt McCoy's questionable arm strength and Peyton Hillis suffering the effects the Madden Curse.
However, Watson offers a much more grounded approach to his team's struggles.
"As an offense, you're measured by points," Watson said. "So, we need to start scoring points."
Sounds easy enough.
According to Watson, the Browns' most visible problem begins where their drives typically break down.
"The red zone has not been a strong suit for us," Watson said. "We've really struggled – getting in there, first of all. When we've gotten there, we've done pretty well. We've always gotten points – albeit field goals most of the time."
In many ways, those field goals have been the story of the Browns' season so far. Without any hint of hyperbole, the Browns' most valuable offensive performer in 2011 has been veteran kicker Phil Dawson. Through nine games, Dawson has connected on 16 of 19 field goals, a total that includes an amazing six from beyond 50 yards.
Dawson's long distance output – while remarkable – has also proven symbolic of the Browns' inability to both sustain drives and ultimately score touchdowns. Yet, it has been the kicks that Dawson has missed – all of which have resulted from poor special teams' execution – that have further characterized the state of the Browns' offense. Dawson's miss against the Rams instantly served as a condemnation of Shurmur's overly conservative late game play calling.
When asked whether these red zone issues stemmed from a design flaw or a lack of execution, Watson offered the following.
"I don't have an answer for that," Watson said. "We practice Red Zone a lot. We have some good Red Zone plays, but when it comes down to it, it's all about execution when we get there. We need to start finding a special urgency when we get there, because the defenses get tougher and it gets tougher to run the ball. It's a challenge."
As for the play calling, Shurmur, serving the dual role of rookie head coach and embattled offensive play caller, opened up his bag of tricks in an attempt to spark a dormant offense last Sunday against the Rams. The results were mixed, as the Browns enjoyed a few sparks of success, but again failed to reach the end zone.
As a result, Shurmur's best efforts to improve his struggling offense were highly scrutinized following the 13-12 loss. In most of these cases, Shurmur's newest plays were derided as mere "trick plays."
"I guess you could call them some creative plays," Watson said. "They weren't really trick plays, but they had just had some more imagination. We used some misdirection to get different people the ball, like Josh in the backfield. We had a couple plays that were deceptive."
According to Watson, the plays seen against the Rams could continue in the coming weeks – at least in a smaller volume.
"I think they'll be some stuff sprinkled in," Watson said. "Obviously, those plays aren't going to replace our base offense. I think any time you can throw a wrinkle in there as an offense, that's a positive for us – especially when you're like us and struggling to try to score points."
While the timing of Shurmur's creative binge was interesting – considering his familiarity with the Rams' roster – Watson admitted that the circumstances were probably coincidental.
"Some of those plays would work on any team I would imagine," Watson said. "I hadn't even thought about the fact that was his former team."
Regarding Shurmur's current offense, Watson admits that he can envision improvement. Although the overall production has been lacking, Watson points to signs of life emerging.
"This year, the offense is spread a little more," Watson said. "So far, I think we got more people involved in it. But at the end of the day, it's about winning and doing the best that you can at where you're at."
Of course, since the Browns are not winning – and have only offered fans a sometimes unwatchable product – criticism has been levied against the two highest profile members of the offense, McCoy and Hillis.
When asked to critique McCoy's performance, Watson declined.
"I wouldn't critique him – that's not my job," Watson said. "He has coaches, just like I do. As an offense, I can say that we honestly have a long way to go – across the board, not just him, not just me, not just the running backs – we all as a unit have to improve."
Speaking of running backs, any discussion of the Browns' current offensive malaise has to include a reference to Hillis. After breaking out in 2010 and exploding into the national consciousness via Madden Football's cover, Hillis' 2011 season has been a procession of misfortune.
While some would suggest that Hillis' newfound celebrity has been partially to blame for the negative publicity surrounding the Browns' running back, Watson thinks the entire situation has been overblown.
"I think it's become a story when it didn't have to be in a lot of aspects," Watson said. "I think it's kind of taken on a life of its own. I don't think Peyton wanted it to and the team didn't want it to, but at the same time, I don't think it's as big a story among us as it is on the outside."
According to Watson, Hillis hasn't morphed into the diva character that has been suggested by some in the Cleveland media.
"Peyton does not want to be a distraction," Watson said. "He's a hard-working guy and someone who wants to help the team. He's a good teammate. In some ways, this whole thing has been blown out of proportion, but that happens a lot. People don't really know what's going on inside the locker room and how we're doing things and how it hasn't been that much of an issue for us."
Despite the downward slope of another lost season looming, Watson realizes that the Browns have to continue embracing a strong work ethic in order to eventually succeed.
"Throughout my whole career, even when I was on teams that won a lot of games, you never expect it to win without earning wins," Watson said. "In this league, you have to earn wins. You know you have to put in the work."
As for whether his expectations have changed, Watson remained consistent in his beliefs.
"My expectations have been that I want to win more games and I believe we're going to," Watson said. "But we're in a tough spot right now. But I do think we're going to be pros about it and work."