Running Game Finally Worth A Hoot

After examining the risks the Cleveland Browns are taking with the linebacking corps earlier this week, now turns to an area where the Browns are taking no chances. The Owl turns his penetrating gaze to the running backs - a group that could be four-deep in qualified players by the start of the season.

This story is dedicated to Errict Rhett, Travis Prentice, Cedric Shaw, Madre Hill and every other running back that played in the Three Feet and a Puff of Dust Club since the Browns return to the NFL in 1999.

In five years, the Browns have gone from a run offense so shallow that, were it a pond it couldn't cover a pebble, to one so deep sonar is needed to find the last running back on the bench.

Maybe the best news to come out of minicamp earlier this month is about a player who didn't gain a yard in team drills - rookie Lee Suggs.

Suggs was the draft day shocker taken in the fourth round. He was considered damaged goods because every team knew he required shoulder surgery, not to mention a major knee injury in 2001. But, it turns out, the severity of the shoulder was not as bad as the Browns feared. It was repaired arthroscopicly in May.

During rookie minicamp in April, Suggs predicted he'd be ready to play by mid-August. Known as a hard-working player in injury rehab, Suggs is now confident he can be ready for the start of training camp next month.

If that is true, the Browns will have gone from the worst run offenses in the league just two years ago (they ranked 31st of 31 teams in 2001) to potentially one of the best.

William Green is the starter. No doubt about that. Then Coach Butch Davis has Jamel White, Suggs and, the starter from 2001, James Jackson to choose from.

White has speed and great hands as a third down back. He showed last season he is capable of starting. Suggs is a short-yardage specialist. If he plays this season - Davis is going to be cautious - Suggs might see most of his action on third-and-one and close to the goal line. So don't judge him by his yards per carry average. If he plays on third and one and averages two yards a carry, he'll be a hero.

Whoever starts at quarterback, be it Tim Couch or Kelly Holcomb, will be the chief beneficiary of the improved running attack. Tackles Ross Verba and Ryan Tucker have beefed up and center Jeff Faine just plays nasty when running plays are called.

"Any quarterback who hasn't got a running game is limited," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "The running game's improvement (last season) helped a ton. We won a lot of games and took a lot less hits.

"Our passing yards went down. After the first seven games, we were in the top 10 in the NFL in passing offense and we were throwing it a lot, but it's not who we wanted to be. As we developed our running game, our passing statistics obviously dropped. But, in the last seven games, I think we were in the top 12 in rushing."

Green rushed for 726 yards in the final seven games. He should be a 1,000-yard rusher if he stays healthy. A 1,000-yard season in the NFL isn't as rare as it once was - unless you're the Browns. They rushed for 1,085 yards as a team in 2000. They were better in 2001, rushing for 1,351 yards and even better in 2002 when they rushed for 1,615 yards.

Not coincidentally, their victory total rose steadily: 3-13 in 2000, 7-9 in 2001 and 9-7 plus a playoff game last season. Had they run the ball better against the Steelers in the playoffs, they might have won that game. As it was, Green gained 30 yards on 25 carries.

The Browns are expecting huge things from Green in 2003. Couch and Holcomb can both move the team, and though the depth is vital to the overall success, Green should be the focal point of the offense.

"I look for a big year out of him," Arians said. "He's working hard. He's got a real good understanding right now of the runs and we've changed some of the runs.

"Will's extremely quick. He's so much faster looking because I think he knows where he's going and he's comfortable like most players. I can remember how much stronger Peyton's (Manning) arm looked the second year (in Indianapolis) because he knew where everybody was going and he had trust that he could just let it fly. The same thing with our quarterbacks - the arm looks rubber because everybody's in the right spot all the time, so they can turn and fire without hesitating."

Four yards and a bruised linebacker sounds real good to the Owl right now.

The OBR Top Stories