When the Cleveland Browns were the team to win the bidding war for undrafted free agent running back Isaiah Crowell in 2014, it was widely believed they got a steal. Crowell would have been one of the draft’s top prospects at his position that year had it not been for the myriad off-the-field problems that saw him suspended and eventually released from the University of Georgia, only to transfer to Alabama State to finish out his collegiate career. Even though the Browns drafted another back that spring—Terrance West in the third round—it was Crowell who appeared to have the most NFL promise.
But after two seasons with the Browns, it’s clear that Crowell’s hype train has slowed down considerably. Even with West gone, traded to the Tennessee Titans at the start of the 2015 season, Crowell hasn’t taken full command of the position. While he doesn’t have to, thanks to Duke Johnson also being in Cleveland, the thunder-and-lightning one-two punch of Crowell and Johnson has yet to take hold, mainly because Crowell’s thunder simply isn’t rumbling loudly enough.
The presence of new head coach Hue Jackson should help Crowell improve, but by how much? What about Crowell’s relatively disappointing (albeit brief) tenure with the Browns thus far can be coached out of him and what is simply in his nature as a back? A few numbers provide clues that Crowell both can and cannot be coached up. What is certain, though, is that the Browns need him to be part of a varied and creative run game and if he cannot handle that, he will be replaced.
In two seasons, Crowell has rushed 333 times for a total of 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has averaged 3.9 yards per carry and 41 yards rushing per game. But that does not tell the whole story of Crowell’s time in Cleveland. What is far more illuminating is just how much he’s had his runs stuffed—stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage—compared to his counterparts in the league and, most importantly for this exercise, the Cincinnati Bengals’ backs, whom Jackson coached for the previous three years.
Crowell was stuffed 26 times in 2015 according to Sporting Charts, tied for the sixth-most in the league. In other words, he was held to a loss or no gain on 14.1 percent of his 185 carries. To put that into a different sort of perspective, Crowell had the most runs stuffed of any back who rushed fewer than 200 times in the season. Though Adrian Peterson leads the list with 47 runs stuffed, he had 327 attempts over the course of the season; the other two backs to be stuffed 26 times in 2015, Jonathan Stewart and Chris Ivory, had 242 and 247 carries, respectively.
And this is nothing new: In 2014, Crowell tied for the eighth-most run stuffs in the league, 23, though he had only 148 carries. Though the offensive line deserves some credit (or blame) for Crowell’s inability to advance the ball, at least according to Football Outsiders, which has the line as the 29th-ranked run-blocking unit in 2015 but yet the run game as a whole ranking 14th in open field yards (meaning backs did more for themselves on the season than the line did), one also has to take Johnson into account. He had just 13 runs stuffed on 104 carries in his rookie year. Ultimately, Cleveland’s run game ranked in the bottom 10 of the league in attempts, yards and touchdowns on the season.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s run game in Cincinnati behind Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard—yet another thunder-and-lightning style duo of backs—was thriving. Though yards-per-carry weren’t the forte of the team’s run game, a heavy amount of attempts yielding high yardage and touchdown totals were. In 2012, preceding Jackson’s first year on the offensive side of the ball in Cincinnati, the Bengals ranked 17th in rush attempts, 18th in rushing yards and 18th in rushing touchdowns. The next year, when Jackson was named running backs coach, they were ranked eighth, 18th and 13th in each category and in 2014, Jackson’s first as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator (and the first year Hill and Bernard were paired up), they were ranked fifth, sixth and second in the three categories. In 2015, the rankings were seventh, 13th and fourth.
While the Bengals’ run game certainly benefited from a strong offensive line leading the way, Hill and Bernard did not have the same issues with having their rushes stuffed in Jackson’s system. In Bernard’s rookie year, he was stuffed 17 times on 177 carries; that dropped to 12 stuffs on 168 carries in 2014 and to 11 stuffs on 154 carries in 2015. Hill was stuffed 21 times on 222 carries as a rookie and 20 times on 233 attempts in 2015. And it does not help Crowell that two starters on Cleveland’s 2014 and 2015 offensive lines have moved on in free agency. The only saving grace is Jackson’s scheme and coaching that will allow him to fulfill the promise everyone saw in him prior to the 2014 draft.
Vision, timing, footwork and decision-making have all been issues with Crowell in his first two seasons in Cleveland. Nolan Nawrocki wrote in Crowell’s NFL.com scouting report that the back’s strengths include, “Good vision and run strength—runs hard and has a knack for finding seams,” plusses that have slowly disappeared in the last two seasons. His weaknesses, meanwhile, include, “Average balance and tackle-breaking power. Cannot make his own holes and goes down too easy on contact, especially inside. Minimal receiving production,” all of which have been magnified during his NFL career to date. And the numerous stuffed runs point to these problems being present and needing fixing.
Nawrocki also says that Crowell “can be difficult to coach.” Nawrocki, though, may be incorrect in that assessment, but if he’s right then that may be somewhat of a challenge for Jackson. Jackson, however, has never shied away from the challenge of trying to coach “difficult” characters, and if he sees enough promise in Crowell will do all in his power to maximize his strengths in a two-man run attack, much as he built in Cincinnati with Hill and Bernard. But there are inherent flaws to Crowell’s game. Can Jackson wave his magic wand much as he did with the Bengals and turn the Browns’ run game around, or is Crowell not capable of more than we’ve already seen?