There's the young linebackers. Three sophomores, a freshman, Brant Boyer, and Barry Gardner. We know they can run, but can they tackle? We all saw the dramatic negative effects of poor tackling a year ago. Could this years Browns be an even worse tackling team than last years?
There's the pass rush. Only four teams had less sacks than the Browns last year, and we brought aboard the defensive line coach and head coach from one of those teams. We haven't added anyone to help in this area, and Courtney Brown's health is still a concern. Is a change of scheme enough?
And it just wouldn't be a preseason Browns piece if I didn't mention the quarterback controversy that has taken the city, as well as the national media, by storm.
Yet…none of these things worry me as much as our starting offensive guards.
There are five men that will compete for the two starting guard spots. Holdovers Shaun O'Hara and Barry Stokes are the holdover starters from last season. Melvin Fowler Jr. and Qasim Mitchell are the promising youths that the team is grooming to eventually take over. And then there's Paul Zukauskas, who looks so overmatched every time he's pressed into action that I'd be worried if he were the bouncer at my nightclub, never mind a starting offensive guard in the NFL.
Don't get me wrong. I'm bullish as to the futures of Qasim and Fowler. What I'm worried about is this season.
However…as each day of training camp passes, now even with some live action against other teams in the books, it's becoming more and more clear that Fowler and Mitchell are not quite ready to be every down players in this league. Fowler has displayed some impressive footwork and solid technique, but still appears undersized and overpowered. I believe Melvin needs at least another full year getting bigger and stronger before he'll be ready to take on the rigors of playing sixteen games as a NFL starting offensive guard. Watching Fowler get manhandled by Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth reaffirmed that notion to me.
With Qasim, we have a completely different problem. He has the size to be dominante with no technique, form, or handwork. He displays noticeable talent, and might be a viable option in spots this season (short yardage, red zone, etc.), but he also is not ready to be playing sixty to seventy plays a game this season. The savvy defensive tackles of the NFL would eat him alive when the Browns are put into obvious passing situations on consecutive plays or series.
Knowing that all of this is true, and that the possibility of Butch Davis starting three players with one combined NFL start in the interior of his line is next to nil, what does that leave us with I ask?
The same tandem as last year. Shaun O'Hara and Barry Stokes. In my opinion, the worst guard tandem in the league last season.
This worries me. And it worries Butch Davis too. On Jim Rome's radio show yesterday, Butch said he was worried about the guard situation, and "loses sleep over who will play there for us".
Butch is worried because there's no reason to expect improvement at the position from a year ago, when it was crippling to the Browns offense. Let's take a look at some of the dismal numbers associated with the offensive line from the 2002 campaign:
- The Browns were 24th in yards per rush.
- The Browns were 23rd in yards rushing per game.
- The Browns ranked 25th in runs of twenty yards or greater.
- The Browns finished 25th in rushing touchdowns.
- They ranked 20th in yards per play.
- The team was 29th overall in rushing 1st downs.
- They were 28th in the league in conversions on 3rd and 4th down conversions of two yards or less, converting only 58% of those opportunities.
- The team ran the ball less in the red zone than any other team in the league last season. Just 39.3% of all red zone plays were runs.
It would be easy to attribute these numbers to a raw William Green in the first half of the season. Or to look at the fact that the Browns ranked in the middle of the league in sacks allowed and ignore the problem. By looking inside the numbers, you'll find that the Browns struggled badly against good defenses and that the offensive line's "second half resurgence" wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
Granted, the Browns did run the ball better over the last eight games, accounting for 123 yards per game at an average of 4.17 yards per carry. But let's take a closer look:
- During that stretch, the Browns faced five of the thirteen worst run defenses in the league in Jacksonville, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and New Orleans (listed in order of ineptitude).
- The other three teams we faced (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Carolina) held us to 239 yards on 65 rushes for a 3.5 yard per average carry.
- Wide receivers accounted for nearly 100 yards rushing on the ground (9-96) over those last eight games. Take out the reverses or trick plays we ran to Northcutt and Andre Davis, and you'll find that our running backs only averaged 3.9 yards per carry over those last eight games, when everyone was praising our offensive line and running game.
- And finally, the Steelers playoff game. When we needed it most against a good defense, we ran 28 times for 38 yards. Add these figures to the second half numbers (which I have not done in the above examples), and the numbers become even more sub par.
One has to give a lot of the credit to William Green, who ran much more convincingly down the stretch. Many of the great runs he made, including the epic dash against the Falcons, I saw him doing a lot of the work by himself. Also, there's the play calling. Butch Davis and Bruce Arians gutted the playbook during the bye week, reassessing all of the teams running plays and eliminating many of the ones that had not been successful.
So my question is: how much did our offensive line really improve last year as the season progressed?
Give me one good reason, seeing as how we simply changed centers (going from a veteran to a rookie), why should another season of O'Hara and Stokes should not scare the living hell out of me?