PITTSFIELD, N.Y. - When the Browns traded a conditional seventh-round pick to Miami in exchange for J.J. Johnson, it was considered by most to be a trivial roster move.
Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt hinted to the fact that his team had made the trade almost as a favor to Johnson, an oft-injured, former second-round pick who was on his way to being cut. In three years with the Dolphins, he carried the ball 219 times for 748 yards and five touchdowns. Last year, he was limited to just five carries for 22 yards.
The Browns said soon after the trade that they would try to convert Johnson from running back to fullback. What the Browns did not say was how much they were counting on Johnson successfully making that move.
After watching the Browns first-team offense struggle during Saturday's scrimmage with the Buffalo Bills in suburban Rochester, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians talked about how much a recent injury to Johnson has hurt the unit.
Johnson injured his shoulder during the third day of training camp. He has since watched practice from the sideline with his shoulder in a sling.
"We are still a little out of sync in trying to find out who we are this year," said Arians. "The injury to (J.J.) Johnson really set us back. We were becoming a pretty good two-back team."
The popular assumption was that the Browns were throwing Johnson a bone by giving him an opportunity to try his hand at fullback, and in the end Aaron Shea would fill a duel role as both a fullback and H-back. Most NFL scouts considered the 4th-year pro a second-round bust.
Instead, it is the loss of Johnson that, according to Arians, is keeping the Browns from finding their stride in the running game.
"We want to line up with a fullback who can hit you right in the mouth," said Arians. "Now we are back stepping because we lost our fullback. Now Aaron is back in a duel role, which Aaron can handle. He is a good player."
Arians said the team does not think there is a free agent fullback available who would provide what Johnson can at fullback.
"I wish there were," said Arians. "Those guys are hard to find."
But what does Johnson bring to the fullback position - a role he has never played - that those on the free agent market do not?
"The first two days (of training camp), Johnson was outstanding," said Arians. "He is a special athlete who can hit a linebacker in the mouth and then split out at wide receiver and run pass routes like a wide out."
Johnson's injury has kept the Brows from the versatility they would like to have on offense. Arians said he would like the fullback to be a key part of the running game, but he also wants the offense to feature three and four-wide receiver sets as well as multiple tight end looks.
The Browns are not sure how long they will be without Johnson.
"It could be two weeks, and it could be five," said Arians. "I'm not sure."