2017 Cleveland Browns: Bucking bad rushing game trends

When Browns Head Coach Hue Jackson named DeShone Kizer the starting quarterback on Sunday, many fans began to doubt the decision, but most reasonable diehards realized the why. Brock Osweiler had strung together two putrid performances in the preseason, and Cody Kessler had performed poorly enough in camp to eliminate himself before his opportunity ever arrived. Enter DeShone Kizer, the rookie with plenty to learn, but the physical ability the others simply fail to possess. He has the awareness, arm, gravitas, leadership, and, drive to be successful in this league. The decision might have been easy but there are bound to be rookie mistakes that come with starting Kizer (some of which we already have seen). These errors will happen less often and be easier to accept if one thing can happen: the Browns have to establish a dominant run game.

Lofty expectations abound for both Isaiah Crowell (here), and Duke Johnson (here). The concept is easy to fathom, and it simply involves utilizing the ability of the men up front; newly signed guard Kevin Zeitler and center JC Tretter adding to the return of a healthy All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio with second-year Shon Coleman and future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas rounding out the starting group. This is a beautiful concept, but it is one in which the Browns have not commited towards since their return in 1999.

This group has the sheer size and skill, given Cam Erving’s blocks into the backfield never leave the sideline and Shon Coleman develops into what most within the organization hope he will be, necessary to run the ball in the rugged AFC North. If the Browns want any semblance of a successful season, they will have to ease the burden on DeShone Kizer and aim to be a Top 10 running team in 2017. Anything outside that mark makes it difficult to sniff a winning record in Cleveland.

When tracing the history of this franchise and the ground game, post-1970, it really isn’t pretty. Sure, most of the myths of Browns lore have considered the offense a running-themed franchise. The label might have come about more by default though thanks to the laundry list of failed quarterbacks alongside the ever-present history of Jim Brown’s symbolic dominance. Cleveland is also associated with a rugged fan base, which translates- in theory- to the concept of running the football.

More recent history with the advent of the expansion franchise in 1999 has seen the common knowledge understand the Browns haven’t had much offense of any measure, including a run game. With the constant failures, fans in Cleveland have been treated to a truly anemic running offense. Check this out:

Only two years reside inside the Top 15: the surprisingly bizarre 2007 season and the disappointingly bizarre 2009 season. In 2007, the Browns found a steady presence in Jamal Lewis (1,304 yards) and surprisingly stellar quarterback play from second-year, shooting-star Derek Anderson. In 2009, the Browns found the rushing game again getting 1,362 yards between Jerome Harrison and Jamal Lewis; yet amazingly found only 2,227 passing yards from Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson- ouch. This is pathetic. On the rarest of occasions, the Browns lone playoff visit since their return, 2002, they found solid success through the air under Kelly Holcomb, but the lack of established ground game (No. 23 in NFL) left them vulnerable- perhaps unable to close out a playoff game despite holding a big lead.

Even when the Browns had a high rate of team success in the late 1980s, they found it predominantly through the arm of Bernie Kosar.

Those teams in the 80s were clearly most successful through the air, sure, but when they needed a few yards on the ground Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner, they could be trusted to obtain them. But, it does show more evidence on the simple fact that the Browns have never found success in the modern game while leaning on a rushing attack. Hue Jackson and company seem to be pouring resources into this department, and the results of the 2017 season hinge upon those deals displaying the necessary improvement.

The Browns need the rushing attack under Crowell and Johnson to be at its best in helping Kizer. He won’t set the world on fire, but he can be a serviceable quarterback in this league if he asked to do reasonable things. He can’t be put with his back against the wall in constant third and long situations. There’s a path to success through a consistent rushing attack and a stingy Gregg William’s defense. This concept is easier said than done, but when your franchise commits millions of dollars and many resources to both lines, the positive results should be expected. The Browns finishing outside the Top 15 in rushing this year would be a cataclysmic disappointment. The overall win/loss record would reflect it.

The Ravens, Steelers and Bengals have all consistently run the ball, and it ties into the Browns perpetually floundering within the division. The path to success in 2017 is only going to be found by limiting the reliance on Kizer. Allow him to be successful when the defense cannot predict what is coming. For Kizer, who is 15 months younger than any other starting quarterback in the league, the rushing through Crowell and Johnson are the key to his success and development as a quarterback.

With a stable ground game, the Browns should see tangible progress. Without it, a Top 5 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft is inevitable. The front office did their part, so now Jackson and the players need it to show up on the field.

Other 2017 Cleveland Browns preview articles at WFNY