The challenges facing the Cleveland Browns first-year head coach this season are plentiful, and he must overcome many them if this team is to have any success.
What exact challenges do I reference? Oh, where to begin?
To start, he’s hitching his wagon to a 28-year-old journeyman quarterback with just four career starts. Brian Hoyer brings a lot of intangibles with him to the quarterback position, but a track record of success is just not one of him.
The St. Ignatius graduate is easy to get behind, he showed some signs last season and he’s coming off a solid performance in the Browns’ final preseason game against the Chicago Bears. Still, this is Brian Hoyer we’re talking about.
Let’s say he does struggle, what type of noise will we hear? Fans and media members will begin to clamor for Johnny Manziel to be inserted into the starting role, which of course does not make Pettine’s job any easier.
Let’s also not forget about this defense. On paper, the defense looks good, and it should be bolstered by several playmakers (Karlos Dansby, Donte Whitner, Justin Gilbert) and Pettine’s sheer history of coaching successful defenses at the NFL level.
However, the Browns’ defense allowed 25.4 points per game in 2013, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. That number is not going to just reverse course over night, especially when you consider the current prognosis for this team’s offense.
In an interview earlier this summer with EHC, ESPN’s John Clayton had the following to say about the Browns’ offensive outlook.
“Defensively, I think their defense is going to keep them in most games. I don’t think their defense gets enough credit. I think it’s very solid in the front seven, its very talented in the secondary, so that’s a defense that may only give up 20 to 22 points per game, but what you worry about is offense because I just don’t know if there is enough offense.”
Clayton’s comments allude to a well-known NFL fact — the best defense is a good offense. That then brings us to what will arguably be Pettine’s greatest challenge — replacing Josh Gordon.
It’s safe to say that no one expected Gordon’s one-year suspension to be upheld this past week. Yes, he was a repeat offender, but the fact that the appeals process took so long seemed to indicate that the NFL was going to think long and hard about upholding a one-year suspension due to smoking marijuana.
To be fair, the Browns knew that Gordon was potentially facing a one-year ban back in May during the NFL Draft. The team had plenty of opportunities to draft some potential replacements, yet when it was said and done, 33 wide receivers were selected in the draft. Not even one of them was selected by the Browns.
When attempting to replace a player, the first step is finding an actual replacement and the Browns chose not to do that during the NFL Draft. Instead, the team relied on bringing in veterans — Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins and Nate Burleson, who has since be released, rounded out the team’s free agent receiving additions this offseason.
It’s somewhat haphazard to expect that crop of receivers to replace Gordon and his NFL-leading 1,646 receiving yards. Also, for better or worse, the Browns’ third, fourth, fifth and sixth-leading receivers from 2013 are no longer with the club, so this year’s squad of receivers, backs and tight ends has its work cut out for it.
Gordon’s 1,646 yards accounted for 37.6 percent of the Browns’ entire passing offense in 2013. That helps to illustrate the current task facing this year’s receiving corps.
In EHC’s discussion with Clayton, another point that the Professor made was that the Browns did not really focus on adding a receiver capable of stretching the field.
“(Miles Austin) will bring stability, but it doesn’t do much for the outside because I think most of his game is in the middle of the field. As you get to a receiver and he gets into his 30s, and remember Austin was mostly a slot guy when he was down in Dallas, that’s where his strength was. As you get a little bit older, you move even more toward the slot because you do lose a little bit of speed, you do lose that threat to the outside, you don’t have the ability to go down the field as well, so when you look at the receivers, most of the guys they brought in are more middle-of-the-field type guys. There’s nobody there to really replace the outside threat of Josh Gordon.”
I’m not one to disagree with John Clayton, and I do agree that Austin and Burleson are what they — middle of the road receivers whose best years are probably behind them. However, there was one player that Clayton seemed to overlook during our discussion — Andrew Hawkins.
Clayton’s not the only one guilty of this. It seems as if everyone has overlooked Hawkins during his career with the Cincinnati Bengals and now the Browns, who signed the former University of Toledo star in March for four years and $13.6 million.
Like Clayton said, Hawkins is another receiver whose game is mostly in the middle of the field, and he will fill the slot receiver role for the Browns. However, unlike Austin or Burleson, Hawkins’ best years are not behind him.
The 28-year-old is entering the prime of his career and can still run a 4.34 40-yard dash. His legs will help him create separation and also generate plenty of yardage after the catch, which has been a key strength of Hawkins’ during his career.
Ever since Gordon’s suspensions, Browns fans have been clamoring for someone to emerge and help pick up the slack alongside Jordan Cameron, who is now sure to draw many double teams.
Look no further, Andrew Hawkins is a receiver capable of doing jus that and should flourish in offense coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system.
This season will be Shanahan’s seventh season as an offensive coordinator, and the slot receiver has always been a key component of his offense. Take a look at the slot receiver’s numbers in Shanahan’s previous seasons as an offensive coordinator:
- 2008, Houston Texans, Kevin Walter: 60 receptions, 899 yards
- 2009, Houston Texans, Kevin Walter: 53 receptions, 611 yards
- 2010, Washington Redskins, Anthony Armstrong: 44 receptions, 871 yards
- 2011, Washington Redskins, Donte Stallworth, 22 receptions, 309 yards
- 2012, Washington Redskins, Santana Moss, 41 receptions, 573 yards
- 2013, Washington Redskins, Santana Moss, 42 receptions, 452 yards
So, as you can tell, aside from 2011, the slot receiver has filled a mild-to-big role in Shanahan’s offense. The 2011 season can also be forgiven considering that Rex Grossman was the Redskins’ starting quarterback for 13 games that season.
Shanahan’s offense is designed to have a quarterback get rid of the ball on quick slants and short patterns, and this is where Hoyer and Manziel could flourish. Hawkins and his blazing speed could prove deadly for opposing defenses.
Consider this point as well.
Last season, Hawkins led all receivers with 10-or-more catches in YAC per reception with 11.3. Granted, Hawkins missed the first half of the season and only tallied 12 receptions for 199 yards all season, so the importance of this small sample size is minimal.
However, in 2012, when Hawkins recorded 51 receptions for 533 yards, he also averaged 7.0 YAC per reception. Only two receivers with 50 or more catches, Percy Harvin and T.Y. Hilton, averaged more YAC per reception that season.
Conclusion? This is a playmaker capable of doing special things once the ball is in his hands.
The Browns believe that too. Otherwise, why would the team have committed $13.6 million and a $3.8 million signing bonus to player who missed half of the 2013 season?
The answer is simple. It’s because the Browns, General Manager Ray Farmer, Pettine and Shanahan know the tantalizing potential that Hawkins offers, and they’re ready to tap into it.
I leave you with one best-case scenario for Hawkins. It sounds outlandish, but consider it with an open mind.
The similarities are telling.
Both were undrafted.
Both are undersized.
Both initially bounced around NFL practice squads. Hawkins even did time in the CFL.
Both proved themselves in lesser roles (Welker, Dolphins; Hawkins, Bengals) before earning their first big-time NFL contract (Welker, Patriots; Hawkins, Browns).
Welker has since gone on to redefine the role of an NFL slot receiver, but Hawkins’ story is still incomplete.
If the 2014 season goes as it should though, Hawkins’ latest chapter could turn out to be his best yet.