Browns offensive stride a long time in the making

New Orleans Saints v Cleveland BrownsWhen Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells famously quipped “You are what your record says you are,” he could very well have been describing the 2014 version of Browns offense when contrasted with its immediate predecessors.

That there comes a time when it is blatantly obvious that production trumps the promises that potential and past successes have to offer was a realization far from the minds of the guys running things in Berea at the beginning of the decade.

To this point this season, the Browns’ offense has impressed with several historic performances and carries the promise of continued growth. It’s a scenario that would’ve seemed nearly unfathomable for an attack that, in previous years, relied on high draft picks and veterans to carry out a proven, albeit somewhat antiquated systems.

A glance at Cleveland’s offensive depth chart reveals that, besides Joe Thomas, not another first-round pick will be starting at Jacksonville Sunday. In fact, Ben Tate, left guard Joel Bitonio and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz are the only second-rounder among the starting group, which includes four players who went undrafted altogether, not to mention key depth guys in Isaiah Crowell and Taylor Gabriel.

That undrafted club also boasts the unit’s lynchpin; quarterback Brian Hoyer, who perhaps best embodies the offense’s collective personality. But Cleveland’s success with the ball can’t merely be attributed to Brian Hoyer’s gutsy play and savvy (though it undoubtedly plays a big role)

In just five games this season, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s playbook has presented creative concepts it appeared as though recent Browns’ offenses had never considered: sweeps, play-action bootlegs, jet sweeps and double-moves just to name a few. The results have borne this ingenuity: Cleveland has scored point totals of 27, 26, 21, 29 and 31 and ranks ninth is total offense.

While it might seem as though Shanahan and the Browns are simply taking what other teams have had success with in today’s NFL and effectively integrating it into their offense, such a proposition was too much to ask in previous seasons.

“A Five-year plan”

The Browns’ effort to become offensively adept following the defensive-minded Crennel and Mangini years initially led them to a coach-turned-executive, whose resume boasted three Super Bowls while directing some of the most effective offenses in NFL history. Unfortunately, Mike Holmgren stubbornly insisted on fitting the square pegs he had to work with on the Browns’ roster into the round sockets of the West Coast offense he attempted to install.

While the Browns O struggled to get off the ground under Holmgren’s watch, it can’t be entirely put on the system or Pat Shurmur, Holmgren’s triggerman on the sidelines. But that still doesn’t absolve Holmgren of his role as the main talent evaluator responsible for wasting high draft picks for the likes of Trent Richardson (third overall, 2012), Brandon Weeden (22nd, 2012), Greg Little (59th, 2011), Montario Hardesty (59th, 2010) and Colt McCoy (85th, 2010). Or, as he did on multiple occasions, try to infuse the roster with veterans like Ben Watson, Seneca Wallace, Mike Bell, Brandon Jackson, Jordan Norwood and the like, who, while they possessed familiarity with the West Coast system, offered little in the department of actual football-game production.Pat-Shurmur-Sad-199x300

Perhaps it was that this incongruous cast of players struggled to play cohesively for a Browns’ offense that ranked 30th and 24th, respectively, in points per game in 2011 and 2012. Or maybe it was Shurmur’s uncreative adaptation of the system.

In any event, the Browns fell well short of accomplishing any sign of improvement in the two-plus years into Holmgren’s ill-conceived “five-year plan,” a fact Holmgren all but admitted in April when he stated he should have just coached the team himself.

Going vertical

The last time the Browns averaged more than 20 points per game—25.1 to be exact in 2007—their offense thrived under Rob Chudzinski. When the Browns brought Chudzinski back with top billing in 2013, it came with the promise of a vertical offense that would stretch defenses and open up running lanes on the ground.

Though many lauded the change, figuring it would better make use of Weeden’s big arm, the switch to the new system proved to be little more than window dressing. Even with the play-making ability of Josh Gordon on the outside, Cleveland’s offense remained eerily similar to the one that seemed all too content to spend just three plays between the sidelines at a time.

Even Chud’s old mentor, Norv Turner, who reprised an old role in coordinator—one that had garnered him a pair of Super Bowl rings two decades earlier with the Cowboys—found no luck in Cleveland. With Turner’s and Chudzinski’s offense stagnant, Cleveland averaged fewer than 20 points for the sixth straight season on its way to ranking 27th out of 32 teams.

Perhaps most embarrassing in 2013, though, was the ground game, which featured former two-time Pro Bowler Willis McGahee as its leading rusher despite the 32-year-old managing a miniscule 377 yards for the season. By contrast, Cleveland has excelled this season by relying on a stable of backs consisting of a previous career backup and a pair of rookies playing for FCS schools last season.

In a way, this group might be best representative of what Cleveland’s offensive unit is about.

To use a college football parallel to describe Cleveland’s offense, the Browns are the team whose roster consists of two- and three-star recruits who have been overlooked and are seeking to prove their worth with attention to detail and hunger to improve.

With Cleveland in the midst of its most favorable stretch of games on the schedule this season and coming off a statement shellacking of Pittsburgh last week, it may be easy to forget the Browns sported an identical 3-2 record through five games a year ago.

And while the feel of this team is undeniably different from 2013, there is but one valid metric for success in the NFL. And as Parcells so succinctly pointed out, it’s a simple one to measure.

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