Saturday, December 20, 2008

Are the Cleveland Browns' RB Answers Already in Cleveland?

As the Browns stumble towards the finish in 2008, many personnel questions are up in the air for 2009. Who is going to play linebacker other than D’Qwell Jackson? Should strong safety Sean Jones resign? Can Joe Jurevicius come back from a seventh knee surgery? The Browns have some talent but they also have some awfully large gaps to fill.

One position that is also often talked about is running back. Workhorse Jamal Lewis will hit the dreaded 30-year-old mark for running backs in 2009. It has looked like that unwritten guideline for running backs is holding true with him as well as this year he has been a step slow to holes, lacks an initial burst off the snap and often tip-toes to line instead of hitting it full bore.

His stat lines from 2007 and 2008 also tell a similar tale:

2007 – 298 Rushes, 1,304 Yards, 4.4 Average, 9 TD (16 games)
2008 - 240 Rushes, 832 Yards, 3.5 Average, 4 TD (through 14 games)

Lewis, the coaching staff, and GM Phil Savage all say that Lewis has been battling through a number of nagging injuries all season. While it is noble that Lewis is playing hurt through this dismal Browns season, the signs of deterioration cannot be ignored.

The knee-jerk reaction is to go out and grab a Knowshon Moreno type in the first round of the 2009 draft or pick up a young, free agent—a la Michael Bush—to fill the hole.

However, the Browns have many more significant holes to fill, especially on defense, which they desperately need to address on draft day. Also, when Michael Bush is one of the headlines in the crop of free agent running backs, that crop is not deep at all.

One intriguing possibility is a three-headed monster.

Lewis, while having a lot of wear on his tires, can be effective in certain situations if used properly. See Jerome Bettis’ final few years in Pittsburgh as a reference. Think 15 to 20 touches a game with a focus on short yardage and wearing the opposing defense down when it counts.

Mix in a little Jerome Harrison. Now, Harrison may be somewhat undersized, but that has been said about many running backs before him. The quick, shifty, scat-back can come in and take the hand-off off the edge and can break it at any time. He also can be a weapon in the short passing and screen game, something that the bigger Lewis often struggles with.

The final piece of the puzzle is Josh Cribbs. Yes, Cribbs is one of the best special-teams players and returners in the NFL and the Browns can not afford to lose him there. However, he has such big play ability he warrants around ten touches a game.

While currently classified as a receiver, Cribbs was a quarterback at Kent State. Many pro scouts actually saw him as a running back at the next level, not a wide receiver. As a receiver, Cribbs has had a minimal impact on the Browns. His route running is not crisp and he seems to struggle without the ball in his hands right away.

However, the few glimpses we have seen of Cribbs in the “Flash Package” have shown he is more than capable as an NFL runner. Using him in the role of a “third-down back” gets him the ball in his hands right away and he would not be a liability in pass blocking as he has already proven his toughness on special teams.

So while the Browns have plenty of holes to fill in the 2009 off season they just may have the pieces in place to fill the running back void already. It may take a little bit of chicanery and a pinch of tomfoolery, but that’s what good organizations do to win football games.

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