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In Tate, Browns Get RB They Really Need

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Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

For RB Ben Tate, there is both good news and bad news in signing with the Cleveland Browns as a free agent from the Houston Texans on Saturday.

First, the one bit of bad news. Tate, who will be paid a very salary cap-friendly $7 million over two years, is coming to a team with no less than four Pro Football Hall of Fame running backs in Jim Brown, Marion Motley, Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelly. So overall, the bar has been set high in Cleveland.

Now the two bits of good news.

The youngest of those players, Kelly, retired 41 years ago, so the only people who remember that great mudder — or any of the other Hall of Famers — are old and gray and thus few and far between.

Plus there’s the fact that the Browns had anti-HOF performances last season from their stable of plodders — er, runners. The “best” of the bunch was Willis McGahee, who played like he was about as old as Kelly (he will turn 72 on May 20).

McGahee was No. 1 on the Browns in rushing last season with but 377 yards, the second-lowest total for a leading rusher in team history , and the lowest in 60 years. It was in 1953, when NFL teams played just 12 regular-season games, or four less less than they do now, that Ray Renfro topped the club with 352 yards.

Even in the strike-shortened 1982 season, when there were only nine games, Mike Pruitt managed to gain 516 yards. And in that forgettable 1999 expansion season, when the Browns finished with what is still a franchise-worst 2-14 record, Terry Kirby was able to grind out 452 yards.

So McGahee’s total last year — on a team that finished tied for 27th in the league in rushing -— was extremely paltry, which means that recently the bar has been set pretty low in Cleveland for Tate. He should have no trouble reaching it this fall, because he managed to rush for 771 yards in 2013 even though he battled four cracked ribs for much of the year and had to finally be placed on injured reserve for the final two games. The Browns had four rushing TDs as a team last season, or as the same as Tate had all by himself.

In addition, McGahee averaged just 2.7 yards per carry and the Browns only 4.0 as a team last year, the latter figure being bolstered greatly by a 45-yard end-around by WR Travis Bemjamin and a 34-yard burst by DB Josh Aubrey. Tate’s career average, which has been built sans any gadget plays, is 4.7.

 At just 25 years old and having played just three seasons (he sat out his rookie year with a broken ankle after being taken by the Texans in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft out of Auburn), Tate should be entering the prime of his career with plenty of tread left on his tires. That sets him up for the possibility of having a big year, and the Browns will certainly give him that chance as he will be their feature back. That’s something he never had a chance to do in Houston in playing behind Arian Foster, one of the NFL’s best runners.

With all the talk about the need to find a franchise quarterback and to bolster this position and that position, what has really gotten lost, especially with the emphasis on the pass in this league, is that the Browns went into the offseason in a desperate situation at running back. In fact, it’s likely the worst it’s ever been at that position.

Their ability to pound on teams with Tate’s strong, squatty, 5-foot-11, 214-pound frame should keep them out of a good portion of the long-yardage situations they faced last season, thus making it easier for QB Brian Hoyer — or whomever — to pass the ball without getting eaten alive by rushers who can turn it loose because they don’t have to respect the run.

So the Browns are getting a back in Tate who, for several reasons, really wanted to be in Cleveland. This is a great opportunity for him, and for the Browns. They both have a lot to gain if he has a big season.

And here’s an interesting twist to it all: Does Tate realize that one of those Cleveland Hall of Fame running backs, Brown, will be watching in person in his role as a special advisor to team owner Jimmy Haslam?