'Reliable Running Attack' Requires Reliable RB
By Steven King
Willis McGahee led the Cleveland Browns with 377 rushing yards in 2013.
With no disrespect toward McGahee – a good guy and a good locker-room influence who is far past his prime – that’s pathetic.
To think that someone could be the top rusher on an NFL team with 377 yards – even one that lost its final seven games and 10 of its last 11 en route to finishing 4-12 – is absolutely unbelievable.
To think that he could do it on a team with no less than four Pro Football Hall of Fame running backs is almost incomprehensible. Somewhere, Marion Motley – the founding member of that quartet and the only one who is deceased – must be turning over in his grave.
McGahee’s total is the second-lowest for a Browns leading rusher and the lowest since Ray Renfro, who went to become a prolific wide receiver for the team, had 352 yards in 1953. That was in a 12-game season in which the Browns still had 1,577 rushing yards as a team. So it was a running back-by-committee situation in which Renfro was the most productive one, averaging 29.3 yards a game.
The NFL regular-season schedule now consists of 16 games, which means McGahee averaged just 23.6 yards per contest on a club that had but 1,383 overall.
Even when a labor dispute shortened the season to nine games in 1982, Mike Pruitt far outperformed McGahee, leading the Browns with 516 rushing yards and averaging 57.3 yards per contest. To rush for 1,000 yards in a season now, a player must average 62.5 yards per game. As such, Pruitt might well have finished with 1,000 if those seven games hadn’t been lost.
That would not have been surprising, though, because Pruitt finished with 1,000 yards every other season over the five-year span from 1979-83.
If only the Browns had a running back that is merely half as good as was Pruitt, or even Renfro, for that matter. With all the angst about finding a franchise quarterback, which is obviously the Browns’ No. 1 priority this offseason, what got lost in all the commotion caused by the express-lane firing of one-and-done coach Rob Chudzinski is the fact the club is also in desperate need of a quality running back.
While passing now drives and dominates the NFL – a team can’t win without a good passing attack, which of course requires a good quarterback – a club still must be able to run the ball. The ability to move the ball on the ground takes pressure off the quarterback to make all the plays. That’s especially true of teams such as Cleveland that play in cold-weather environments where weather is a factor.
New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said recently in his introductory press conference that he wants to build a “reliable running game.” That’s good to hear. He gets it. He understands the way a team has to win in Cleveland and in the AFC North.
As such, the Browns have to find a good running back, probably in the 2014 NFL Draft that is to be held in early May. Because the running back position has been so devalued in the draft, the Browns should be able to get a good runner (and possibly two), especially since they have so many picks near the top (three in the first 35).
But it doesn’t stop there. To have a good running game, a team must also have good run blockers. In that regard, the Browns are partially set with seven-time Pro Bowl LT Joe Thomas, LG John Greco and two-time Pro Bowl C Alex Mack, assuming he doesn’t leave via free agency.
However, they have major issues at right guard with Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao, and likely also at right tackle with Mitchell Schwartz, who really struggled this past year after a good rookie season in 2012. So will the real Schwartz please stand up?
Whatever utimately happens, though, the 2014 Browns have to do better – much, much, much better, in fact – than McGahee’s “team-leading” 377 rushing yards from this past season. In fact, if we’re still talking about anything even close to that a year from now, then it’s likely we could also be discussing another 4-12 finish.
And that would be absolutely miserable.