Browns Offense Must Be Less Offensive In 2013
By Steven King
EDITOR’S NOTE: With so many people and things – on and off the field -- being new this year, the Cleveland Browns enter the opening day of training camp on Thursday with a lot of questions. In the first of a two-part series, we look at their offense.
On a franchise where 13 of the 15 players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame come from offense (the 16th Hall of Famer is coach Paul Brown), it’s almost unfathomable to believe that the Browns have struggled as much as they have on that side of the ball in the expansion era dating back to 1999.
But they have. That’s hardly news.
In fact, the team’s scuffles overall are mostly because of those on offense. That’s the way it is in the NFL, where every rule change in the last 35 years has been made to enhance scoring. When a club can’t score – as has been the case in Cleveland – then it has very little chance to win anytime, and no chance to win consistently. And the re-born Browns have had just two winning records in 14 seasons.
The old adage, “Defense wins championships,” is passe. It started being phased out during the Reagan administration. Offense is the fuel necessary now to take home the Lombardi Trophy.
Here are the five key issues on offense as the Browns take the field in pads for the first time in 2013:
1) For starters …: In Cleveland, it begins where every offensive play begins, with the man taking the snap at quarterback. It has been that way – with all kinds of questions at the position -- since the team came back into the league. Who is the starter? Is he the much sought-after franchise player? Is he good enough to get the club where it wants to go? With 14 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions, Brandon Weeden was mediocre last year as the oldest rookie in Browns history – really, as the team’s version of Roy Hobbs. But in his defense he was badly miscast in a pitch-and-catch offense and was stuck going under center – two things that do not suit his skill set at all. This season, he will be in a vertical passing attack and will be going mostly out of the shotgun, which is what he did in piling up all those big numbers at Oklahoma State. He will also be working under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who understands quarterbacks – especially inexperienced ones – and passing as well as anyone. If Weeden is going to make it in the NFL, then this is the perfect time and place for it to happen. The Browns are keeping their fingers crossed that it occurs, because they – their offense and team as a whole – aren’t going anywhere until Weeden or someone else becomes a great quarterback.
2) Come health or high water: Trent Richardson was unfairly criticized in 2012 after having one of the best seasons ever by a Cleveland rookie running back. He rushed for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns and was second on the club with 51 receptions. And he did a lot of it with two broken ribs. (Talk about toughness!) But while that’s noteworthy, it’s also part of what’s troubling about him. In addition to that injury, he missed all of training camp as well with a knee problem and sat out the last part of this year’s spring work with a muscle strain in his right shin. He says he’s completely healthy now, ready to go for camp and flash his old form. He has to be. The offense – short of playmakers – desperately needs that kind of player putting on jersey No. 33.
3) Catching criticism, and deservedly so: The offense’s biggest threat in the passing game, WR Josh Gordon, was suspended by the NFL for the first two games of the season for taking a banned substance. That’s a huge blow to a club that wants – and needs – to get off to a fast start to build some confidence among its many young players. But this is not the first incident for Gordon. Though he came out of college with several off-the-field issues, the Browns still thought enough of him and his vow to clean up his act that they selected him in the second round of the 2012 NFL Supplemental Draft. He let them down with this latest infraction and, if he does so again, he could be in even bigger trouble because he has allegedly been put on a short leash by the league. He’s like the little girl with the curl in that when he’s good, he’s very, very good, as evidenced by his 50 receptions and team-leading four touchdown catches last year. And when he’s bad and can’t behave himself, he’s very, very bad. Will the real Josh Gordon please stand up and remaining standing? Your teammates need you.
4) The end (tight) is near, maybe: Turner’s offenses have always been built around great tight ends. The Browns plan to start Jordan Cameron, who had just 20 catches for one touchdown last year, at the position. Can he be great? To do so, he will have to be a lot more productive than that. And beyond Cameron, there are no Ozzie Newsomes, Milt Morins or Kellen Winslows on the roster.
5) Putting up their guard(s): Cleveland has three core players on the line in Joe Thomas, the best left tackle in the game and a man who is on the fast track to become the franchise’s 17th Hall of Famer someday, C Alex Mack, a former Pro Bowler, and RT Mitchell Schwartz, who was very good as a rookie in 2012. At their respective positions, that’s one of the best threesomes in the NFL. But there are questions at both guard spots. Shawn Lauvao started all 16 games at right guard last year for the second straight time and did OK. Jason Pinkston was also OK – just OK, not great -- in holding down left guard for the first six contests in 2012 before being lost for the season with a blood clot. John Greco, from Youngstown Boardman High School and the University of Toledo, finished out the year for Pinkston and did a fine job. The Browns will have to sort through Greco, Lauvao and Pinkston, who expects to return, to find two solid players to provide help for Mack in the interior of their line. A line without a strong interior is not a strong line overall, even with the likes of Thomas, Mack and Schwartz.
Next: Defense/special teams.