Thursday, July 25, 2013

It's question time

Questions. We’ve got questions. We’ve got lots and lots of questions.

As the Browns open training camp and the annual glows of hope and promise burst through, it’s difficult not to be sanguine.

When the players reported Thursday to the training complex in Berea, no one was injured. Everyone was optimistic. And the team was unbeaten.

The heroes of fall (even though it’s still summer) sure looked good under the late afternoon sun to those true Browns fans who treat this time of the year as though it were a religious happening.

The aroma of the freshly-cut grass wafted gently through the air as the sounds of training camp suddenly replaced the silence.

The ever-present sound of the air horn signaling a change in assignments; the sound of the football slapping the hands of a receiver; the sound of those footballs as they spin through the air off the fingertips of the quarterbacks; the smacking of pads as they collide with each snap of the football.

Football is back in Cleveland and the fans joyfully soaked it all in as the 2013 season began to unfold.

But they, too, had questions that could be answered only by being there. First, the offense.

Who will be the starting quarterback this season? Can Brandon Weeden hold off the challenges of Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer?

The answer, of course, is yes. The job is Weeden’s to lose. He’s as close to being a perfect fit for Norv Turner’s offense as the team has. Campbell is a journeyman at best. And Hoyer is nothing more than a hometown kid returning home.

Turner realizes Weeden is his best bet for success in Cleveland. He’s got the arm, the hunger to learn, the overwhelming desire to be successful and probably the best coach to maximize those qualities.

Weeden’s critics point to his less-than-inspiring performance last season. They do not factor in Weeden’s season-long discomfort with the stifling offensive scheme of Pat Shurmur and Brad Childress. They’ll see a different quarterback this season.

How much of a factor will Trent Richardson be in Turner’s offense, which is so quarterback centric?

The coordinator says he wants Richardson to log at least 300 carries this season after he ran 267 times during an injury-plagued (he missed the final game) rookie season. All well and good, but that factors out to only one more carry per game. A larger number, say 320 or more, would produce more significant numbers.

Richardson, who played most of last season with broken ribs, says he’s 100% healthy entering training camp. It will be interesting to see just how much more involved the running back is in the overall offensive scheme.

He also caught 51 passes last season, a little more than three a game, a stat that no doubt caught the attention of Turner. So it wouldn’t surprise to see Richardson’s touches go up dramatically.

Richardson averaged only 3.6 yards a carry last season. How important is it to improve that number as opposed to the number of carries?

Extremely important. Improve the average carry to at least 4.0 yards a pop and 300-plus carries elevates him to a select statistical neighborhood in the National Football League.

Most of the 2013 season, we saw Richardson run behind an offensive line that underperformed. How often last season did we watch him get hit mere seconds after taking a handoff? Too often. His longest run was only 32 yards. That’s got to improve.

And just how does that improve?

Unfortunately, the Browns did not address the offensive line in the last college draft or in free agency. It has a sizable weakness at both guards. And that is the key position in the running game.

Rarely do you see the Browns run sweeps or counters with the guards pulling out and advancing to the second level. That’s because they are not quick. They plod. They are best at drive or zone blocking. When you can’t run the flanks, you become predictable.

When was the last time you saw the Browns run a successful screen pass? Quickness and agility are prime requisites to successfully execute this maneuver, which also requires exquisite timing. The guards have none of the above.

How does that impact of Turner’s thinking?

It has become obvious the last several years that the NFL has become much more of a passing league. It used to be that the run set up the pass. No longer. And that works to Turner’s advantage.

He loves to throw the ball and the front office has given him some weapons with which to work his magic. Although he favors the deep game, do not discount him using the quick-developing, short passing game to open up opposing defenses.

He is a master at play calling and keeping those defenses honest. Chances are he will use veteran wide receivers Davone Bess and David Nelson in the slot in three wide receiver sets, especially on third down. The Browns’ third-down conversion rate should improve as a result.

But what about youngsters like Josh Gordon, Greg Little and Travis Benjamin? Where do they fit in?

Quite nicely in Turner’s stretch game, especially Gordon and Benjamin, who will fill in while Gordon serves his two-game suspension at the beginning of the season. He should be dialing long distance much more than at any time since 2007.

OK, then, how does fullback Owen Marecic fit into Turner’s offense?

He doesn’t. It will be surprising if he makes the final roster.

Turner’s offense is basically a one-back set with a variety of looks in receivers. He loves tight ends and won’t hesitate a four-receiver look featuring a couple of tight ends. Mixing it up and becoming less predictable is going to be more impactful assuming, of course, his tight ends can stay healthy and produce.

So what can we expect the Cleveland offense to look like this season?

It definitely will not be the almost predictable offense we’ve been subjected to under Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and most of Romeo Crennel’s tenure. Those days are, thankfully, long gone.

In their place, we will witness more creative football, more daring football and more entertaining football when they own the ball. It might not be as wild and crazy as the Brian Sipe-Sam Rutigliano era, but it will be far less dull than what we’ve had to endure in recent years.

Coach Rob Chudzinski promised an aggressive approach to the game on both sides of the ball. As a former offensive coordinator himself, especially when he planned Cleveland’s attack during the memorable 2007 season, you can count on plenty of fireworks for the new season.

Tomorrow: Questions for the defense and special teams.

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