DraftBrowns.com Staff Writer: Justin Higdon
Last season, lame duck Browns Head Coach Pat Shurmur spent the year trying to fit a square peg named Brandon Weeden into the round hole West Coast Offense. Coming from an air-raid system in college that was heavy in no huddle and shotgun passing plays, Weeden never seemed comfortable with the WCO’s long-winded terminology and deliberate pace. He often grew visibly frustrated as his coaches struggled to get the play calls into him on time. The results were predictably aggravating to anyone associated with the team. After the season, Shurmur was fired, and Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner were brought in to install an offense tailored to the players on the team, rather than vice versa. Chudzinski’s offense has evolved through the years, so it’s still too early to tell exactly what this version will look like. Still, the past offers some clues, and a look back at the last five years of the combined résumés of Chudzinski and Turner should shed some light on what people can expect from the Cleveland passing game this season.
Turner became the Head Coach in San Diego in 2007, but the Chargers’ passing game didn’t really hit its stride until the following season. That year quarterback Philip Rivers set career highs in completions, pass attempts, passing yardage, touchdowns and yards per pass attempt. Tight end Antonio Gates led the team with 60 receptions as Rivers spread the wealth. Receiver Vincent Jackson and running back LaDainian Tomlinson each hauled in at least 52 passes, and Jackson broke the 1000 yard barrier as San Diego’s deep threat. The ’08 season also saw Darren Sproles transform from return specialist to legitimate offensive threat. The elusive mighty-mite caught 29 passes for 342 yards (11.9 yards per catch) and five touchdowns, setting himself up as a major contributor in the passing game over the next couple of seasons. All told, the Chargers completed 106 passes to their running backs that season, establishing a trend that would continue for the duration of Turner’s stay with the team.
In 2009, Chudzinski joined San Diego as the team’s Assistant Head Coach and Tight Ends Coach. Rivers again set new career highs in completions, attempts, yards and yards per pass attempt. Gates led the team with 79 receptions for a career best 1157 yards. Jackson finished with 1167 yards and averaged 17.2 yards per catch. Tomlinson’s production nose-dived during his final season with the Chargers, but Sproles tied receiver Malcom Floyd for third on the team with 45 receptions. Like Jackson, Floyd averaged 17.2 yards per catch. The team was targeting its top two receivers – and Gates – for big gains down the field, while the running backs handled the short stuff to the tune of 97 combined receptions.
Rivers was still slinging the ball in 2010. His 4710 passing yards that season are still a career high. However, injuries limited Gates to just ten games, and Jackson’s contract dispute kept him off the field for all but five games that season. Once again the Chargers were setting their receivers and Gates up for big, downfield gains while the running backs did the dirty work underneath. Sproles led the team with 59 catches, and the running back committee accounted for 126 total receptions.
Chudzinski left the Chargers after the 2010 season to become the Offensive Coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. There, despite having rookie Cam Newton under center, Chudzinski carried on the philosophy of targeting receivers down the field, as Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell each averaged at least 17 yards per catch. While running back Jonathan Stewart did finish second on the team with 47 catches, Chudzinski relied less on the running backs than he and Turner had with the Chargers. Instead, the Panthers leaned on tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey for 82 total completions, and used receiver Legedu Naanee for some of the closer range passes. Meanwhile, in San Diego, Turner continued to feed the running backs in tight (123 receptions), while his receivers stretched the field.
In 2012, Newton went through some growing pains, but the Panthers passing offense still got productive seasons from Smith (73 catches for 1174 yards), Olsen (69 for 843) and LaFell (44 for 677). Uncharacteristically, no running back other than Mike Tolbert had more than 20 receptions (he finished with 27), and Carolina completed just 57 passes to the backs overall. Turner’s offense, in his last season as San Diego’s Head Coach, stayed true to form. His backs caught another 123 passes, but the passing offense lost effectiveness overall with Rivers and Gates on the decline, and the departure of Jackson in free agency the previous offseason.
After two years together and two years apart, Chudzinski and Turner are reunited in Cleveland with roles reversed, and a new cast of characters. Chudzinski’s belief in running an offense that suits the players on hand could go a long way in explaining his pursuit of Turner as the team’s Offensive Coordinator. The two men inherited a team with a bell cow running back with receiving ability (Trent Richardson), a single receiving tight end (Jordan Cameron), and a couple of big receivers capable of stretching the field (Josh Gordon and Greg Little). During the offseason, the coaches and front office showed faith in Cameron’s ability by adding only a couple of reserve tight ends. They later traded for veteran receiver Devone Bess to bolster the young receiving corps. They’ve also obtained running back Dion Lewis in a swap with the Eagles, and signed undrafted rookies Robbie Rouse and Jamaine Cook, all in an apparent attempt to fill the Darren Sproles role in their offense. These signs, coupled with the overall lack of athleticism at the quarterback position, point to an offense that will more closely resemble the Turner units in San Diego, than the offenses run by the Panthers under Chudzinski.
If healthy, Richardson will handle the bulk of the running duties, but should also account for between 45 and 50 catches – roughly the average number for starting running backs, or running back tandems during the past five seasons of Chudzinski and Turner history. Over a full 16 game season, Gordon could very well approach the numbers Jackson produced during the height of his San Diego success. More conservatively, Gordon – who is still just 22 years old – can probably be counted on for a stat line similar to Floyd’s 2012 numbers (56 catches for 814 yards and five TDs in 14 games). While the Browns’ brass has demonstrated a degree of confidence in Cameron, he’s shown no evidence of equaling the production of Gates in his prime. A more realistic output would be something close to Olsen’s 2011 numbers, when he caught 45 passes for 540 yards and five touchdowns. Bess should approach similar numbers as the team’s primary slot receiver. Based on trends, Little may see his total reception numbers dip, but his yards per reception should see a spike as he sees more downfield targets. Beyond those five players, a second running back – most likely the winner of the Sproles role – should see an opportunity for around 30 receptions. In addition, receiver David Nelson could contribute as something of a second receiving tight end, while Travis Benjamin should see some opportunities on deep throws. All of this will be dependent on Weeden (well, probably Weeden) being able to connect with his receivers down the field. With underneath passes to the backs to balance out his downfield shots, Weeden will need to average between seven and eight yards per pass attempt to make this offense hum. It’s a tall order for a player learning his third offense in three years, but if he is going to have success in the NFL, this is his best opportunity. If Weeden can at least match Derek Anderson’s 2007 production under Chudzinski, the Browns offense can finally emerge from a five year long slumber, and force opponents to take notice.
Cleveland Browns 2013 Passing/Receiving Projections:
Weeden – 311/523 (59.5%) 3855 (7.4 YPA) 23 TDs 19 INTs
Richardson – 47 receptions 395 yards (8.4 YPC) 2 TDs
Gordon – 52 for 922 (17.7) 6 TDs
Little – 48 for 677 (14.1) 3 TDs
Bess – 47 for 504 (10.7) 2 TDs
Cameron – 47 for 539 yards (11.5) 5 TDs
Lewis – 27 for 259 (9.6) 2 TDs
Nelson – 22 for 214 (9.7) 1 TD
Benjamin – 15 for 265 (17.7) 2 TDs