ALMOST HALFWAY through his first season at the helm of a team that hasn't won a playoff game in 20 years, Mike Pettine is 4--3 and a game out of first place in the AFC North, with the one-win Buccaneers up next. Long-suffering Cleveland fans are falling hard for him. The truth is, he had them at bloody.
To compete in the North, Pettine professed early on, "you have to be willing to bloody your nose." He was promising a return to the basics. Yes, the offense would feature varied tempos—normal, hurry-up, back to normal—like a patient with an irregular heartbeat. But it would be built from the ground up. The run would set up the pass.
"I know the fashionable thing is to spread the field and throw it all over the place," Pettine said, standing outside the team's locker room last week. "But at some point you're gonna have to play in bad weather ... or convert a fourth-and-one. I'd rather build from there and work backward to the passing game."
That building, for the most part, has gone nicely. The Browns have won those four games—and lost two by a combined five points—without a run defense to speak of. They've done it without Johnny Manziel, the jersey-selling QB-in-waiting, who was beaten out by local lad Brian Hoyer. And they've done it without suspended Pro Bowl receiver Josh Gordon, who won't be back until Week 12 after violating the league's drug policy.
November 3, 2014
But mostly they've done it by bloodying noses, with Hoyer handing off to a trio of backs ranging from low-profile (free-agent signee Ben Tate) to anonymous (rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West). After rushing an average of 22 times in 2013, 30th most in the NFL (and for just 86.4 yards, 27th), the Browns are handing off 31 times per game, behind only the Cowboys and the Texans (for 120.0 yards per game, 12th). Last year's team tied a franchise low with four rushing touchdowns all season. The nine compiled by CroWesTate trail only the Bengals and the Chiefs.
But what sounds like a simplification—committing to the run—has in fact been an exercise in complexity, careening occasionally into soap opera. Each member of Cleveland's three-headed rushing attack has been the beneficiary of cutback lanes carved out for them by one of the NFL's most athletic and intelligent offensive lines. (That unit lost significant luster when Pro Bowl center Alex Mack went down for the season with a cracked left fibula in Week 6; Weeks 7 and 8 have been an adventure.)
The Browns run a "wide zone" blocking scheme. Moving in the same direction, the line "relies primarily on speed to outflank the defense," explains seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, a 6'6" 312-pounder who runs a 4.92-second 40. "You're running as fast as you can to reach [the outside shoulder] of your defender."
Wouldn't the defender anticipate that and try to beat you to the outside? "That's where you get the cutback lanes," Thomas explains. "But you need linemen who are athletic enough to get out in front of defenders."
You also need a running back with the vision and patience to wait for those alleys to appear. That's why Cleveland's off-season signing of Tate (two years, $6.2 million) made great sense: He spent three seasons running an almost identical scheme with the Texans. Tate's sense of when to attack the hole was superb.
In a more cosmic sense, his timing has been terrible. Selected out of Auburn in the second round of 2010, he broke his right ankle that preseason. The starting job went instead to Arian Foster, an undrafted free agent who ran for 231 yards and three touchdowns in the '10 opener. While Tate had some big games in Houston, he never could run out of Foster's shadow.
In Cleveland, Tate is the unquestioned starter—and yet nothing comes easy. After spraining his right knee in the first half of the opener, he missed the next two games, opening the door for two rookies who'd already beaten long odds just to make the roster.
"I'M A SECOND-CHANCE guy," says Reggie Barlow, coach at Alabama State, where the welcome mat is often rolled out for erstwhile SEC players who find themselves at loose ends. A five-star talent in high school, Crowell signed with Georgia in 2011 and was named the SEC's freshman of the year. Arrested the following summer on felony weapons charges (which were later dropped), he was dismissed by the Bulldogs but quickly found a home with Barlow, who also happened to employ zone blocking.
From the start Barlow marveled at Crowell's gift for bursting into the hole the millisecond it opens. "I played in the NFL for eight years," says the coach, "and I've never seen anyone who hits the hole faster."
Despite an impressive combine, the 5'11", 225-pound Crowell went undrafted last May. Signed by the Browns, he was an afterthought in camp, fourth on the depth chart and ticketed for the waiver wire—until he went off in the final exhibition game. His 13 carries for 102 yards included a 48-yard TD and left coaches gobsmacked.
Crowell made the team that night. "He was a different kid after that," says Pettine. In Week 1 he scored a pair of second-half TDs against the Steelers, fueling a 24-point comeback that fell just short.
In fighting back, though, the Browns were fulfilling Pettine's desire to coach a team that was physically and mentally tough, a group that wouldn't "hang their heads" when things went bad.
No player on this roster is more resilient than West, the raw but ridiculous 5'10", 225-pound talent who last season rushed for 2,509 yards and 41 TDs at Towson, an FCS school. There was West, gamely facing reporters one day after a dispiriting 24--6 loss to the Jaguars in Week 7. He'd been benched after failing to move the sticks on successive carries. On second-and-two he saw a slender hole open but instead bounced outside, where he was dropped short. West thought that Cleveland had moved the chains on the previous play. "I thought it was first-and-10; I've got to learn from it," said the rookie, who was rocking a flat-brimmed Miami Floridians ballcap. Who on earth were the Miami Floridians? "I don't know," West said with a smile. "I just like the hat. Matches my shoes."
He is something of a footwear snob, after all, having worked two years at a sneaker emporium while his football career was on hiatus. That was a humbling interlude for the star from Baltimore's Northwestern High, but after struggling with the SAT, West spent a year at a prep school. He tried to walk on at Morgan State but missed a filing deadline. His dream on life support, West started selling shoes. Did he ever lose faith?
"Never." He stayed in shape and in 2011 talked Towson coach Rob Ambrose into giving him a chance. As a walk-on that spring, West lived at home and awoke at 3 a.m., taking two buses to reach team workouts. Over the next three seasons he piled up 4,854 yards and 84 TDs. The Browns traded up to snatch him in round 3.
After bolting to a surprisingly strong start—190 all-purpose yards over Weeks 1 and 2—West was a healthy scratch for Cleveland's cathartic 31--10 thumping of the Steelers in Week 6. Asked what the rookie needed to brush up on, Pettine says, "Preparation for the game, practice habits—everything other than when he has the ball."
Thus far the coach has been content to let running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery decide who gets carries and when. "When I put a guy in," says Montgomery, "it's for as long as that series lasts, or until he taps out. I'm trying to figure out who has the hot hand."
He had no trouble figuring out who had the stone hands in that win over Pittsburgh: Crowell dropped a pair of pitches. West, meanwhile, must curb his tendency to go off-script, as was his wont at Towson. "He got away with murder in college," says Montgomery.
While it privately irks them to share carries, all three backs have so far struck diplomatic notes. "I want to see other people shine," says West, "but I want the ball every play. Everybody should feel that way."
"I don't know how it'll end up," Pettine says, referring not to his crowded backfield but to his already cardiac-arresting debut season. Cleveland has seen one epic comeback fall short, and another—from down 25 at Tennessee—succeed. There's more drama where that came from. There may not be many Johnny Football sightings this season. But there will be blood.