In rookie running back William Green, the Browns have found what they've long craved: a hard-charging slasher with a smash-mouth mentality and also enough speed to leave defenders in his wake. He's a devoted watcher of Walter Payton highlight tapes, and like the late, great Sweetness, he's a determined and destructive running back.
With Green coming in, third-year veteran Jamel White hadn't figured on earning much playing time. White was too small and too soft, the thinking went. But in the off-season he sculpted his body and worked hard studying the offense. When training camp began in July, he was the ballcarrier who opened the coaching staff's eyes.
As a result the Browns, for the first time since returning to the NFL in 1999, have a running game worth bragging about. They have two runners who can grind out tough yards and deliver big plays, the type of backs that could make Cleveland, which was 7-9 last year, a bona fide playoff contender. It's no secret that second-year coach Butch Davis loves running the ball, which is why last season was so painful for him; no team had a worse rushing attack than the Browns, who averaged 84.4 yards a game.
The 6-foot, 221-pound Green, the 16th pick in April's draft, is supposed to change that. He will be the featured back, a 20-carries-a-game weapon. Though he was suspended for a game during each of his last two seasons at Boston College for violating team rules, the Browns say they love his tenacity and focus. "I don't listen to what's being said about me," says Green, referring to the hype that accompanied his arrival. "I'm only concerned with getting ready for what I have to do here."
The Browns expect Green to make an easy transition to the NFL because he's a true I-formation back and is comfortable running out of the kind of one-back sets that Cleveland prefers. That said, the Browns have no intention of overusing him, which is where White enters the picture. "You look at the guys who carry the ball 300 to 350 times a year in this league and see how fast they wear out," says offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "We're not going to kill this kid [Green], especially since we have other people who can do the job."
White, who was criticized roundly last year for not running effectively between the tackles, added 10 pounds of muscle to his 5'9" frame and now weighs 208. He also spent the off-season studying the moves of St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk. Cleveland likes White's soft hands, breakaway speed and versatility. Still, White holds no illusions about supplanting Green. "If you give a guy a lot of money to play, he's going to play," says White, who began his career in '00 with Indianapolis as an undrafted free agent but did not survive the final roster cut. "But I can be a third-down back and a special teams player. I can do a lot of things to help this team win."
If Green and White produce, the Browns won't have any other significant concerns on offense. Davis bolstered a mediocre line by signing tackle Ryan Tucker and guard Barry Stokes, a pair of feisty free-agent run blockers. Quarterback Tim Couch, in his fourth season, could be poised for a breakout year. He's at his best with an offense built around play-action fakes, and he's also comfortable in Cleveland's short-passing attack. As for receivers, the Browns hope either Quincy Morgan or Andre' Davis, a rookie out of Virginia Tech, emerges as a consistent complement to Kevin Johnson.
The offense faces added pressure this season, however. A year ago the Browns often relied on defense to win games, but that strategy won't work as well now that Pro Bowl outside linebacker Jamir Miller is out for the season, having torn his right Achilles tendon in Cleveland's preseason opener. Butch Davis is encouraged, though, by what he's seen from his offense, which he says is not allowing the defense to dominate in practice and has more of an edge, one that has come from an energized running game.
"We know that if we want to win in this league—especially in our division—we better control the line of scrimmage and be physical and tough," Davis says. "And when we look at what we have in the running game, we know we've added a key piece to our puzzle."
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