AFC North: Joe Thomas

PITTSBURGH -- A Pittsburgh Steelers defense that is reeling after giving up four touchdowns and 360 yards after the first quarter in a 31-10 loss to the Cleveland Browns is also banged up.

McLendon
Starting nose tackle Steve McLendon won’t play Monday night against the visiting Houston Texans because of a sprained shoulder. Starting free safety Mike Mitchell (knee) and defensive end Brett Keisel (knee) will be monitored this week in practice, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, putting their participation Monday in question.

Keisel said after the loss to the Browns that he will be fine.

Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier (knee) and strong safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) will practice in some capacity this week, Tomlin said.

Shazier, who has missed the Steelers’ last three games, practiced on a limited basis last week. There is an outside chance the first-round pick could play against the Texans.

If Shazier is unable to play Monday night, the Steelers will be missing at least four starters on defense.

With McLendon out, rookie nose tackle Daniel McCullers is likely to dress for his first game.

Defensive end Cameron Heyward hurt his ankle late in the loss to the Browns but is expected to be OK. Heyward was furious after getting chop blocked by Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas, and after the game the fourth-year veteran said it is “cowardly” for teams to chop block.

Tomlin said Thomas’ block was a legal one even though Heyward got hurt on the play.

“He was upset, but I think his anger had to do with how the game was going as well,” Tomlin said Tuesday.
CLEVELAND -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 31-10 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
  • Wallace
    Brown
    The question caused wide receiver Antonio Brown to pause, but he still delivered a diplomatic answer following a disappointing loss. The Steelers ran the ball early and often Sunday and targeted Brown just three times in the first half. The two-time Pro Bowler finished with seven catches for 118 yards. Asked if he should have been more of a focal point in the game plan because of his past success against Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden, Brown said, “We’re just trying to find a way to win. It’s not about individual matchups.”
  • Defensive end Cameron Heyward didn’t hide his anger in the visiting locker room at FirstEnergy Field, and not just because the Steelers had been embarrassed by one of their archrivals. Heyward was still fuming at getting chop-blocked several times. Late in the fourth quarter, Heyward hurt his ankle and angrily pointed at Browns left tackle Joe Thomas several times as he walked off the field. Heyward did not sustain a significant injury, but that's beside the point, the fourth-year veteran said. "It's a dirty play,” Heyward said of chop-blocking. "We talk so much about safety. We don’t do a good job of keeping it safe for everybody. I think it’s cowardly thing, but if [the Browns are] going to coach it like that, that's their call.”
  • Defensive end Brett Keisel and free safety Mike Mitchell each sprained his knee against the Browns, but neither injury is believed to be serious. “I’ll be fine,” Keisel said. That each player conducted postgame interviews is a strong indication neither is seriously hurt. Nose tackle Steve McLendon sprained his right shoulder in the second half and did not return to the game. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Keisel, Mitchell and McLendon are still being evaluated.
CLEVELAND -- Mike Pettine reiterated that the Cleveland Browns did not agree with the timing on the decision to uphold the suspension of Josh Gordon, but he wasn’t ready to call it unfair.

“The rules are the rules,” Pettine said after the preseason win over the Bears. “The league has a system that they set up. It was collectively bargained. We respect it.”

Gordon
Gordon
Pettine admitted that the timing on Gordon’s suspension for a positive marijuana test was “not ideal” for the team.

“But we move forward,” he said. “How it played out was not ideal circumstances for us, obviously, but that’s behind us. Our full focus now is getting this team ready. You can’t worry about guys you don’t have.”

Andrew Hawkins will get the first chance to start opposite Miles Austin, though Hawkins will move inside to the slot on third downs, with probably Nate Burleson playing outside in three-receiver sets. Pettine said the team will focus on a committee approach to replacing Gordon.

“I’ve said this all along, you don’t replace a Josh Gordon, a top-five NFL receiver, with just one player,” Pettine said. “I think you have to get creative with what you do, and roll some different guys in there, maybe change some personnel groupings and get some different matchups. That’s the challenge that we face.”

Left tackle Joe Thomas spoke to a group of reporters that included 92.3-The Fan in Cleveland, USA Today and the Northeast Ohio Media Group. He lamented what he called a program that doesn’t reflect “the morals of society today.”

“The problem is that now you're sitting in a situation where you have a collective bargaining agreement that lasts 10 years and in the middle of it nobody's going to want to go back to the bargaining table and try to hash out things that may be an issue as they clearly are on a number of different levels, but that are only going to affect a couple of people,” Thomas said.

“I think there's a resistance from management of the NFL and also from the Players Association to do that type of needed updating of the drug policy because obviously there's some oversights when they wrote the program and some cultural changes that have happened that I don't think the program accurately reflects the morals of society today and the NFL and pro sports in general."
BEREA, Ohio -- Joe Thomas has reached the point in his career where he is given days off during Cleveland Browns' training camp.

[+] EnlargeJoe Thomas
AP PhotoVeteran tackle Joe Thomas runs sprints during a conditioning test at the Browns' training camp facility in Berea, Ohio.
It's a sign of respect, and in Thomas' case it's respect for sustained and consistent excellence in each of his seven previous seasons in the league, when he's made seven Pro Bowls and never missed a snap.

Thomas remains ever dedicated, ever courteous. He also is unfailingly humble. But as his career progresses, he has become more and more insightful about the game's nuances and games within the game.

So when he speaks, it's worth listening. There will be no outrageousness, and no fudging of the truth either. Monday, Thomas spoke with the media for the first time since training camp began, touching on two issues of interest -- the running game and Brian Hoyer (he was not crusading for Hoyer, merely answering questions).

Thomas spent most of last season talking about the running game being an NFL dinosaur and saying that to win in the modern age teams had to throw the ball. He even went as far as to say he'd never draft a running back in the first round. Now, though, he plays for a team that (assuming Josh Gordon is suspended) will have to run the ball effectively to win.

Thomas acknowledged the irony, but added the Kyle Shanahan system -- an offshoot of his father Mike Shanahan -- would have the Browns closer to a 50-50 run-pass split than at any time in his career regardless. He said Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme is dependent on the run because it relies heavily on play-action.

"You need to be able to run those wide zones, even if it gets one or zero yards, to keep the safeties up," Thomas said. "It's when they're trying to fill in the run game that you can hit those big plays over the top."

Thomas said the Browns and Baltimore (with Shanahan disciple Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator) are the only two teams to run the zone-blocking system, which requires lateral movement from linemen and a back who can read the hole, plant and hit the hole with authority. Thomas said the zone-blocking scheme is drastically different than anything he's done, but it fits the skills of the team's offensive line better than any system in his career. That's because the Browns have guys who can move in Thomas, Joel Bitonio, Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz.

"This is in my opinion one of the only schemes that you can run the ball consistently," Thomas said, "because you make those defensive linemen run sideline to sideline. And it does set up the passing game that we run very, very well."

Regarding Hoyer, Thomas had nothing but praise. He was careful not to compare Hoyer to Johnny Manziel, or to say that one or the other would start. He simply praised Hoyer as "every bit one of the best competitors in the NFL."

"No matter if we drafted a quarterback No. 1 overall, I knew that in his mind he expected to win the job," Thomas said.

He added Hoyer is never hesitant or afraid to challenge teammates on the field, and he is much more vocal than it might appear.

"He has less starts than probably any guy but a rookie who's out there starting right now," Thomas said. "He commands a level of respect because of the way he goes about his business doing things the right way and acting like he's the starting quarterback that's taken us to five playoffs.

"I think it's that attitude and that swagger that demands respect, and he also goes out and he backs it up on the field where he throws the ball to the right person, he's doing the right things, he's getting everybody on the same page. That's just as much the role of the quarterback as throwing touchdown passes."

The most expensive Browns in 2014

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The release of D'Qwell Jackson leads a wandering mind to wonder: What players will cost the Cleveland Browns the most money this season?

[+] EnlargeJoe Thomas
AP Photo/David RichardJoe Thomas' $10.9 million base salary is the highest among offensive linemen in the league.
Here they are, in terms of their cash cost, which equals base salary plus any bonuses.
A few thoughts:

Yes, Paul Kruger is indeed the second-highest paid player on the team.

Kruger’s base salary is the fourth highest among linebackers in the league, behind only St. Louis’ James Laurinaitis ($10 million), Jacksonville’s Paul Posluszny ($7.45 million) and Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley ($8 million).

Yes, Campbell ranks fifth on the Browns. And Bess sixth.

Sigh.

It will be shocking if either Campbell or Bess is with the team in 2014.

Four of the top seven highest paid were signed in the Joe Banner-Mike Lombardi era: Kruger, Bess, Campbell and Bryant.

Greco’s $1.7 million roster bonus is due the fifth day of the league year, which would be March 16.

Thomas has the highest base salary ($10.9 million) among the league’s offensive linemen, and his cash cost for 2014 ranks second among linemen to Philadelphia’s Jason Peters’ $12 million. The contract extension Thomas signed in 2011 included $29.5 million in guaranteed money.

ProFootballTalk.com reported that Rubin could be on the cut list due to his salary. We’ll see.

Here are the 10 most expensive Browns as they fall under the salary cap, with prorated signing bonuses included in the calculations:

  • Thomas, $12.3 million
  • Haden, $8.9 million
  • Kruger, $8.2 million
  • Rubin, $8.175 million
  • Bryant, $4 million
  • LB Barkevious Mingo, $3.715 million
  • Taylor, $2.575 million
  • Grego, $2.43 million
  • QB Brandon Weeden, $2.204 million
  • Campbell, $3.25 million

A look at the AFC North

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The lone AFC North team in the playoffs made another early exit Sunday when the No. 3 Bengals lost to the No. 6 Chargers, 27-10, at Paul Brown Stadium. With all four division teams now in offseason mode, here is a quick look at them by order of finish in the AFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals

2013 record: 11-5, 3-3 in division

Key free agents: DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins

Biggest question: Have coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton taken the Bengals as far as they can?

Biggest reason for hope: Despite losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season, the Bengals have a very good nucleus. Rookie Giovani Bernard showed enough to think his time splitting carries with the plodding BenJarvus Green-Ellis is over.

Why they might disappoint: Dalton has faltered too many times in big games to think he can take the next step, and just making the playoffs is no longer good enough in Cincinnati.

Overall state of the franchise: The Bengals find themselves at a crossroads, but they have little choice but to stick with Dalton -- for now -- unless they want to draft a quarterback in the first round and hand over a veteran team to him.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2013 record: 8-8, 4-2

Key free agents: OLB Jason Worilds, WR Emmanuel Sanders

Biggest question: Will the Steelers re-establish themselves as Super Bowl contenders while re-tooling their defense?

Biggest reason for hope: The offense will be able to mask some of the issues the Steelers have on defense if it builds on its strong second half of the 2013 season.

Why they might disappoint: The defense could get worse before it gets better if younger players don’t emerge in the secondary and Worilds signs elsewhere.

Overall state of the franchise: The Steelers are facing a lot of uncertainty, but a 6-2 finish and the way the offense has come together point to them returning to postseason play in 2014 after missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

Baltimore Ravens

2013 record: 8-8, 3-3

Key free agents: TE Dennis Pitta, LB Daryl Smith

Biggest question: Did the Ravens suffer through the dreaded Super Bowl hangover or are they in decline?

Biggest reason for hope: Joe Flacco is a franchise quarterback, and there is still plenty of talent on both sides of the ball.

Why they might disappoint: The Ravens, like the Steelers, are clearly in transition on defense. Two cornerstones of that defense -- outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata -- no longer dominate on a consistent basis.

Overall state of the franchise: Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh are as good as any general manager-coach tandem in the NFL, and they have to be given the benefit of the doubt even though the Ravens slipped this season.

Cleveland Browns

2013 record: 4-12, 2-4

Key free agents: C Alex Mack, S T.J. Ward

Biggest question: Will a new coach and a quarterback finally stabilize an organization that has floundered, often spectacularly, since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999?

Biggest reason for hope: There are some pieces in place, most notably wide receiver Josh Gordon, cornerback Joe Haden and left tackle Joe Thomas, and the Browns have a pair of first-round picks, including the fourth overall selection.

Why they may disappoint: Tim Couch, Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden are the quarterbacks the Browns have drafted in the first round since 1999. Why should Browns fans think they will get it right in this draft?

Overall state of the franchise: The Browns dumped coach Rob Chudzinski after just one season, and unless they find the right replacement and, oh yeah, a quarterback in the draft, the Browns will continue to bottom feed in the AFC North.
PITTSBURGH -- Cleveland Browns players reacted angrily to the mere notion that coach Rob Chudzinski could be fired following the team’s 4-12 season.

And when they spoke in the locker room after the season-ending loss to the Steelers, they weren’t even sure it would happen. As they spoke, there were only rumors about the possibility. By early evening, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen cited his sources in saying the decision was made and would be announced early this week.

The feelings of the players were evident, though.

“That’s ridiculous,” linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said.

“I’d be very surprised if they make a change,” tackle Joe Thomas said. “And disappointed.”

“I like coach Chud a lot,” said tight end Jordan Cameron. “He’s a great coach and he did a great job, and it’s his first year. I like the way he is. He’s a competitor and he’s a grinder.”

Cameron later added: “Guys deserve a chance to turn a program around and get things going, so (the possibility) is kind of shocking. I’m all for Chud and what he does, and support him 100 percent.”

Safety T.J. Ward, who could be a free agent, said the team believed in Chudzinski through the entire season.

“If we didn’t believe in him we wouldn’t have played for him,” Ward said. “You’d see a lot of rebelling and a lot of guys doing their own thing, and I don’t think that happened at all this year. It just didn’t happen the way we wanted it. When you have guys playing until the end of the season when there’s nothing to play for, you know you’ve got a good coach.”

Maybe not good enough, evidently.

Chudzinski showed little emotion about the possibility he could be replaced. Asked if he expected to be back, he said: "As far as I know."

He said he had no inkling that there was any front office dissatisfaction with his performance, and said over and over he would start this week making evaluations for next season.

“To start over again, it would be devastating, I think,” Thomas said.

“There’s reports saying that he won’t be back?” Jackson said. “Chud’s gonna be here for as long as he wants to. He’s a great head coach. That’s all I’ve got to say about that. I’m not answering any questions like that. That’s foolish, in my opinion. That’s not going to happen.”

Pro Bowl selections: Cleveland Browns

December, 27, 2013
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Alex Mack's bargaining position just improved, in free agency and with the Browns.
Mack was selected to his second Pro Bowl as results of voting were announced Friday by the NFL.

He will be joined in Hawaii by left tackle Joe Thomas, who is going for the seventh time in seven years, wide receiver Josh Gordon (first), tight end Jordan Cameron (first) and cornerback Joe Haden (first).

In a quirk of NFL nature, the Browns have more Pro Bowl selections than wins.

Thomas’ selection continues a streak of excellence that started when he was drafted. He and Jim Brown are the only two players in team history to reach the Pro Bowl in each of their first seven seasons. He also is the tenth in NFL history to do that, with the previous nine all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Mack will be a free agent after the season, and since he joined the Browns the team has gone 23-56. He said he’d be open to staying, but Pro Bowl centers don’t often get a chance to maximize their earnings, and pick where they want to play.

Haden, too, improved his bargaining position with the selection. His contract is up after 2014, and if the Browns want to keep him they’ll probably have to give him an extension prior to next season.

With Haden and Gordon both possible candidates for new deals prior to 2014, the Browns may be happy they saved so much salary-cap space for the future.

Regarding the Browns' selections:
  • The selection of Mack and Thomas for the second time together (2010) marks the first time a pair of offensive linemen made multiple Pro Bowls since Gene Hickerson and Dick Schafrath did it from 1966-69.
  • Cameron joins Milt Morin, Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow as the only tight ends to make the team.
  • Gordon, Braylon Edwards and Webster Slaughter are the only receivers to make the team. Gordon has a very good chance to lead the NFL in receiving yards and yards per catch.
  • Haden is the first cornerback to go since Frank Minnifield in 1990.

The Browns really have no major snubs in the game, as everyone who had a solid season made the team. About the only player who could have made it but didn’t was safety T.J. Ward. He was selected as an alternate. Ward also could be a free agent after the season.

The five selected are the most for the Browns since they had seven in 2007.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.

Thomas: Alex Mack has great value

December, 27, 2013
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Take a good look at the Cleveland Browns' offensive line on Sunday.

It’s debatable how many linemen will be back. If it weren’t so hard to completely retool, the case could be made that the Browns will have four new starters in 2014 to go with left tackle Joe Thomas.

That’s a stretch, of course, and a good deal of speculation.

But the Browns haven’t seemed enamored with their guards all season, there’s been a lot of rumblings about the inconsistencies of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and center Alex Mack is slated to be a free agent.

[+] EnlargeAlex Mack
Ron Schwane/USA TODAY SportsThe Browns have the salary-cap space to match likely any offer for standout center Alex Mack.
Nothing is known, of course, and there is a game yet to be played. But Mack’s potential departure seems the most significant. With Maurkice Pouncey injured, there is a lot of talk that Mack is one of the three or four best centers playing.

“Cleveland’s a very easy place to come back to,” Mack said. “I like the coach. I like the players. I have a house here. Without a doubt it would be easy to come back.”

But Mack, like safety T.J. Ward, also has the opportunity to decide where he wants to play, and since he was Eric Mangini’s first-round pick the team has gone 19-65. The Browns could place the franchise tag on Mack -- they have the salary-cap room -- but the new CBA calls for him to be paid the average of the top five offensive linemen, not centers. That number will approach $10 million, and Joe Banner’s history has not been to overpay.

Thomas feels it’s important to keep Mack with the Browns.

“Very few people really understand how many things the center is actually responsible for,” Thomas said. “Obviously the quarterback has the ball in his hands and he’s the guy who ultimately makes the decisions. But when it comes to setting the protections and setting the blocking in the run game, nobody has more on their plate than the center.

“[Mack is] probably the best that I’ve seen and has to be one of the best in the NFL at understanding the mental side of the game and getting everybody on the same page blocking wise.”

Guard Shawn Lauvao was drafted the same year as Mack, and the feeling is the team will let him get to free agency.

“You take it with a grain of salt,” Lauvao said. “If they want to bring me back, so be it. If they don’t, I feel like [free agency is] a great opportunity.”

The Browns do have John Greco signed for next season, and he could play center. Schwartz is still playing under his rookie contract. But the team discussed trading for Eugene Monroe of Jacksonville during the season.

The team’s wild card is Chris Faulk, a 6-foot-6 and 323-pound player recovering from a serious knee injury he hurt in his senior season at LSU. The Browns signed him as an undrafted free agent and want to take a long look at him for next season.
What the Browns are going through is not new to Joe Thomas.

Since Thomas was the third overall pick in the draft by the Browns in 2007, he’s had one winning season. And six in a row with at least 10 losses.

The Browns' overall record since Thomas was drafted: 37-73, basically one win in every three games.

Yet Thomas has been nothing but dependable and excellent in that time. He’s started 110 games at left tackle, the third-longest active streak among active linemen (behind D’Brickashaw Ferguson of the Jets and Eric Winston of Arizona). Thomas has not missed an offensive snap since he was drafted, and he’s on his way to his seventh Pro Bowl in seven seasons -- and probably a spot in Canton as well.

[+] EnlargeJoe Thomas
AP Photo/David RichardStar offensive lineman Joe Thomas has remained classy despite suffering through another losing season in Cleveland.
If the definition of professional is doing your best when you feel your worst, Thomas fits it perfectly. He gives everything he has every play of every game even though he’s been playing for a team that almost seems to have forgotten what it means to win.

Given his stature in the league -- Thomas has also been a finalist for the NFL’s Walter Payton Award for Community Service -- and his status with the team -- a captain -- his words always carry weight.

Here’s how he addressed the Browns' situation, and another season with double-digit losses: “Hopefully this is the last year.”

The problem is that Thomas said similar things last year, and the year before, and the year before, etc., etc.

“Obviously it’s not fun when you’re losing or when you finish the season with more losses than you do wins or the last couple games are not in the playoff hunt,” he said, adding: “Hopefully it’s going to be different next year. You just got to keep pushing forward. You can’t let yourself get frustrated. If you get frustrated, you get the tendency to think it’s helpless, or hopeless.”

Thomas said he thought the Browns would be in the playoff chase at this point, that when they started 3-2 and 4-5 it was a sign of good things. He still thinks if they had won one or two more close games they’d still be there, even though they’d be 6-8.

“Because of the way the AFC is,” he said.

He also knows that injuries to quarterbacks and the trade of Trent Richardson and the use of different backs hasn’t helped.

“You gotta play the hand that’s dealt,” he said. “And that was the hand that we were dealt with injuries and different things that happened throughout the season. It would be nice and it would be helpful to have one quarterback and running back throughout the season, but that was not in the cards this year.”

Thomas even was asked if he wondered if the Browns front office wanted to win this season, or if it was building for the following ones. Two draft picks last season were traded for picks in 2014, and Richardson was dealt for a first-round pick.

The running backs brought in after Richardson were little help, and the belief is the Browns knew this would be a tough season.

“I think that would be better served to ask those people in charge,” he said. “Obviously the players are doing everything they can and the coaches are doing everything they can. That’s the way it has been and the way it always will be.”

He said players are too busy during the season to wonder about that kind of thing.

“We can’t really worry about trying to break down the thoughts and mindset of the guys that are putting together the team personnel-wise,” he said.

When Thomas signed his contract extension two years ago, he said he did it because he believed in Mike Holmgren and Pat Shurmur.

Now he’s saying he believes in the new front office and coach Rob Chudzinski.

As he spoke, the clear thought came to mind: This is a guy who deserves better.

Sputtering run game enough for Browns

November, 14, 2013
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Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner discussed the Browns' running game today -- or lack thereof -- and provided a little more insight as to why the team and the coaching staff are satisfied, for now, with its limited production.

The Browns rank 27th in the league in overall rushing with 734 yards in nine games, and they rank 27th in yards per carry with 3.7. Just about two-thirds of their offense comes via the passing game. They have one rushing touchdown, which ranks last.

In their last game, a win against Baltimore, Willis McGahee led the team with 31 yards on 21 carries. Since running for 72 yards on 26 carries in a win against Buffalo, McGahee has rushed for 37, 39, 28 and 31 yards -- and he leads the team in rushing. The best game in that stretch was a 45-yard effort, and it came from wide receiver Travis Benjamin on one carry on a reverse.

[+] EnlargeWillis McGahee
Ron Schwane/USA TODAY SportsRunning back Willis McGahee hasn't been churning out big yardage, but the Browns keep feeding him the ball to keep defenses honest.
The Browns will live with it, and keep managing it.

Turner said the Browns can work with what they’re getting because it poses enough of a threat to make the play-action passing effective.

In Turner’s offense, play-action passing is vital.

That’s why Turner keeps calling running plays even when he’s not getting a lot of yards. McGahee wasn’t averaging less than 1.5 yards per carry against Baltimore, but he kept getting the ball. It’ s the old belief that the number of carries in a game might be more important than the yards gained.

Turner said the Browns have to play that way, if only to keep defenses honest.

“That’s kind of where the run game has gone to in the NFL,” said left tackle Joe Thomas, who has become quite vocal about how irrelevant a sustained run game is in the NFL. “It’s not about getting points or yards per carry or anything like that, because you just don’t put up a lot of points running the ball anymore.

“It’s more about setting up your passing opportunities with the run game, and making the defense still respect it so you have opportunities to throw the ball down the field to get those chunk plays in the passing game. Nobody in the NFL wins games by running anymore.”

This from an offensive lineman from Wisconsin, where running the ball is sacred.

McGahee, a running back, went even further.

“It’s not football right now,” he said.

McGahee said he’s seen things change, though. He was in Denver when Tim Tebow ran the read-option and receivers had to adjust.

Now running backs have to adjust.

“The game changes, man,” he said. “You got the little backs coming and running the routes now. It’s rare that your’e going to go out and pound the ball. I think it all comes back in a circle.

“Eventually you need that run game to come back alive.”

Time ... as they often say ... will tell.
One of the great mysteries of the Cleveland Browns season is that they are 4-5 and feeling good despite having a near non-existent running game.

The team’s leading rusher has 262 carries and averages 2.6 yards per carry -- so what the heck?

Joe Thomas shrugs. The perennial Pro Bowler says it’s not a mystery.

“I’m looking at today’s NFL,” Thomas said in a recent conversation. “And I’m just not sure there’s a place for a running back anymore.”

Say what? Not a place?

“Fifty throws is the average,” Thomas said. “You get a guy who gains 100 yards, whoop dee do. It doesn’t win you games anymore.”

[+] EnlargeJoe Thomas
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliIs a sound running game a major key to success in the NFL? Not at all, Browns offensive lineman Joe Thomas said.
This from a guy who played in college at Wisconsin, the ultimate run team?

“If you’re a defensive coordinator and you give up a 100-yard rusher, you don’t really care,” he said. “It really doesn’t translate into winning many games.”

To repeat: A 100-yard back “doesn’t translate into winning many games.”

But, Thomas was told, since 1960, teams that have a back that carries 20 or more times in a game win 72 percent of the time.

“That’s simple,” he said with a smile. “They’re ahead so they run. I think it’s simple.”

Thomas asked his own question: When’s the last first-round running back other than Adrian Peterson to turn out?

Here are the first-round running backs since Thomas joined the league in 2007:

--2013: None

--2012: Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson

--2011: Mark Ingram

--2010: C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews, Jahvid Best

--2009: Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown, Chris Wells

--2008: Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson

--2007: Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch

The best and most consistent and most dependable have been Peterson and Lynch -- but Lynch is successful with his second team, having been traded.

“You have to have soembody who’s a once-in-a-generation talent like Adrian Peterson to really be a difference maker in the game,” Thomas said. “But you get one Josh Gordon, you throw him a jump ball in triple coverage and he goes up and catches a touchdown, you win the game. That’s one guy, one play. He can do that three times in a game. Calvin Johnson. You can go down the list of guys like that who are game-changers. A.J. Green.

“You have to change the entire defense to try to take somebody like that out of the game. And the running game is so hard. Because first of all you have to have six, sometimes seven guys blocking perfectly up front. One mistake and it’s a tackle for a loss. So you have to have seven victories. And then you have to have a RB beat a safety. Today’s safeties are pretty good.”

Thomas also pointed out that offenses are getting more sophisticated at giving the quarterback the extra second he needs to make the throw. Colin Kaepernick’s fakes, he said, freeze a defense for a second.

It would also explain why the Browns have won games when they got good quarterback play and lost when they didn’t.

“That’s why you see quarterbacks, you see the value on those guys going through the roof,” he said. “Mid-level quarterbacks get $20 million a year year because they’re that important. And those receivers are going to start going that way, too.

“And the running backs, unfortunately for them they just don’t have a place in this game anymore like they used to.”

To the point that Thomas said he wouldn’t draft a running back in the first round.

The starting point for this conversation? Why did Thomas think Richardson did not work out in Cleveland?

“I’m not gonna throw stones at a guy that’s not on the team anymore,” Thomas said. “But it’s hard to say it didn’t work out because we got a first-round pick for him. So obviously someone thinks he’s pretty good. I think it comes down to production wasn’t great here, so they felt a first-round pick would be a good trade.

“And, I’m sure in today’s day and age, the value on running backs is down.”
CLEVELAND -- Rob Chudzinski told his team on his first day as the Cleveland Browns coach that they should expect a certain approach.

He wanted to be aggressive, and he wanted his team to be aggressive.

“He hasn’t disappointed,” left tackle Joe Thomas said.

No, he has not. Twice in the 24-18 win over the Baltimore Ravens Chudzinski called for his team to go for the first down on fourth-and-1. Both were important moments in a close game. Both went the Browns' way.

[+] EnlargeDavone Bess
AP Photo/David RichardDavone Bess came up big on both of Cleveland's fourth-down conversion attempts.
That makes it 19 times this season that Chudzinski has gone for the first down on fourth down, a league high. (The Browns have made it 10 times.) Some coaches might not go for it on fourth down twice in a season; Chudzinski is doing it twice a game.

“That’s his mindset,” said wide receiver Davone Bess. “That’s his mentality.”

The Browns knew they’d have an attacking defense, but Chudzinski’s attacking approach on offense goes against the grain of almost every NFL coach. In a league where most talk about “managing the game” and “having a chance” to win, Chudzinski goes after it. That it came in a division game against the Super Bowl champions was even more noteworthy.

“We’ve been a kid brother in this division for a long time,” Chudzinski said. “You have to go play, and if you want to change that then you have to go do things to change it.”

Players love a coach who has faith in them -- especially when he’s not afraid to show that faith. Over time, the aggressive message seeps in and players start to believe as much as their coach.

Chudzinski shows this aggressiveness with a team that has not won six games in any of the previous five seasons, but heads into the bye week two games behind the Bengals in the AFC North with a 4-5 record -- a mark in Cleveland worth smiling about.

The first fourth down against Baltimore came in the first quarter, at the end of the Browns' second drive. The Browns got to the Ravens 1, and on fourth down Chudzinski went for the touchdown.

“I felt good about what we had game-plan wise to be able to score,” Chudzinski said. “I think it was important in this game for our guys to have the mentality to play to win.”

Jason Campbell was able to thread a pass to Bess for a touchdown.

In the fourth quarter, the Browns led by three and had a fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 43 with 3:12 left. Again, the conventional thinking would be to punt, pin the Ravens deep and play defense. But often, that conventional thinking prevents a win. Chudzinski again went for the first down.

“We had the opportunity to take the game at that point,” he said.

Campbell had to scramble and throw back across his body, but he again found Bess for a sliding catch and a first down. Eight plays later the Browns kicked the game-securing field goal with 17 seconds left.

“It’s not just a matter of being reckless,” Chudzinski said. “But it’s a matter of being aggressive. Sometimes it’s going to work; sometimes it’s not going work, and I understand that.

“Fortunately it paid off today.”

Chudzinski has set the tone with his decisions, which have included fake punts and field goals. And he’s been consistent all season.

His attitude is aggressive, it’s determined -- and it’s refreshing.
A question about the Cleveland Browns confidence in quarterback Brandon Weeden after the play against Detroit was put to defensive lineman Desmond Bryant today.

“Which play?” he asked.

The Browns circled the wagons around their quarterback, with not a hint of criticism or doubt emerging. Teammates said they understood Weeden simply made a mistake with his backward flip.

“He’s a professional in this league,’” Bryant said. “He’s one of my teammates. I believe in his ability and obviously so does the rest of the team. That’s why he’s out there playing.

“Not everybody’s going to have great plays every play. You can’t win them all. I don’t have perfect plays every play. There’s times where I don’t do what I’m supposed to do and I don’t execute like I want to. So I understand that’s going to happen to him as it happens to everybody out there. His are a little more magnified, scrutinized, whatever.

“He’s still our quarterback. He’s one of the leaders of this team. I’m always going to ride with him.”

Joe Thomas was more succinct.

His support is “unwavering,” he said.

Ditto with running back Willis McGahee.

“It’s just a fact that everybody is pointing at that interception he threw,” McGahee said. “But that’s part of the game, and we got his back. So no worries over here.”

Quentin Groves agreed, and his support matched what sounds like the very mature approach of his teammates.

“We all make those plays,” Groves said. “It just happens that the plays he makes are amplified a lot because he’s the quarterback. He’s been under so much scrutiny that any little thing that he does wrong everybody wants to jump on his back about it.”

That goes with the territory, of course. A quarterback gets the fame, the adulation and the money when things go well. When a team struggles, he gets the blame.

An NFL adage is that when a team wins the quarterback spreads the credit, but when it loses he takes the blame.

“When your mental toughness is tested your character comes out,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on a conference call. “You learn how to move forward from those things. You have to go through it. We all did. You have to learn from those things, be critical of yourself every week and realize it’s part of the territory that comes with playing quarterback.”

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