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Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Turner brings hope, big plays to Browns

By Jamison Hensley

Norv Turner
The Browns hope Norv Turner's attacking offense will bring smiles to the faces of fans and players.
The Cleveland Browns gave $35 million in guaranteed money to linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant in free agency. The team used its top two draft picks on defense, including the No. 6 overall one on pass-rusher Barkevious Mingo.

What did they do on offense? The Browns added offensive coordinator Norv Turner.

Yes, Cleveland traded for wide receiver Davone Bess and signed quarterback Jason Campbell this offseason, but both are considered backups at this point. The Browns could very well line up with the same 11 players who started for the NFL's 25th-ranked offense last season.

What this says is the Browns are putting all of their chips on Turner to turn around the offense. It's a good bet to make, especially when you consider the plodding history of the Cleveland offense.

Whatever you might think about Turner as a head coach, he brings a proven track record as a playcaller. He comes with a playbook that will challenge defenses downfield. In other words, he gives hope to the most hopeless passing attack over the past five seasons.

"We're trying to create a mindset, from an offensive standpoint, that we're going to go attack," Turner said.

This is where the Browns have been stuck behind the times. While the rest of the NFL is in the Xbox generation, the Browns have been playing pong on Atari. Consider this: All but one playoff team from last season ranked in the top half of the league in yards per pass attempt. Cleveland ranked 27th.

How far behind are the Browns? To rank in the top half, teams generally have to average more than seven yards per attempt. The Browns have averaged less than six yards in three of the past five seasons.

The Cleveland coaching staff has yet to name a starting quarterback, although Brandon Weeden is expected to win the job, but the Browns have made a strong commitment to changing the game plan and mindset. Judging from the comments coming out of Cleveland -- from the owner down to the wide receivers -- the first impression of Turner's offense is the aggressiveness of it.

“Everything is downfield, and you get taught pretty quickly that you have to be well conditioned to play fast and play at a high level,” wide receiver Greg Little said. “I just like the way Norv thinks. He calls more post and go routes than I’ve ever run before."

Said wide receiver Josh Gordon: "Defenses will be shocked to say the least with how much we're running downfield."

Well, you kind of lose the surprise factor if everyone is talking about throwing the ball deep. But that's not really important. What stands out is the genuine enthusiasm over the new offense, which is understandable given the grumbling about the play calling toward the end of last season.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Browns threw the ball 10 yards or less downfield on 73.3 percent of their passes last season and threw the ball 20 or more yards downfield on 9 percent of their passes. As a result, Cleveland wide receivers finished 26th with 32 receptions of at least 15 yards last season, and 25th in receptions of at least 30 yards (eight).

"I went to practice the other day and we're not throwing 3-yard dinks," owner Jimmy Haslam said this month. "We're throwing the ball down the field, and that's the way Norv likes to play."

That was an obvious shot at former coach Pat Shurmur, and a justifiable one. I never understood why the Browns remained in a West Coast offense after using a first-round pick on the strong-armed Weeden and a second-rounder on an explosive target like Gordon. In his final season at Oklahoma State, Weeden completed 48 percent of his throws over 20 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions.

It was a bad fit to put Weeden under center in a rhythmic system of three-step drops. Weeden is more comfortable in the shotgun, which he ran at Oklahoma State, and that could explain his league-leading 25 batted passes as a rookie. In San Diego, Turner had Philip Rivers in the shotgun 77 percent of the time, eighth in the NFL.

This is a case where Turner's game plan for stretching the field suits the young players the Browns have in place.

"I absolutely think they have the personnel to pull it off," ESPN's Matt Williamson said. "They have a high-end young offensive line that is especially strong in protection at offensive tackle and center, a big-armed quarterback and speed on the outside, as well as some downfield speed at the tight end position with Jordan Cameron. I think going deep is what Gordon does best right now, and although he might not play a ton, Travis Benjamin is a total burner. Plus, I think this coaching staff will do a very good job scheming up the vertical passing game."

Of all the moves the Browns made this offseason, the best one was hiring Turner. In Turner's past four seasons with the Chargers, his passing offense ranked in the top six in the NFL three times. No one should expect such miracles out of the Browns this season. What everyone can expect is a Browns offense that resembles a modern NFL one. With Turner at the helm, the Browns have their best shot to do that.