The Cleveland Browns running back responsibility fell to Chris Ogbonnaya on Nov. 6. With Peyton Hillis (hamstring) and Montario Hardesty (calf) sidelined because of injury, Ogbonnaya was the Browns starting running back in a game at Houston.
He fumbled on his very first carry.
It got better for Ogbonnaya the next two weeks. Much better. But as the season entered its final stages, the third-year pro from Texas saw a more and more diminished role.
What happened to Chris Ogbonnaya?
One thing everyone can agree is the 2011 Cleveland Browns offense was dreadful. Why: A lack of speed and, not coincidentally, a lack of playmakers.
Greg Little and Josh Cribbs had their moments from the wide receiver position, but because of injuries the Browns’ backfield and offensive line, the running game lacked a punch for a majority of the season.
Then along came Ogbonnaya. After shaking off the poor performance against the Texans (28 yards on 13 carries), he rebounded to rush for 90 yards on 19 carries the following week against the St. Louis Rams. Then, in a 14-10 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars the following week, Ogbonnaya rushed for 115 yards (98 in the second half) and one touchdown. Five of his 21 carries that day resulted in a first down for the Browns’ offense.
As we all know, achieving first downs was troublesome for the Browns’ offense.
Not only was it Ogbonnaya’s first career 100-yard rushing performance and his first career touchdown, his 100-yard rushing performance was the first by a Browns player since Hillis rushed for 108 yards at Buffalo on Dec. 12, 2010.
“He’s showed up and done a nice job,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said after the Jacksonville game. “It’s a credit to what he’s done. I remember him in St. Louis as a guy who was struggling to make the roster. He kind of battled and hung with it. He’s done good work for us, he ought to feel good about himself.”
Jacksonville finished the season ninth in the NFL allowing 104.2 yards rushing per game (3.8 per carry). Ogbonnaya gashed the Jaguars for 5.5 yards per carry. It’s not like his big game came against a week rush defense like, well, the Browns.
Yet a week after his 100-yard performance, Hillis returned to the lineup and Ogbonnaya’s opportunities began to dwindle. Ogbonnaya had four more carries in the Browns’ final five games. He became the Browns’ third down back as evident by his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
But were the Browns’ missing a golden opportunity by not giving Ogbonnaya carries?
In 2011, Ogbonnaya finished second on the team with 334 yards rushing on 73 carries and had a team-best 4.6 yards per carry average among the running backs.
His speed was evident. As previously noted, the Browns’ offense lacked speed. When Hillis returned in the final five games, he regained some of his 2010 form, but his longest run from scrimmage was 24 yards. Ogbonnaya had a 40-yard run against Jacksonville. On that Thursday night game against Pittsburgh, the Browns pounded the Steelers’ stout run defense with bigger backs in Hillis and Hardesty. The duo combined for 49 yards on 21 carries. Ogbonnaya got two carries and finished with 31 yards, including a 28-yard on third and 17. On a that 28-yard gain, a draw play, Ogbonnaya’s speed was a sharp contrast to the styles of Hillis and Hardesty and it caught the Steelers off guard. Ogbonnaya received a carry a few possessions later, but that was it.
“I’ll tell you what, to get three backs involved is a very difficult deal,” Shurmur said on Dec. 22. “You saw that Peyton (Hillis) had a real nice game (against Arizona) and Chris Ogbonnaya does some real nice things on third down. It is not easy to get three backs involved, especially when your number one guy is healthy and rolling.”
The NFL has become a running back by committee league. Not only have teams moved away from feature backs, the two-headed running attack is led by two different types of runners. The best example is in New York as the Giants employ the bruiser, Brandon Jacobs (6-foot-4, 264 pounds), and the speedster, Ahmad Bradshaw (5-10, 214). In Cleveland, a bruiser, Hillis or Hardesty, complemented by a speedier back like Ogbonnaya, could fill those roles.
To not use a player who showcased his speed and playmaking abilities is concerning. The numbers don’t lie. Ogbonnaya should have got more touches, whether it was on the ground or in the air. When he did get opportunities, Ogbonnaya made plays and helped the Browns get first downs - both areas that were severely lacking in 2011.
With the return of Brandon Jackson and Hardesty and the future of Hillis unclear, who knows what the future of Ogbonnaya will be? Hopefully the Browns can add more playmakers to this offense and the responsibility doesn’t land on the shoulders of a seventh-round draft pick. But if the Browns do fail to add playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, Ogbonnaya may warrant another look.