Michael Lombardi: Nick Chubb's injury and the impact on the Cleveland Browns

September 19, 2023 07:46 AM

Who will replace Nick Chubb?

Every successful NFL team has a clear identity.  Normally, the identity originates from the head coach, who understands the personnel around him and then crafts the scheme that fits perfectly.  It’s what we refer to as “scouting inside out.” 

Once the talent improves, the scheme becomes harder and harder to defend as the players develop their skill set.  Before long, the fans aren’t discussing or noticing the identity, they only observe the great player shining brightly.  But what happens when the talented player gets hurt?  Identities cannot be changed. New players must come in and shine—even though the scheme looks less effective than before—which is why talented players get paid all the money.    

Last night, the Browns suffered an injury to the one player they could least afford —running back Nick Chubb, their best player who gives them their offensive identity.  Forget all the money they paid quarterback Deshaun Watson; Chubb was their offense and their real identity. 

Opponents knew two things before facing the Browns:  force Chubb to have a bad day (no long runs) and make the Browns offense play from behind.  When a team gains a significant lead on the Browns in the second half, because of the Browns' commitment to the run, they struggle to pass protect in a drop-back scheme.  They can only play the game one way—through their running back. Now, with a dip in talent from Chubb to Jerome Ford, the Browns are in limbo. 

Monday night, Ford made one long run, which allowed his numbers to appear great, but in reality, he had 15 carries for 37 yards on the other attempts.   He is not Chubb in terms of talent—few are.  Ford is the perfect example of the “Scotty Williams Syndrome” most fans or even executives don’t understand. 

As many of you might know, I am a huge 76ers NBA fan. I know, I know, It’s painful. It’s depressing. I’ve tried to get off them for years, going to 76er rehab multiple times. Yet as Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, Part III, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”  It’s something I promised my grandchildren I would never pass down to them.  Anyway, enough about my problems.

The “Scotty Williams Syndrome” happened when my beloved team signed Williams from the Chicago Bulls as a highly-paid free agent.  Their logic was simple. Williams averaged 16 minutes for the Bulls, collecting five rebounds and scoring 7.6 points per game.  The 76ers front office brass in their infinite wisdom did a little math and concluded if Williams played 32 minutes, his numbers would double.  Naturally, they didn’t; they went down. 

Williams was the perfect role player for the Bulls. He fit their team perfectly.  Less of Williams for them gave them more.  More of Williams for the 76ers gave them less.  Ford in the main role, won’t be as effective as he would be as the change of pace runner. 

Last night, the Browns realized their worst fears on two fronts.  Chubb is out, and Deshaun Watson, the man they paid 250 million in hard guaranteed cash, cannot carry the team.  He isn’t the same player he once was—or maybe he never was.  Maybe we all got lured into his numbers, which didn’t translate to wins.  Watson’s last season in Houston, he posted great statistics: 4823 yards passing, 70% completion, 33 touchdowns and 7 picks.  The team won four games. 

The prior two seasons, Watson was able to take the Texans to the playoffs—and when receiver Will Fuller played (Remember him?  The Notre Dame speedster who was always making big plays when he wasn’t getting treatment on the sidelines, or missing games.),  Fuller and Watson were a deadly combination down the field, allowing Watson to average 8.0 yards per attempt. 

Since joining the Browns, Watson has averaged 6.3 yards per attempt and isn’t nearly as accurate with a 55% completion rate.  Last night, he had two turnovers. One wasn’t his fault as tight end Harrison Bryant played volleyball with an easy catch and it turned into a pick-six.  Then Watson, who has always carried the ball loosely in and around the pocket fumbled for the 32nd time in his six-year career (Bears quarterback Justin Fields has already fumbled 31 times in 27 games as a point of reference), and the Steelers ended up scoring another touchdown to win the game. 

What makes the Chubb injury so disheartening for the Browns is their defense has become elite.  They dominated the game last night and made the Steelers' offense struggle all through the game. 

Pittsburgh had 13 drives, not counting the last one to end the game, had seven punts, two turnovers, three scores, one touchdown, two field goals, and one end of the half.  The Steelers offense never had a drive with more than 10 plays, and 10 of their drives resulted in one first down or none.  Their two field goals were from 50 and 52 yards, and their touchdown pass was one big play.  If the Browns protected the ball, they win the game easily, which tells you how good the Browns have become on defense. 

It also tells you that their season isn’t lost.  Replacing Aaron Rodgers is impossible for the Jets. Replacing Chubb will be difficult, but not impossible.  They can find a back, maybe not as good as Chubb, but someone who along with Ford can give them solid numbers.  The Browns rank in the top five of cash over cap for the 2023 season, which means they have gone all in to win this year.  So, don’t expect them to sit back and sign a free agent from the street. 

Last night, everyone was abuzz about bringing back Kareem Hunt. But Hunt wasn’t in shape last month when he toured New Orleans and Indy, and he hasn’t been signed.  He won’t be the answer to the Browns' problems.  However, calling Colts general manager Chris Ballard, and offering a second-round pick, plus other picks that equate to a first-round pick, will get them Jonathan Taylor.  With Chubb’s injury being so severe and the identity of the offense being tailored around a great runner, this would be the right move now and for the future. 

This defense can carry them as long as Watson and the offense don’t spot the opponent 14 points.  If they add a back like Taylor, they will remain the favorites from my viewpoint. If not, the Ravens look like the best team. 

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