Wallace, Cribbs can spice up bland offense

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Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the biggest weakness of the 2009 season for every team and explain how the franchise can address the issue. The series continues with the Browns, who finished fourth in the AFC North (5-11).

Biggest problem in 2009: An offense that scared nobody

In 2009, the Cleveland Browns scored 245 points – 29th in the NFL. Their point differential of minus-130 ranked 27th in the league, and they stood at 1-11 before winning their final four games. Brady Quinn(notes) and Derek Anderson(notes), last year’s starting quarterbacks, are gone to other teams. New team president Mike Holmgren, perhaps the most astute quarterback evaluator of his generation, had people scratching heads when he signed off on a two-year, $12.4 million contract for ex-Panthers QB Jake Delhomme(notes). The former Super Bowl passer had a horrifying 2009, starting and ending his season with four-interception performances. Holmgren may believe that Delhomme will be better than we expect, but like any good general, he came armed with a Plan B in the person of Seneca Wallace, a ridiculously athletic quarterback who was in Seattle with Holmgren for six years.

Play diagram
Figure 1

Josh Cribbs

Of course, the Browns already had a ridiculously athletic quarterback on their roster, in a manner of speaking. Josh Cribbs, the former Kent State signal caller who’s on pace to break every conceivable return record, has been used quite often in what the Browns have called a “Flash” package. Often misidentified as the “Wildcat” series of plays made famous by the Dolphins and copied by virtually every other NFL team with wildly varying degrees of success, the Flash series is more a bunch of simple college-style option plays, where the man taking the snap either runs the ball or hands it off depending on the activities of the defensive front. In 2009, Cribbs ran the ball 55 times for 381 yards, a career-high 6.9 yards per carry average and one touchdown. He will more infrequently throw the ball out of the option, but it’s not a bread-and-butter play. The Browns also liked to use Cribbs (16) as a sweep threat in more standard formations (Fig. 1) with the expectation that the defense would be thrown off; that’s how effective Cribbs can be when he’s got the ball in his hands. Of course, the sweep threat has people thinking Wildcat, and that’s where Wallace comes in.

The 2010 solution: Get Wild(cat) with Wallace and Cribbs

Play diagram
Figure 2

The Dolphins have expended their Wildcat repertoire since quarterbacks coach David Lee imported it from his Arkansas days, when he ran an offense with Darren McFadden(notes) and Felix Jones(notes) in the backfield, but there are three basic concepts. The “Steeler” call is a sweep where the player coming across the backfield takes the ball from the quarterback and plows into the right side of the line behind a pulling left guard and a two-tackle overload. The “Power” call is a fake sweep in which the quarterback runs right into what is hopefully a confused front seven. And the “Counter” call has the quarterback faking the sweep and breaking to the left side after faking the defense out to the right.

The Browns now have the personnel to make these plays, but one Dolphins prototype play might fit them best. Miami will have running back Ronnie Brown(notes) taking the snaps, and their quarterback du jour split wide right (Fig. 2). In a hypothetical Browns version, Cribbs would take the sweep handoff from Wallace (15) and hand the ball to Delhomme (7). With the defense completely befuddled, Delhomme should be able to hit someone deep as the front seven cheats up to stop the run look. Miami has embarrassed more than one team with this, and they’ll also throw to the tight end from the “Counter” call.

Jake Delhomme

In the team’s first 2010 OTAs, the Browns were already experimenting with different Wildcat possibilities. “It could be deadly,” Wallace told the media. “[Cribbs is] a heck of a runner and a great athlete. He can make plays, and having both of us on the field, it can be a deadly weapon.”

“[Wallace] and I being in the game at the same time is going to open up a lot of things,” Cribbs agreed. “It’s already evolved tremendously. The first day brought so many changes. We’re going be a tough offense to stop.”

That’s a lot to expect following an anemic 2009, but the Dolphins used the Wildcat to turn around a similarly problematic offense in 2008. The two keys to making the Wildcat work are to A.) understand the power-blocking nature of the plays; and B.) have the right personnel to execute everything in sequence. With their surprising offensive line and new dual-playmaker system, the Browns are in a good spot to make it all go.