BEREA - With each passing week there's a growing sense that the Browns are featuring the wrong Southeastern Conference running back.
Trent Richardson of Alabama gets the majority of carries, but he's not producing the kind of numbers expected from a third overall draft pick. Montario Hardesty of Tennessee doesn't get enough touches to break a sweat, but he's made the most of them.
Through 13 games Richardson has rushed 869 yards on 247 carries, an average of 3.5 yards per carry. Hardesty has 215 yards on 46 carries for an average of 4.7 yards per carry.
The question that pops up every week at press conferences is why Hardesty doesn't get more opportunities. It could have to do with a fumbling problem that surfaced in the preseason. Hardesty fumbled trying to score from the Chiefs' 1 last week, although he was able to pull the ball in.
"It was in my mind after it happened," offensive coordinator Brad Childress said of the fumble against the Chiefs. "It was Pat's (coach Pat Shurmur) call to take him out. Montario would be the first to tell you that I'm not too high on putting the ball on the ground, particularly going in."
Richardson came off the bench following the fumble and scored on the next play. Hardesty was fuming mad that he was pulled. Shurmur apologized after the game for not letting Hardesty score on a drive in which he had all the carries.
The fumbling issue is a concern, but it doesn't override the fact Hardesty has looked fresher and quicker most of the season. He hits holes with more speed than Richardson and has usually put the offense into manageable second-down situations.
No one doubts the fact that Richardson is playing with some sore ribs. He said this week that other players are surprised he's been able to continue playing since hurting the ribs in week two against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Richardson also had two minor knee surgeries this year - one in February and the other in mid-August. The knee isn't an issue.
"I haven't had a problem with my knee," Richardson said. "I don't even wear a knee brace in practice all the time. It's just been the ribs. As long as I can make it to Sunday, I feel like I can play each down. The rib injury I have, it's critical. A lot of guys told me they wouldn't even be on the field."
Hardesty, conversely, has been healthier than at any time since he tore knee ligaments in his first preseason game as a rookie in 2010. Not being able to take advantage of that good health has been difficult for Hardesty.
"I know I have to make the most out of my opportunities," Hardesty said. "I've played football for a long time, and I've prepared well for this season. It's best to go out there and do what I've always done. Even if it's three carries or you're getting 25 carries, as a running back you want to get as much yardage as you can."
Hardesty is playing the role of a good team player, but eventually he'd undoubtedly like to be given an opportunity to be a featured back. He avoids going the direction of wanting to play with another team.
"I'm trying to win Sunday," Hardesty said. "That's my focus. I'm with the Cleveland Browns. We're on a three-game winning streak, and we want to keep it going."
To warrant more playing time, Hardesty needs to develop a more dependable set of hands. He dropped a pass on a swing route against the Chiefs that would have gone for a big gain.
"Dropped balls hurt you," Childress said. "You can't selectively say we're going to put a guy in and he's only going to go in on run situations where we hand him the football. You're going to take what you get when Montario is in there. Does he need to catch the ball? Yes. Those are drive-stoppers."