Smart move by Browns to sign coach
It may turn out to be one of the best acquisitions in what was a busy offseason for the Browns.
There was one person who immediately jumped to the top of coach Mike Pettine’s wish list for offensive coordinators shortly after he was hired – Kyle Shanahan. Pettine had no idea when Shanahan was hired that he would be a good match for rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel, but now that the two are working together, that reality is starting to become clear.
Shanahan had great results working with 2012 rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III in Washington. Griffin was an easy choice for Rookie of the Year, posting the highest passer rating for a rookie quarterback (102.4) and the highest touchdown-to-interception ratio (4:1).
Shanahan now gets to adapt his offense to the talents of Brian Hoyer and Manziel. Both players fulfill many of the requirements Shanahan values in quarterbacks – mobility and the ability to create on the run.
How Shanahan fits Manziel into the offense will be one of the most watched developments in the NFL next season. Manziel used his elusive powers and strong arm to confound many college defenses in two seasons at Texas A&M. There were times when it looked like a sandlot game, which is to say there was chaos mixed in with organization.
Shanahan is under orders to let Manziel be Manziel – with limitations. Shanahan remembers all too well that Griffin’s propensity to run with the purpose of gaining yards led to an injury near the end of his rookie season. Manziel has to be smart on his run decisions, knowing there are linebackers in Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh who will be determined to make him regret his decisions.
Shanahan will fit Manziel into an offense that will be based on a zone-blocking running attack. There will be some man blocking, but Pettine and Shanahan believe that the strengths of the team’s linemen are athleticism and intelligence, two ingredients that make zone blocking work.
In essence, zone blocking requires two linemen working against one defensive lineman while stepping right or left to fill a gap. One of the two double-team blockers will leave the block to pick off a second-level defender.
When zone blocking works well, it gives the running back a myriad of options. On an outside zone play, the runner can elect to turn the corner or cut back all the way to the back side, if he so desires. The runner also has cutback options on inside zone plays, which initially look like simple dive plays.
Shanahan’s dad, Mike, used zone blocking extensively with Terrell Davis in Denver’s Super Bowl-winning seasons of 1998 and 1999. The success enjoyed by Davis was the complementary piece that had been missing to quarterback John Elway’s game.
The Browns’ front office was aggressive in finding backs who are comfortable in a zone-blocking system. Ben Tate, who enjoyed limited success running behind Arian Foster in Houston, was signed. General manager Ray Farmer then added scoring machine Terrance West out of Towson in the third round of the draft.
Tate and West could develop into Manziel’s best new friends if and when he is named the starter. The more success the two runners have, the more it will open up play action for Manziel.
Look at video of the Redskins when Shanahan was their offensive coordinator, and you’ll see Griffin and Kirk Cousins in bootleg action a considerable amount of time. Expect to see plenty of that from Manziel, who will have room to create on the run and in open space.
The reads should be relatively easy for the quarterback. Bootleg action results in working one side of the field, which means plenty of hi-low crossing patterns. The best check down might be a run to the sideline for a few yards.
Shanahan will definitely work the read-option into the offense, which never would have happened with Brandon Weeden or Jason Campbell at quarterback. This would be better suited for Manziel, although Hoyer has the athleticism to pull it off. Because read options often result in quarterbacks running for yardage, it’s risky. Don’t expect to see it more than a few times each game.
None of this means that Manziel or Hoyer won’t be asked to make throws off 3-, 5- and 7-step drops. There will be slants and deeper routes to stretch the field horizontally.
Shanahan knows that successful offenses don’t thrive on bootleg and rollout plays alone. Manziel will have to show he can be comfortable and efficient throwing from within the pocket.
The good news for Manziel is that Pettine says “we don’t want to make him a statue.” The statue will be unveiled if Manziel ever leads the Browns to the Super Bowl.