CLEVELAND (AP)Moments before the season kicked off, Nick Chubb trotted on to the field inside a roaring Cleveland Browns Stadium while toting a No. 32 flag to honor Jim Brown, the legendary running back who died in May.
Chubb ran to the opposite end zone and handed it to the Hall of Famer’s son, Aris, who waved the flag proudly. It was a touching, symbolic moment as Cleveland began a 2023 season dedicated to its greatest player.
Expectations soared, and hopes couldn’t have been much higher.
A week later at Pittsburgh, everything came crashing down.
When Chubb was lost for the year with torn left knee ligaments, not only did the Browns lose their best offensive player and one of the NFL’s elite running backs, they were stripped of much of their identity.
Chubb was a sure thing. The glue. The given.
Hand the ball to No. 24 and good things followed. The Browns were going to ride him this season like never before.
But as the four-time Pro Bowler was carted off while fighting back tears on Sept. 18, the Browns were shattered. They’re trying to patch things together and go on without him.
“He’s the human eraser, as we like to call him,” right guard Wyatt Teller said. “Damn good player. So we got to be able to run without one of the best running backs in the league. It’s not easy.”
Minus Chubb, Cleveland’s running game is a shell of itself and even more pressure has shifted onto quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is still trying to return to Pro Bowl form after sitting out most of two seasons and is currently nursing a bruised throwing shoulder.
One of coach Kevin Stefanski’s priorities during the bye week was to fix a ground game that has ground to a halt.
Following a strong start, the Browns averaged 85 yards rushing – nearly 60 below their season average – in the past two games without Chubb. Cleveland picked up 93 last week, but 40 came on a late run in a lopsided loss to Baltimore.
“We can be better, obviously,” Stefanski said this week. “I trust in the guys we have. I trust in the scheme. We’re four games into the season, so it’s an incomplete sample size to draw a ton from it, but we can better. We will be.”
There have been other factors contributing to the running game not running on all cylinders.
Before Chubb went down, Cleveland’s offensive line took a major hit when right tackle Jack Conklin blew out his knee in the opener. The Browns turned to rookie Dawand Jones, who has done a nice job protecting Watson but is still picking up the nuances of run blocking.
Chubb’s injury pushed second-year back Jerome Ford into a starting role, and while he’s shown potential (106 yards vs. the Steelers), he may not be ready to be Cleveland’s feature back.
The Browns re-signed Kareem Hunt in the days after Chubb went down, and general manager Andrew Berry indicated that the 28-year-old, who spent four seasons with Cleveland and is getting himself back into game shape after not being on anyone’s roster all summer, will have an increased role going forward.
“We really do look at that position as more of a platoon position, as opposed to this is your one, this is your two, that type of thing,” Berry said. “We’ve been spoiled by having Nick, but that’s probably more where this position is trending with us and it’s certainly trended around the league.”
There’s another option for the Browns – a trade.
Once it was clear Chubb’s season was over, speculation began about a deal for Indianapolis star running back Jonathan Taylor, who has been in a contract dispute with the Colts.
From the outside, it seems like a perfect fit. The Browns have a major need and over $34 million in salary cap space, Taylor wants a new deal, and Berry has shown his aggressiveness in landing Watson for three first-round draft picks.
Berry wouldn’t comment specifically on Taylor, but he did say the team was open to a move it made sense.
“One of the things that we pride ourselves on from a front office perspective is maintaining the flexibility to do what we need to do to improve the team,” he said. “So I wouldn’t rule out any style of transaction for us, we’ll do what makes sense for us organizationally.”
The same holds true for Chubb’s future.
He had surgery last week to repair damage to his left medial capsule, meniscus and medial collateral ligament. He’ll need another operation to fix a torn ACL in the same knee the 27-year-old hurt in 2015 at Georgia.
The Browns expect Chubb back “at some point” in 2024, when his three-year, $36.6 million contract includes a nearly $16 million salary cap hit.
Berry didn’t want to discuss Chubb’s situation other than to say the team will invest heavily in his recovery.
“We want him to get off to a good start so he can be the Nick Chubb that we are accustomed to seeing when he gets over this,” he said. “I’m not going to bet against Nick Chubb.”
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