Two weeks into the season, the Cleveland Browns are without the heart and soul of their offense.
Star RB Nick Chubb suffered a knee injury in the second quarter of Monday night’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Browns coach Kevin Stefanski already announced that Chubb will be out for the season, which is hardly a surprise for anyone unfortunate enough to see the hit as it happened.
It’s a heartbreaking injury for one of the sport’s most electric players.
Chubb’s Injury Messes Everything Up
Without Chubb, the Browns offense won’t be the same. It can’t be. The modern NFL is a passing league, but Chubb is one of the few unique backs who break that rule.
He raises the floor of the offense such that everyone else around him is made better by his being on the field. Chubb is an exception in a league that doesn’t care about running backs.
There are more layers to it than that in Cleveland’s case, too. The Browns offense was already complicated as is. Stefanski built the offense around Chubb when he took the job four years ago, and that hasn’t changed.
A Gary Kubiak disciple at heart, Stefanski wants to operate under center, run the ball and find explosive plays off of play-action. He sort of retrofitted the system away from zone runs to fit Chubb’s dominance as a power runner, but the overall philosophy remained the same.
All of that is antithetical to what Deshaun Watson is as a quarterback. Watson played his best ball many moons ago as a freelancing shotgun quarterback. He wants the field spread out and the freedom to create outside the pocket.
Regardless of Stefanski’s beliefs, when you pay that quarterback $230 million guaranteed, he will get his way to a degree.
Trying to marry the two dueling ideas had mixed results through the first six quarters of the season, but all of its success came back to the star running back. Chubb ran for 106 yards on 18 carries in the opener against the Cincinnati Bengals and had 10 carries for 64 yards before leaving Monday night’s game.
On the other hand, Watson finished both games with fewer than six yards per attempt and a combined nine sacks. He’s been frantic and inaccurate, with sporadic flashes of his former self. It was barely enough to hold the offense together even with Chubb, much less without him.
Chubb Is Irreplaceable
Now, the Browns are stuck with two problems. They have to replace Chubb with relatively unproven talent and shift their identity toward a quarterback who hasn’t shown he can play ball at the level his contract suggests. I don’t envy Stefanski one bit.
As far as replacing Chubb goes: They can’t. Their run-game efficiency is going to tank without him. Chubb is the best pure runner in the NFL, and it shows in how many of his runs go for successful gains.
His vision, balance and explosion are a special combination, and Stefanski built the whole ship by utilizing those skills.
According to rbsdm.com, Chubb had a successful run on 53 percent of plays against the Bengals in Week 1 and 55 percent against the Steelers. Those splits include penalties, so Chubb’s success rate would be even higher without them. The consistency at which Chubb keeps the offense on schedule is remarkable. Everyone else’s life is easier because of it.
Compare that with Chubb’s presumed replacement, Jerome Ford. Ford ripped off a 69-yard scamper in the second half on Monday night, but he’s not been a consistent runner this season.
Ford held a 13 percent success rate on 15 plays vs. the Bengals and a 29 percent success rate on 17 plays against the Steelers. That doesn’t even sniff Chubb’s efficiency, and Ford will not break off unlikely 70-yard runs to make up for it every week.
That’s so important because it will inevitably shift the burden of the offense to Watson and the passing offense. Stefanski will have a more challenging time running his parts of the system, and the offense will end up in worse down-and-distance situations more frequently. Worse down-and-distance situations mean the playbook gets pinched.
More specifically, it means the offense ends up in more clear passing situations, giving defenses a green light to tee off on a wish-wash offensive line. T.J. Watt and friends made it clear how ugly of a place that can be for this Browns offense.
Cleveland’s Future Isn’t Bright
The case for the Browns figuring things out on offense is bleak. Either Watson suddenly returns to form, Ford suddenly becomes a top-five running back, or Stefanski works a miracle of Biblical proportions.
Stefanski is the most capable of the three by a country mile, but he’s in an improbable position. A coach can only do so much when all the pillars around him are cracked and crumbling.
As promising as the Browns’ defense is, a bottom-half offense will anchor this team from their goals. That’s not to say they can’t compete and muddy games up, but assuming the offense falls off without Chubb, this team doesn’t have the firepower to be a real AFC contender.
The Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens look light-years ahead of the Browns and, in addition, the Kansas City Chiefs are sure to get their act together by the time it matters. Despite their tumultuous starts, even the Bengals and Jacksonville Jaguars have more long-term hope to cling onto.
If the wheels come all the way off and the Browns miss the playoffs, this has to be the end of the Browns’ power structure as we know it. General manager Andrew Berry can not survive the Watson decision without any success to back it up.
Though undue, Stefanski would almost certainly be caught in the crossfire to help wipe the slate clean completely. That’s just the way these things go. If or how the Browns also get rid of Watson, who knows, but they will have no choice but to start exploring their options.
That feels like a lot to put on a running back in 2023. We’re long past the days of “run the ball and play defense” as an accepted dogma. Chubb is just that special.
Chubb is an efficient running game unto himself, and the Browns’ offense was counting on that to keep the rest of the operation afloat. There is no replacement for one-of-a-kind.
Derrik Klassen is an NFL and NFL Draft film analyst with a particular interest in quarterbacks. Klassen’s work is also featured on Bleacher Report and Reception Perception. You can follow him on Twitter (X) at @QBKlass.