Cleveland Browns – One-Two Punch

Noun [usually S] US – Two unpleasant things that happen together.

Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt – Number one RB pairing in the NFL?

Does Cleveland have a one-two punch at Running Back in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt? By definition would this be deemed unpleasant? I saw a rundown on Twitter from the NFL account ranking the 2020 teams at running back. I was surprised to see they had the Cleveland Browns at number one. When was the last time they were ranked number one at anything (aside from draft position)?

Let’s go back to the 2018 season for a moment.

Kareem Hunt was being extremely productive as the lead back for the Kansas City Chiefs. He had registered 14 TD’s in 11 games (bettering his rookie season total from the previous year), split evenly on the ground and through the air with a certain Patrick Mahomes pulling the strings as a full-time starter at quarterback. The Chiefs were one of the hottest teams in football with dynamic players everywhere on the offensive side of the ball. They were winning games, only losing to New England and the Rams in what were arguably two of the best games of the regular season.

What could go wrong?

Up in Cleveland, they started off being extremely consistent. But not in a positive manner. They went 0-16 in the 2017 season and started like they just forgot that the aim of the game is to win once in a while. This was following a 1-15 record in 2016. A tie in their opening 2018 game with Pittsburgh contained missed kicks that could have won the game but maybe a losing mentality, and that it was Clevleand, was a big factor? An overtime loss the next week on the road against the Saints had most people feeling sorry for them, like a wounded puppy trying to move around on an injured leg.

What hope did they have? Well, they had a rookie on the offense that could be the saviour of the franchise and could end up being ‘the guy’. But not who people may have thought. Cleveland for all their efforts the previous year were rewarded with the first overall pick in the draft. They used this to select Heisman-winning quarterback, Baker Mayfield. A home run pick, surely? Mayfield comes off the bench week 3 on Thursday Night Football against the Jets and helps win the game. Yes, Cleveland won a game! What time is the parade?

Mayfield’s performances for the remainder of the season were, if I am being kind, a mixed bag. For every good performance, like against division rivals, Cincinnati (258 yards, 4 TD’s 0 Int), there was a poor performance, like against Houston (397 yards, 1 TD 3 Ints). It would seem being efficient and economic may be the formula required for success. This is understandable as he wasn’t the day one starter (former Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor was under centre up to week 3), and was a rookie QB. The hardest position to play in all of football. Remember, a rookie.

Who else did the Browns draft? Well, in the second round they selected Nick Chubb, running back from Georgia. Just to note, New England had also taken a running back from Georgia a few picks before in the 1st round (31st overall pick) in Sony Michel.The two co-existed to rush for over both 3000 yards and 30 touchdown’s combined in their senior year.

The Browns already had Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson Jr. on the roster, so this limited Chubb to just seven total carries over his first three NFL games. Game Week 4 saw Chubb announce himself (mainly to Fantasy Football owners with a high waiver priority) with a 105 yard 2 touchdown performance in another overtime loss. This was from three carries (yes 3, not 23) which included a 63-yard touchdown. Still, his light workload remained for the next two games but following Hyde being traded away to the Jaguars, Chubb was named as the starting running back. Three more games with 100 yards or more came, including another big touchdown run (92 yards in a home game against Atlanta) suggesting that Chubb has big-play potential.

Could this be the home run hitter of a rookie we were talking about? Chubb finished the season just shy of the milestone 1000 yard mark for running backs. 

Back in Kansas City, sitting at 9-2, Kareem Hunt had reached 824 rushing yards. However after a video surfaced on TMZ of a physical altercation with a female at a hotel, in Cleveland, Hunt was released by the Chiefs and put on the Reserve/Commissioner Exempt List by the NFL. Hunt’s season – possibly his career too – was finished after Game Week 11.

Fast forward to 2019 and Cleveland take a gamble on signing Hunt to a one-year deal worth up to just over $1million. He is still suspended so is only available from Game Week 9, so at least until then, Nick Chubb is the starting running back for the Browns. Chubb continues to impress, capping off the season with a trip to the Pro Bowl. The Browns however do not and finish with a record of 6-10 after a lot of pre-season hype. This is largely in part to a lot of self-promotion. Also, the signing of star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. being reunited with his former LSU teammate Jarvis Landry.

The hope that Mayfield would progress in his 2nd year did not fully materialise, along with the lack of production from OBJ. Defensive standout Myles Garrett had his own situation which you can read up on (if you lived under a rock in 2019).

With all this, Chubb ends the season just shy of 1500 yards averaging 5.0 yards-per-carry, with eight rushing touchdowns. Through the air, he posted 278 receiving yards with zero touchdowns. Hunt, in the eight games he featured, didn’t reach double-digit carries in any game and the numbers reflect that. However, in the passing game, he finished with 285 yards and one touchdown. 

Present-day and back to the original question of this piece. Do the Browns have a one-two punch? Maybe. In my opinion, Chubb is a top tier level running back in the group just outside of the Saquon, Zeke, McCaffrey trio. He is a player that will make defenses respect the run when in the backfield, which could open up options for the passing game if the run is established. Hunt has shown he is more than capable of making plays, but specifically, in this situation, he could offer more in the passing game. His numbers for receiving compared with Chubb, since 2018, are higher in yards and in trips to the endzone (with eight fewer games played). Incidentally, Hunt’s first touch as a Brown was flexed out at WR for a short catch.

Back to his Senior year at Georgia with the previously mentioned Sony Michel. Although the RB’s were not overly utilised in the passing game, Chubb registered more carries than Michel but fewer receptions, yards and touchdowns. These numbers are low so it is hard to make a definitive comparison, but it does seem to be a trend throughout the career of Chubb thus far. Hunt featured heavily in the passing game at KC and caught more passes in his senior year at Toledo than he did in the three years prior to that combined. Hunt seems more suited to the job of pass-catching running back than Chubb. 

With NFL defenses adopting new schemes, pre-snap looks (Mint and Amoeba fronts for example) and DB / LB hybrids (Tyrann Mathieu springs to mind) to cover the field, it is wise for offenses not to be one and two dimensional. The more plays you have means more ways and options to advance the ball one yard or more. The personnel has to be right for it all to work and I believe that the Browns have a solid base to have these options.

Hunt signed a new contract with Cleveland earlier in 2020 worth around $3.2m. It looks like he is staying put. Whether he is able to displace Chubb as the lead back for the Browns remains to be seen. 

One-two punch? Yes, an unpleasant sucker punch for defenses.

Home run hitting quarterback? – The jury is still out…