By SCOTT PETRAK
BEREA â€” A year ago, everyone associated with the Browns was thankful for Rob Chudzinski. In his first year as an NFL offensive coordinator, the Browns were eighth in scoring (25.1 points per game), eighth in yardage (351.3) and sent four players to the Pro Bowl.
Chudzinski was repeatedly referred to as a genius, and owner Randy Lerner gave him a multimillion-dollar contract extension through 2011 to keep him from interviewing for head coaching jobs.
Genius hasnâ€™t been the word used to describe him through 11 games of 2008.
The Browns are tied for 25th in scoring (18.8) and rank 27th in yardage (282.7), and the offensive inconsistencies have led to a 4-7 record. Receiver Braylon Edwards questioned the play calling last month, and running back Jamal Lewis criticized Chudzinski after the loss Sunday for abandoning the game plan â€” and the run.
â€œWhen you lose and when you are not doing well, then the competitive nature of guys is going to come out,â€ Chudzinski said Friday. â€œWe are all Browns and we are all family.
â€œAnybody that comes from a big family knows that there is always going to be some disagreements along the way.â€
Chudzinski and Lewis sat down Monday and talked out the issues. Lewis declined to talk Friday.
â€œWe are on the same page,â€ Chudzinski said. â€œI love having Jamal here. I donâ€™t want it any other way.â€
Lewis is frustrated by a lack of consistent carries. Although he ranks ninth in the league with 195 rushes, heâ€™s gotten more than 21 in a game just once. Heâ€™s hit the 20-mark three times, and the Browns are 3-0.
Against the Texans, a team allowing 132.5 rushing yards per game, he averaged 5.8 yards a carry but only ran 10 times.
â€œIf we just committed to running the ball 50 times a game, I donâ€™t think that would give us the best chance of winning,â€ Chudzinski said. â€œI love the fact that he wants to run the ball every play.
â€œBy the same token, we have a bunch of other guys that want us throwing the ball every play. My job is to try to find that balance for us to be successful.â€
The quasi-emergence of backup running back Jerome Harrison has complicated things. Heâ€™s averaged 8.8 yards on 27 rushes and the fans are begging for him to get more touches.
Chudzinski isnâ€™t convinced Harrison can be a 15-carry-a-game back.
â€œThatâ€™s hard to say. I know that in the role he is playing, he has been very effective,â€ he said. â€œHe has come in and given us some spark and has been a nice change of pace. To be a change of pace, you have to have a pace first.
â€œJamal has been in there pounding it and he comes in with a different style and something defenses havenâ€™t seen. If you cut down Jamalâ€™s carries and give them to Jerome, you are cutting down on Jamalâ€™s effectiveness. That is the balance we have to work our way through.â€
Chudzinski is big on balance and pointed out that the Browns had 18 runs and 18 passes through three quarters Sunday. But Lerner is among those who believe the team needs an identity â€” and that often comes from a focused offensive philosophy.
â€œWe have not established an identity and I find that very frustrating,â€ Lerner said Tuesday.
â€œThe Steelers are tough-nosed, theyâ€™re going to run the ball,â€ tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., said. â€œWe donâ€™t have an identity right now. Last year we did.â€
In 2007, the Browns were a high-flying machine. Derek Anderson threw 29 touchdowns, Edwards caught 16 and Edwards and Winslow eclipsed 1,000 yards. All the passing set up the run, and Lewis piled up 1,304 yards as he finished off victories.
â€œWe have the same game plans, the same players,â€ tackle Kevin Shaffer said.
But different results.
â€œDefinitely defenses have studied us more in the offseason,â€ coach Romeo Crennel said. â€œIf we execute and make the plays we are supposed to make, then we counter it.â€
Crennel had Chudzinski thrust upon him by general manager Phil Savage and largely leaves Chudzinski alone to run the offense. While Chudzinskiâ€™s responsible for the slip in production, there have been mitigating circumstances.
Anderson played poorly and lost his job to Brady Quinn, then Quinn broke his finger. Edwards leads the league with 18 dropped passes. Winslow missed two games. And injuries to Joe Jurevicius, Donte Stallworth, Ryan Tucker and Eric Steinbach have affected the receiving corps and line.
â€œWeâ€™ve had breakdowns here and there, each play,â€ center Hank Fraley said. â€œLast year we were just clicking, making plays that needed to be made and keeping drives alive.
â€œThis year, we move the ball, then weâ€™ll mess up a couple plays and next thing you know weâ€™re punting.â€
The struggles are particularly noticeable on third down and in the red zone. The Browns are 28th in the league, converting 33.8 percent of third downs. They are 29th in the red zone, scoring a touchdown 41.2 percent of the time.
â€œItâ€™s just frustrating, because we know what type of talent we do have here and what type of team we do have when weâ€™re playing our best,â€ Fraley said.
Petrak may be reached at email@example.com or 440-329-7136.