Cleveland Browns: Isaiah Crowell unhappy with contract

Sep 11, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell carries against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 11, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell carries against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports /

In his media availability Wednesday, Isaiah Crowell made it pretty clear he wasn’t happy with his contract situation with the Cleveland Browns.

Coming off of a season where he totaled 1,271 yards and seven touchdowns, Isaiah Crowell was hoping that rather than simply sign his second round tender as a restricted free agent, he would get a longer term deal to stay with the Cleveland Browns.

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Instead, he’s now on a one-year deal for $2.746 million and while he did not directly say he wasn’t happy about it, his frustration was obvious and it’s difficult to blame him.

The team would like people to focus on the fact that Crowell expects to have a monster year. Crowell has good reason to believe that, given what he did in 2016.

Despite only carrying the ball 198 times, Crowell averaged an impressive 4.8 yards per carry, enabling him to gain 952 yards on the year. He also caught 40 passes for another 319 yards.

The receiving part of the game was something that Crowell really showcased this past year, making him a multidimensional threat on offense. Especially in combination with Duke Johnson, it gave defenses some problems on how to defend the two of them. In all, the pair combined for 2,143 total yards on the year.

The fact is that neither Crowell or Johnson got the ball enough last year given their efficiency, as Crowell hints. At 4.8 yards per carry for Crowell and 4.9 yards per carry for Johnson, it stands to reason the Browns should have kept pounding the football and there were multiple games where the Browns seemingly abandoned the run for no good reason.

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In the second Cincinnati Bengals game for example, the Browns were averaging 7.7 yards per carry on the ground compared to 2.7 yards pass through the air. When the game was over, the Browns had thrown the ball 28 times compared to just 22 runs with seven of those carries coming from Robert Griffin III, largely on scrambles from passing plays.

The argument for taking the foot off the gas running the ball as the year wore on was the recognition that they were not going to win many games. The thought process being that it made little sense to expose their backs to the wear and tear of a ton of carries when it wouldn’t be reflected in the standings. They more or less proved they could run the ball, so they used that time to evaluate and try to work on the passing game.

The other reason Crowell should be confident are the moves the Browns have made to their offensive line. They added J.C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler in the offseason and expect Shon Coleman to take over the right tackle job. Between those moves and what they hope is a healthy Joel Bitonio to start the season, the Browns have what should be an even more potent run blocking offensive line opening up holes for Crowell.

So when Crowell says “I feel like it’s going to be a monster year,” he has plenty of reason to be confident.

The media availability took a noticeably different tone when questions turned to his contract situation. Crowell seemed noticeably frustrated with the front office.

As part of a string of good questions from Tony Grossi of ESPN Cleveland (credit where it’s due), he was asked why he signed his tender so late and Crowell was noticeably uncomfortable when he said he didn’t want to talk about it.

What Crowell isn’t saying is he and the front office were not close on an extension. There were negotiations, but they didn’t get very far when it became clear neither side was willing to budge. It could simply be because they aren’t sure his good year was good enough and want to another one before committing to him.

It’s more likely because they don’t value the running back position with their analytics based outlook, they are going to set a price with Crowell that he’s unlikely to accept. On the off chance he does, it’s great for them, but they appear comfortable letting him walk the way they did with Terrelle Pryor and several other free agents.

Dec 24, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell (34) during the first half at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 24, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell (34) during the first half at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

Crowell was effusive with praise for head coach Hue Jackson, who he at seems to believe in his corner. He also lit up with a smile when asked about Christian Kirksey’s contract extension, appearing genuinely happy about that news. (This shouldn’t come as a surprise as with rare exception, players are genuinely happy when other players get paid. They don’t care about the salary cap, which doesn’t even apply in this case, and would rather players get the money than have owners keep it.)

But when Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal asked Crowell why he would want to stay in Cleveland, he was almost resigned in his answer at first. Crowell said:

"“Uh, I mean, I’m comfortable here. I like my teammates, the coaches, just the atmosphere, everything, you know, about being in Cleveland. This is going on my fourth year now. I’m comfortable. And it’s really just my teammates, just being around my everybody up here, you know, I enjoy it.”"

It reads better than it sounds, and it doesn’t read great. No one is going to suggest that Crowell is a orator, but all of this was pretty indicative. This isn’t because Crowell doesn’t like Cleveland or doesn’t want to be in Cleveland. It just sounds like a player who largely knows his fate with the Browns. He could have a great year and the likelihood is that he will leave as a free agent for bigger money elsewhere. That can be extremely frustrating for a player, because he still has to go through this entire season with a team he doesn’t believe he will play for in a year.

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While he doesn’t sound thrilled with his situation, Crowell is going to run hard this year and is going to do everything he possibly can to have a career year. Whatever frustrations he has off the field, he knows he has to deliver on the field to cash in on this contract year. In the three years Crowell has been in the league, he’s earned $1.54 million, so after this year, he’ll have earned around $4.3 million in his career (per Spotrac).

Crowell is only 24 years old, but as a running back, he knows he has to strike while the iron is hot because that position has such a notoriously short shelf life. This is his opportunity to make a big splash and get the life-changing contract he’s been waiting for his entire life, so it’s not difficult to understand why he’s both impatient and frustrated with his contract. He can’t let those things get in the way from him having an outstanding year and may be able to use it as motivation.

It’s possible that the Browns could decide to keep Crowell after a monster season, potentially using the transition tag to ensure they keep him, rewarding him with the contract he wants. More likely however, the Browns will rely on the substantial investment they’ve made in the offensive line with their salary cap and opt to save at the running back position, opting to draft assets and rookie contracts to get impact from the running back position. They are likely to let Crowell go ahead and walk and draft his replacement in 2018.

The Browns know it. Isaiah Crowell appears to know it. The 2017 season amounts to an uneasy truce between the two sides. Crowell is going to try for the best season of his career, not only for himself and his family, but for his teammates and a coaching staff that believe in him.

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The Browns, meanwhile, are hoping they can get one more good year out of Crowell at a bare bones cost before he leaves in free agency and they search for a replacement. Such is business in the NFL, which is why in a sport where players give up their bodies and all too often their minds, it’s easy to sympathize and root for Crowell to get his payday, regardless who gives it to him.