Cleveland Browns: Isaiah Crowell’s early struggles, getting past them

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 10: Running back Isaiah Crowell
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 10: Running back Isaiah Crowell /

Isaiah Crowell has gotten off to a rough start for the Cleveland Browns and the reasons for this are easy to see, but can be difficult to understand.

The Cleveland Browns are off to an 0-2 start and part of the problem is that Isaiah Crowell has not gotten off to the start that was expected. Some of that is due to the fact that Hue Jackson has not run the ball with him enough. Some of that is because Crowell’s not executing, but the reasons that might explain why can be a little complicated. In short, he’s got a lot on his mind and it’s causing him to press.

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This past season, Crowell totaled 1,271 yards and seven touchdowns. Under the tutelage of running backs coach Kirby Wilson, Crowell added a receiving element to his game that he didn’t have coming out of college. He’s currently working on adding pass protection, which is something the Browns had never trusted Crowell with in his first few years with the team. All of this serves to make Crowell feel like he’s a player on the rise and he warrants a contract that reflects it.

The problem for Crowell is that the Browns placed a second-round tender on him, limiting his ability to negotiate. Of course this is prudent by the Browns as a team, but incredibly frustrating for Crowell the individual. He and his agent had a number in mind, the Browns made their offer and never moved off of it, which wore on Crowell.

There’s likely an element where Crowell feels he was held back by the Browns. Not only did they not give him the contract he wants, he’s only making $2.746 million this season (the most he’s ever made) when he was hoping to be making a life-changing amount of money. That feeling was palpable when Crowell had his media availability after singing his tender. He was pissed.

Crowell also averaged 5.3 yards per touch in 2016. That’s excellent. And the only reason Crowell didn’t have more production is Hue Jackson and the Browns effectively shut down the running game last year. They can try to make the argument that they were protecting Crowell by not racking up carries on a bad team, which is all true. But for Crowell, who again, was hoping for a big payday, he may not see it that way. He may see it as them holding him back, so teams wouldn’t come after him with a bigger contract or at the very least forcing them to use a first round tender, which would’ve netted him another almost $1.2 million.

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And all of this is happening while so many other players are getting contracts. Joel Bitonio, Chris Kirksey, Jamie Collins, Kevin Zeitler, J.C. Tretter and Kenny Britt. And it’s not like Crowell is angry at these players for getting paid, but it’s completely normal to feel like he’s being left out, because he is. That can’t feel good.

Even after singing his tender and having expectations to be a franchise running back for the Browns, it’s not easy to simplify shut off that part of the brain. Part of Crowell has to be thinking that he’s now 24 years old, potentially always one carry away from having his career end, and now he’s not making he feels he earned. And that can carry over into the on field product.

Last year, Crowell was successful as a back because the Browns honed in on what he does best. He doesn’t have great vision, so the playcalling specified where the hole was, and he went to it looking to hit it or break through it as needed, then use his strength and agility to make opponents miss at the second and third level.

And certainly that had to be Crowell’s mindset once the contract was done, even if he wasn’t happy with it. Have a great year and get more money than he was asking for the previous year. Up through training camp and preseason, that’s what it looked like it could be.

Now, the regular season starts. Crowell wants to go out and make huge runs every play, be the bell cow of the offense and establish himself as an elite back in the NFL, earning the type of money that comes with it, be it in Cleveland or elsewhere. And like any other player out there, they want to be truly wanted, find a real home.

Obviously it’s also not just about Crowell the individual. Crowell wants to be a franchise back for his teammates. He wants to be the guy they can depend on to give the ball and produce. In a very real way, Crowell has grown up with a lot of this locker room in the NFL. If he feels like he’s letting them down, it just piles up the stress and frustration.

So, he goes out there and tries to be a hero. For his teammates, his family, the fanbase and himself. Crowell’s looking for the big play, every play and when he gets stopped for a loss or no gain, tries to create an even bigger play to fix it. Instead of being satisfied with the three yard run and coming back to fight another play until he eventually chips away and cracks a big one, he’s trying to break every play for 80 yards.

CLEVELAND, OH – SEPTEMBER 10: Isaiah Crowell #34 of the Cleveland Browns is tackled by Stephon Tuitt #91 of the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 10, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH – SEPTEMBER 10: Isaiah Crowell #34 of the Cleveland Browns is tackled by Stephon Tuitt #91 of the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 10, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

Now, Crowell isn’t attacking and slashing. He’s hesitating in the backfield, tip-toeing to the hole. As a result, holes he is supposed to hit are closing on him or he’s missing them entirely. So now, he’s not making the plays he was last year and he doesn’t look like the same back. Instead of not just hitting homeruns, he’s not making the basic plays he made last year.

This has to be incredibly daunting. Add in all of the rational off-field concerns and anger turns to worry. Worry that his career is flashing before his eyes, that he’s going to miss the opportunity to get paid, to take care of himself, his family, potentially change their lives and he’s going to be a broken down running back that has to find a real job. It’s an emotional roller coaster that creates a massive snowball effect.

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Instead of relaxing and just playing football the way he’s done for basically entire life, he’s pressing that much harder. This is the part where Hue Jackson isn’t doing him any favors. Because he’s so quick to give up on the run, it makes the carries Crowell does get that much more pressure packed, because Crowell doesn’t know which carry may be his last, so he’s always trying to break the big one.

Somehow, some way Crowell has to be able to break through that mental wall. He has to find a way to put all of those very real concerns he has in his life out of his mind and find a way to play fearless and just be the attacking back that made him successful. It’s easier said than done, obviously, but that’s the situation.

Jackson and the Browns can go a long way in helping the issue. Part of this is simply trying to coach Crowell through it and help his confidence. Go through the film from last year and contrast it to this year. Show him where the differences are and understanding why this is happening, why he needs to just attack and good things will follow.

The Browns, like many teams, have sports psychologists, which Crowell may also want to look into to help with the stress of the situation. They can make a massive difference to help Crowell work through this mental block, focus on the right things to help him be successful.

The final part of this is Jackson can commit to Crowell, the running game as a whole. In effect, go into week three against a vulnerable Indianapolis Colts team with a gameplan that includes giving Crowell 20 touches. Let him know that whatever happens, he’s going to keep getting the ball, so he maybe doesn’t feel the urge to press so much, can just relax, and execute his assignments. Let him work this thing out against an opponent that is conducive for it.

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Isaiah Crowell can be a 1,200-1,500 yard back this year even with only 70 rushing yards after his first two games, but he has to get out of mindset of looking at the whole season and simply break it down into one-game sections. It starts with the Colts and getting back to being himself, attacking and letting the big plays come naturally. If he can do that, Crowell and the Browns offense in general can rebound and get on a roll against a beatable section of their schedule and gain badly needed confidence and a sustainable offense. Crowell gets the contract he wants and the Browns have successful ground game at least for the rest of the season.