This past season, the Peyton Hillis was struck with the Madden Curse. He was featured on the cover of Madden 2012, and went down with an injury early in the year. His replacement, Montario Hardesty, came in for one game, carried the ball 33 times and left shortly thereafter with an injury. In week 8 against San Francisco, third-string running back Chris Ogbonnaya gets the call. He was the #1 running back for 5 games, but at the end of his stretch, he was so productive that he showed a lot of teams a thing or two about how to develop young talent at the running back position.
#1: If At First You Don't Succeed, Run the Ball
Each week Ogbonnaya started for the Browns, he received an increasing number of carries, until he ran the ball 21 times in week 11 against Jacksonville. He ran for 115 yards and a touchdown in a rare Cleveland win, 14-10. Against San Francisco and Houston, he struggled to run the ball, but he also received less than 15 carries each game. At first glance, Ogbonnaya never showed he had what it takes to be a running back in the NFL. Perhaps the increased practice reps and coaching instruction helped him along, or perhaps he simply needed that time on the field to figure out how his offensive line works and where to go. Either way, sticking with a guy who ran for 65 yards in his first two games paid off: he ran for 205 in his next two.
#2: If You've Got a Sure Thing, Stick With It
Peyton Hillis returned to action week 12 against Cincinatti. He ran for 65 yards. In fact, he would only eclipse the hundred yard rushing mark once, this against Baltimore in week 16. Though the home stretch of the season was tough for the Browns (Baltimore twice and Pittsburgh twice, with Arizona sandwiched in the middle), it is somewhat baffling to me to see the Browns depart from their strategy of patience with Ogbonnaya and go back to Hillis exclusively, rather than utilizing both running backs in an attempt to get the most production out of them. For Arizona, the team did stick with Beanie Wells, but it didn't show the level of commitment to LaRod Stevens-Howling that many fans expected, preferring instead to pass 40 or times a game and run only with Beanie. Given that LaRod was productive as a running back in week 17, I can't help but think of all the missed opportunities to shore up the running game and take pressure off a struggling John Skelton.
#3: Have a Contingency Plan
As I already mentioned, the Browns faced injuries to their top two running backs. Their third string option worked out. I can't say the same for the Cardinals. Their top two running backs were injured, but Alfonso Smith and Chester Taylor did not challenge anyone for the starting job. Smith received 17 carries in week 3 loss against Seattle, his longest run of that game being nine yards. The coaches might have seen all they wanted to see, because he never got that many carries again. Chester Taylor, at 32 years old, might not have been able to handle 20 or more carries a game. He received touches at various times throughout the year with varying levels of success. To put it another way: Arizona didn't have a viable plan going into the season to handle a lot of injuries at the running back position. The Browns were a bit more prepared, and as a result, they got more production from that position (as opposed to relying on a struggling Colt McCoy).
#4 Heroes Can Come From Unlikely Places
Ken Whisenhunt's team hasn't been afraid to give chances to players who haven't shown they can perform well on other teams (see Derek Anderson), but in 2011, the offense seemed to rely more on the people they already knew. In 2009, Chris Ogbonnaya was drafted in the 7th round by the St. Louis Rams. He began the 2011 season on the Houston Texans roster, but was relegated to the practice squad once Ben Tate and Arian Foster showed that they could produce effectively in a timeshare system. He was signed to the Cleveland Browns on October 17th, 2011. This signing was a total reach for the Browns, yet their scouts had apparently found a diamond in the rough. Perhaps a mid-season signing would not have been inappropriate from the Cardinals, rather than relying on Beanie to fight through an injury all year. The lesson for Arizona here: there are heroes out there, just waiting for their chance.
#5: If You Have A Good Offensive Line, Surprising Things Can Happen
Everyone who follows the Cleveland Browns knows how good Joe Thomas is. He's made the pro bowl every year he's been in the league (five times) and has proven to be worth it as a first round selection for the Browns. There was also a great deal of stability on the Browns offense line. Four players started sixteen games, another player- Tony Pashos- started twelve. While the Cardinals did have consistency on their offensive line this year, no one is going to mistake Levi Brown for Joe Thomas. All the Browns had to do was run to whatever side of the field Thomas was on, and good things would happen. An upgrade on the offensive line for Arizona would provide running backs a bit more opportunity to move into open space, which is essential for those players who aren't Adrian Peterson.
Bonus: A Video From Ogbonnaya's Days With the Rams
My interview with Chris Ogbonnaya (via LaurenAnnSwanson)