Is it possible Edwin Baker is the solution for a Browns running game that’s been a black hole all season?
Highly unlikely. But with only two games left in another season swirling down the drain, he deserves a chance. Even if he arrived a week ago off Houston’s practice squad without an NFL carry.
Baker took advantage of veteran Willis McGahee’s concussion and the season-long struggles at running back to see the field immediately. Then he seized the opportunity in his first NFL action.
He carried eight times for a team-high 38 yards, a 4.8 average that’s .9 more than the team average and a long of 15. He scored from 2 yards for Cleveland’s third rushing touchdown of the season.
He also displayed his versatility, catching four passes for 46 yards, including a long of 16.
The numbers are nice, but what caught my eye were his burst and decisiveness. He didn’t hesitate behind the line — an annoying habit of Trent Richardson — and hit the hole with authority.
“Ever since I started playing when I was 5 years old, my dad always told me to be decisive,” Baker said Monday.
“Don’t dance in the hole, get through the hole as fast as you can and be a good runner.”
His 22-year-old legs looked much fresher than those of McGahee, who’s 32 with multiple knee surgeries and 2,095 carries on his resume. Baker hasn’t taken the beating of Chris Ogbonnaya, who’s spent the season as fullback/tailback/third-down back/pass protector/special teamer. Baker also broke more tackles in a day than Fozzy Whittaker has all year.
“I’m definitely fresh,” Baker said. “But even if I played a whole season, I’d still be fresh. I take care of my body very well.”
Baker, at 5-foot-8, 200 pounds, is the latest undersized youngster to roll through Browns headquarters as they wait until free agency or, more likely, the draft to permanently fill the void left by the perfectly timed trade of Richardson. Baker followed Bobby Rainey, Dennis Johnson and Whittaker as the complement to McGahee and Ogbonnaya.
Rainey looks like the one that got away, as he has rushed for 460 yards, a 4.3 average and four touchdowns in seven games for Tampa Bay. But he was with the Browns for six games and did nothing to impress me, or the coaches, carrying 13 times for 34 yards.
Of course, McGahee hasn’t been much better — 377 yards, 2.7 per rush — and the Browns know he has no future. The running game has failed to gain traction all season, ranking 27th with 84.9 yards per game. The better alternative than short McGahee runs would’ve been a longer trial for one of the younger backs.
Rainey never got that chance, but Baker should. Even if he is a long shot to turn into more than a late-season curiosity.
McGahee told me Monday that he expects to play Sunday in New York after missing a week with a concussion. He’s had an admirable career, especially after the devastating knee injury in Miami’s national championship loss to Ohio State, but the Browns don’t need a veteran for the final two meaningless games.
If McGahee wants another couple of carries in the finale so his career doesn’t end with a concussion, then gladly give them to him. But the majority of rushes should go to Baker.
He’s familiar with coordinator Norv Turner’s system after San Diego, with Turner as coach, drafted him in the seventh round out of Michigan State in 2012. He looked comfortable with only a week of practice, and the allure of a fresh-faced back is that plenty of successful ones have come from humble beginnings — either overlooked in the draft or discarded by another team.
Baker appreciates the significance of the next two weeks.
“Tremendously important,” he said. “Every time you step on the field you’re putting your resume on tape. I just want to go out there and show what I can do and play hard and have fun.
“Continue letting the coaches know they can trust in me, and find a home.”
Baker isn’t the ideal size for an every-down back. But if he’s as fast as he says he is, he has a chance to be more than just a temporary diversion. He said he was clocked at 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash during his time at Michigan State.
He should get every chance in the next two weeks to show that speed and prove he belongs in the discussion when next season begins.
“I think he earned a lot of respect and earned my respect,” coach Rob Chudzinski said. “He made good on his opportunity.”
The Browns waived cornerback Chris Owens and receiver Armanti Edwards, who were on injured reserve. Offensive lineman Patrick Lewis was signed by the Jaguars to their active roster off Cleveland’s practice squad.