With all eyes on the Houston Texans this Sunday, it is hard to believe there is anyone on the first place Cleveland Browns who is unhappy with their role on this team. However, for former starting running back Ben Tate that isn’t the case—as one of the team’s supposed key free agent signings in the offseason voiced his displeasure with his diminishing role in the offense this week.
On Tuesday while meeting with the media, Tate was questioned about his role in the Browns backfield and whether it satisfied him. Tate stated, “I’d be lying if I said yeah. It’s not, but whatever the organization thinks is best for the team, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
The former Houston Texan was not speaking to be a distraction or cause any problems, but the fact that he signed a two-year deal to be the Browns starting running back just a few short months ago only to drop to 10 carries per game over his last two games clearly bothered him. Despite this fact, you have to give Tate credit. He could have gone full blown “give me the ball” mode, but he recognizes the team is winning and does not want to be a distraction—no matter how hard certain Cleveland media members picked and prodded him to get a reaction. He continued, “We’re winning. We’re 6-3 and in first place, that’s all that matters.”
Good for Tate.
No matter how much he probably wanted to pound the ground kicking and screaming about his role, he stayed focused and answered the questions presented to him in a professional manner. But all professionalism aside, what has happened to the player the Browns thought they were signing this offseason, who averaged 6.8 yards per carry against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener?
At 25-years old, Tate should not be wearing out the way he is. Coming into the season he had rushed the ball just 421 times for 1,992 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 4.7 yards per rush attempt and familiarity with the zone blocking scheme in Houston were two major reasons why the Browns felt comfortable with signing him.
Unfortunately there were some concerns, primarily when it came to his injury history, which is why the Browns added depth at the position in the draft. Those concerns became valid right away, as Tate suffered a knee injury in his first game with the team and would be forced to miss their next two contests. The injury didn’t seem to slow him though, as he came out with his only 100-yard rushing game as a Brown in his first game back against the Tennessee Titans, racking up 124 yards on 22 carries.
After the game against the Titans, Tate had a solid performance in his second outing against the Steelers, finishing with 78 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. From there though, it has all been downhill for Tate as the starting running back of the Cleveland Browns.
Since rushing 53 times for 243 yards and two touchdowns in his first two games with the team, Tate has carried the ball 51 times for 99 yards and two touchdowns. For those of you counting at home, that is a paltry 1.9 yards per carry over the course of the last four games. To make matters worse, those performances came against Jacksonville, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Cincinnati. Three of those four teams have a combined two wins on the season.
With 342 yards rushing on 104 attempts this season, Tate heads into a matchup with his old team with a rushing average of 3.3 yards per carry—which isn’t going to cut it if he hopes to stay in Cleveland. Thanks to the emergence of Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell—the two rookies brought in for depth—Tate is finding himself further and further down the depth chart with each slow moving carry out of the backfield.
Starting with West, the third-round draft pick out of Towson has rushed 107 times for 396 yards and three touchdowns on the season. After bursting onto the scene with 100 yards rushing on 16 carries in the season opener against the Steelers, West had Browns fans thinking the rookie was the next great back with a 68-yard, one touchdown performance in his very next game against the New Orleans Saints. He even added another touchdown on 12 carries against the Baltimore Ravens.
But then something odd happened, West disappeared from the roster against the Steelers.
Left inactive for undisclosed reasons, the rookie was thrown back down the depth chart—earning just 19 total carries against Tennessee, Jacksonville and Oakland. However, after rushing 15 times for 48 yards against Tampa Bay it was West, not Tate or Crowell, who was the feature back against Cincinnati. West once again flourished in this role, carrying the ball 26 times for 94 yards and a touchdown.
Heading into the Houston game, many expect West to dominate the carries—but then again, it could be Crowell’s turn to be the feature back.
The undrafted rookie has been the team’s most productive back in terms of yards per carry this season, rushing 64 times for 297 yards and five touchdowns with an average of 4.6 yards per carry. Even with these numbers, Crowell has fallen victim to this odd game of running back roulette going on in the Cleveland backfield himself—finding just seven carries against Jacksonville, one carry against Oakland and zero carries against Tampa Bay before being fed 12 for 41 yards and a touchdown against Cincinnati.
With West and Crowell trending upward and providing more burst and power, it would not surprise this writer one bit if Tate falls to the No. 3 running back on the depth chart following the Texans game. The tough aspect of this entire thing is whether the blame falls on Tate or somewhere else.
Cleveland’s offensive line in Tate’s first three rushing performances was solid. With Pro Bowl center Alex Mack quarterbacking the zone blocking scheme, Tate’s numbers looked No. 1 back worthy. But when Mack went down against the Steelers, the line suffered—and so did Tate and the rushing attack in a big way. What once was a Top 5 rushing attack, looked like one of the worst in the league for the next few weeks while the Browns figured out what they were going to do.
However, once the line started clicking again Tate did not bounce back—instead it was West who took the opportunity and ran with it, both figuratively and literally. And when a rookie back the team just traded up to land in the 2014 NFL Draft takes control, that does not bode well for the veteran who looks slow and beat up.
So what does this all mean for the future of Tate in Cleveland? As mentioned before, things do not look good.
Despite maintaining professionalism, Tate does not want to be part of a running back by committee approach. On the other hand, his two younger, more productive counterparts have embraced it. For a team that preaches unity and next man up, this also adds to the probability of Tate being the odd man out when the season is over.
Adding to that probability and nearly making it a certainty is the contract Tate signed in the offseason.
— Ben Tate (@BenTateRB) March 15, 2014
With the value of running backs reflecting the value on the position, Tate inked a two-year deal worth up to $7 million. The kicker in the deal? His base salary for 2014 is just $1 million—while he received a signing bonus of $1.5 million (over two seasons) and a roster bonus just shy of $700 thousand. At just $2.5 million guaranteed and a roster bonus already paid for 2014, the Browns could cut ties with Tate after the 2014 season and save just under $3 million dollars—and with two young backs proving to be much more effective thus far, it will likely happen.
None of this means Tate is a bad guy or a bust of a signing, it just means that in the NFL today the running back position isn’t what it once was. Unless you are willing to accept the fact that the days of 25-30 carries every week for one back are pretty much gone, you will fall out of favor with a coaching staff quickly. On top of that, if you openly comment on it when your coach is a “keep it in house” kind of guy, you immediately put your future into question.
Tate’s signing and first couple of games were exciting for Browns fans. He embraced the city and fan base in a way very few free agents ever have with social media interactions and meet ups for dinner. But at the end of the day the NFL is all about production and numbers.
When your age and salary numbers are higher than the two players out producing you, your days with a franchise are numbered. No matter how much of a class act you have been.