Before anyone could question or critique any facets of his team’s most recent victory, Cleveland Browns head coach Pat Shurmur lobbed the criticism upon himself. Visibly upset, Shurmur stated that he was “pissed” at himself for not handing the ball to reserve running back Montario Hardesty. Given the frequency of scoring drives over the course of the last two seasons, picking nits seems superfluous. But when it came to the team’s second-half drive which tacked on seven additional points, Shurmur pulled no punches when it came to himself.
Hardesty had, once again, provided substantial relief for Trent Richardson, hitting holes that were barely existent, providing bursts and extending drives. Looking every bit like the player Tom Heckert thought he was acquiring when he traded back into the second round in 2010, Hardesty amassed a team-high rushing total in just 10 carries. But it was his play during the end of the third quarter which will be the talk of the town as the team heads into it’s home stretch.
With five minutes left in the third quarter, Hardesty took a ball for eight yards on a first-down carry. He tallied one more on second down. After quarterback Brandon Weeden would move the chains by finding tight end Ben Watson, it was all Hardesty from there, breaking off a 25-yard run which would ultimately set up a play where teammate Greg Little took a pitch to the one-yard line. From there, Hardesty was to punch it in.
Per the officials, he did not do so. Richardson would run on to the field, take the ball for a one-yard score. Jubilation ensued, but Hardesty was visibly upset and his head coach was even more so.
“There was nothing to it, it just happened,” Shurmur said of the quick substitution. “Montario, as you could see, earned the right to carry the football, which he did. He did a good job for us. I trust him in every situation. The people that write about him and follow him ought to be proud of his efforts this year. He’s done an outstanding job. ”
Perhaps it was the number change, maybe we can chalk it up to his weight loss. Has Jimmy Haslam III infused some life into his Tennessee back? Either way, after missing his first season with a knee injury, Hardesty has shown subtantial improvement in his game by averaging a career-high per-carry mark of 4.7 yards. Showing even more improvement are Hardesty’s numbers since the Browns’ bye week where he is averaging 6.1 yards per attempt, providing a change of pace that, despite the team using a third-overall pick on a running back in Richardson, has undoubtedly served to benefit the team with the Browns winning three of their four games since the bye.
It was not long ago where the Browns moved up to cement the running back position for the foreseeable future. They had Brandon Jackson on a two-year deal and Chris Ogbonnaya was turning heads in camp. Hardesty could not keep the ball in his hands and provided one of the worst pre-season rushing displays1 in recent history, leaving all of Cleveland wondering if, for all of the praise heaped upon general manager Tom Heckert, the former Volunteer was his big draft-day miss.
Fast forward to today and Hardesty has not only hung on to a roster spot, but has seemingly provided the lightning to Trent Richardson’s thunder. As pointed out last week, sitting the team’s (arguably) most-talented player for spurts of time is actually working to the Cleveland Browns’ benefit.
The bar could not have been set much lower, and the ship was all but leaving port, but Hardesty is slowly proving all of his doubters wrong. Certainly, he has not provided the career arc that many had anticipated in the summer of 2010, but even his biggest antagonists cannot say that Montario Hardesty has not helped his Cleveland Browns team win football games at this point in his career. Every player needs a role; the trick is finding the best fit. Which is why when he was pulled following what was ruled a fumble at the one-yard line, Hardesty pleaded with his coach to let him get the ball into the end zone. Unfortunately for Pat, the fast pace of an NFL game did not allow for a last-second substitution. Fortunately for Pat, his decision worked as the team found the end zone. Also fortunate for Pat: Hardesty held no grudges following the game.
“Its all good,” Hardesty said of the substitution. “I would have loved to have it, but either way we still got the “W” and that’s three in a row for our team. I’m ready to move on, enjoy this tonight, move on to the next game and go out and get another “W” at home.”
Incidentally, the growth seen by Hardesty over the course of the last several weeks almost mirrors that of his head coach. Progress is progress regardless of opponent, regardless of weather and regardless of ancillary circumstances. Like Hardesty, it was not all that long ago when the ink was drying with regard to Shurmur’s future in Cleveland, a certainty which has become considerably less certain since the calendar turned to November.
Following his session with the media, Shurmur went back into the Browns’ locker room and interrupted the scrum surrounding the locker of Hardesty, continuing to heap the praise in front of anyone who would listen. Shurmur jokingly called Greg Little, Josh Gordon and Josh Cribbs the “tackled on the one” crowd for their plays which ultimately put the Browns in scoring distance. Hardesty was left off of that list.
“This guy has been great,” Shumur said of his change-of-pace back, adding that the percevied fumble wasn’t even what had been ruled — the head coach felt that Hardesty extended the ball over the goal line and should have been credited with a touchdown on that first-down play.
With the Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers staring at the Browns as three teams who would love to knock the Browns off of their pillar of warm feelings, it will be Shumur who continues to be scrutinized. But as the head coach runs his own decision-making through the ringer, he’ll have Hardesty by his side as the two men try to get the Browns in the end zone a few more times. If it’s Montario who carries it across the goal line, all the better as the honor has undoubtedly been earned.