Why Is Isaiah Crowell Still Dominating Touches in the Cleveland Browns' Backfield?

Isaiah Crowell has been one of the league's most inefficient running backs, while Duke Johnson has been the complete opposite. Head coach Hue Jackson doesn't yet seem convinced to change anything on offense, though.

NFL coaches are a notoriously stubborn group. They don't put in 100-hour weeks and game plan year round just to toss out the script after a few games. They instead like to focus on the process and keep faith that all their best-laid strategies won't go to waste.

There's sticking to the script, but then there's committing career kamikaze by continuing to trot out one of the least effective running backs in football. That's what Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson has been doing with Isaiah Crowell. He's managed to coach his way to the top of the most recent hot seat rankings, all while one of the most efficient running backs in the league goes mostly unused.

Just how bad has Crowell been? And why is Jackson hanging on to the hope that he turn things around?

Examining Expectations

Coming off a career season where he put up 1,271 total yards on offense, it wasn't outrageous to expect Crowell to turn a heavy workload into a whole lot of fantasy points in 2017. Drafters likely had dreams of him emerging as a fantasy force when they were picking him in the third round of standard 12-team leagues, and why not? The fourth-year man who suited up for the Alabama State Hornets in college had improved his yardage totals in each of his first three seasons. The stage was set for another jump forward.

But now that the season is underway, Crowell looks like a shell of his former self.

He averaged 4.8 yards per carry while leading the Browns in rushing last season, but that number has dropped to just 3.1 yards per carry so far in 2017. He's also posted a paltry 194 rushing yards through five games, which is an average of only 38.8 yards per contest. He's currently the RB41 this year despite being fresh off an overall RB17 finish in PPR scoring.

The raw numbers are bad, and his efficiency numbers reflect that -- Crowell has been one of the least effective backs in football on a per-play basis when using Net Expected Points (NEP) as the measure. NEP is our in-house metric that measures the value added or lost on each play relative to the historical expectation level.

Among 43 running backs with at least 30 carries this season, Crowell's -0.19 Rushing NEP per carry is the sixth-worst mark. If we increase the carry threshold to 50, he's only better than Jonathan Stewart.

Player Rushes Rushing NEP Rushing NEP per Play
Paul Perkins 32 -9.24 -0.29
D'Onta Foreman 38 -10.36 -0.27
Samaje Perine 46 -9.48 -0.21
Chris Johnson 45 -8.87 -0.20
Jonathan Stewart 77 -14.93 -0.19
Isaiah Crowell 62 -11.75 -0.19
Mark Ingram 42 -7.65 -0.18

Still, Jackson continues to give Crowell the majority of Cleveland's carries out of the backfield. And as recently as last week, the head coach doubled down, saying that he still believes in his running back.

He backed up his words in Week 5 by feeding Crowell his most carries since the season opener, and the rusher repaid that faith by posting his best effort of the season on the ground -- a whopping 60 yards. In related news, the Browns are now 0-5.

Not Down With Duke

Meanwhile, one of the most efficient backs of 2017 is mostly going unused in the rushing game. It's a small sample size, but Duke Johnson has has the highest Rushing NEP per carry of any running back with at least 15 carries.

Player Rushes Rushing NEP Rushing NEP per Play
Duke Johnson 16 5.41 0.34
Chris Thompson 20 6.34 0.32
Aaron Jones 32 9.00 0.28
Kareem Hunt 97 17.21 0.18

That kind of elite efficiency likely wouldn't hold up under a heavier workload, but in Johnson's case, that doesn't appear to be much of a risk. Jackson and the Browns are giving no indication that they wish to increase his participation in the rushing game, as the number of carries he's seen each week has remained consistently low, topping out at six.

Runs like this one by Johnson on Sunday against the New York Jets, though not flashy, are putting the Browns in much better situations than Crowell has been able to do.

It makes sense that the Browns wouldn't want to overuse their change-of-pace back, but seeing him get held to so few carries on a weekly basis while Crowell flounders and the Browns rack up losses makes little sense.


It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.

Hue Jackson now sports a 1-20 record as the Browns head coach and seems to have little interest in attempting anything different at running back. Perhaps he knows something we don't, but on the surface, it appears insane to keep leaning on a player that is hurting your team's chances of winning -- especially when there's another one on the team that's doing the complete opposite.

We already know that Duke Johnson can be a playmaker -- in addition to his efficient work in the rushing game, he also leads all running backs in receiving yards. Going forward, it would make sense that he'd be more involved in Cleveland's offense, but based off the early-season trends thus far, it doesn't seem likely.