November 27, 2022

Nick Chubb Rushes for 1,000 Yards (Kind of) in Dazzling Debut Season

In early January 2018, Nick Chubb prepared for the biggest football game of his life to date. Chubb and the University of Georgia Bulldogs were a week away from playing the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, in which Chubb, a senior running back on the team, would suit up for the Bulldogs for the last time. Over the course of his four years spent in Athens, Chubb wreaked havoc upon the SEC, compiling a total of 4,769 rushing yards and 44 touchdowns on the ground, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. He registered those numbers despite missing seven games at the end of the 2015 season due to a knee injury in a game at Tennessee on October 10 as well as splitting carries with fellow eventual NFL star running back Sony Michel over all four seasons.

The Bulldogs made it into the 2017 College Football Playoff as the number-three seed after beating #2 Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, and in the Semifinal Round of the Playoff, against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, Georgia ran the ball extremely well. Not only did Nick Chubb rush for 145 yards and two touchdowns in UGA’s thrilling double-overtime victory over the Sooners, led by his soon-to-be teammate Baker Mayfield, but his compatriot in the Bulldog backfield, Sony Michel, had 181 yards rushing and three touchdowns as well.

RB Nick Chubb in college

But the good fortune that had propelled Georgia past Oklahoma and into the National Championship Game would not last. Georgia had its SEC foe Alabama reeling in the first half of the contest, taking an early lead and causing UA Head Coach Nick Saban to switch out veteran quarterback Jalen Hurts for inexperienced freshman Tua Tagovailoa. The change seemed to light a fire underneath the Crimson Tide football team, and in the second half, Alabama came roaring back to tie the game at 20-20. A missed potential game-winning field goal by Alabama kicker Andy Pappanastos sent the game to overtime, where the Crimson Tide won it on a 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith. Nick Chubb played well below his season average, registering a meager 25 yards rushing on 18 attempts. Sony Michel fared somewhat better, picking up 98 yards on 14 carries, but neither Georgia senior running back scored a touchdown in the game and the pair ended their college careers with a bitter defeat.

After the Alabama loss, Chubb and Michel began focusing on the upcoming NFL Draft, where both players were expected to be selected relatively high. At the time, Nate Davis of USA TODAY Sports published an article entitled “NFL draft 2018 running back rankings: Where does Georgia duo come in behind Saquon Barkley?” in which he ranked Michel as the second-best running back prospect in the draft behind Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and Chubb at number four, coming in behind #3 Derrius Guice of LSU. Although the NFL of today places less and less emphasis on the running position as compared to years past, the potential existed for multiple backs to be taken in the first round. It simply came down to which teams possessed a need for a running back, when they would be drafting, and who would still be on the board at the time.

One of those teams browsing running backs was the Cleveland Browns, under the direction of new General Manager, John Dorsey. On the surface, it appeared the Browns weren’t going to have to worry about the running back position in the 2018 draft. In addition to Duke Johnson Jr., the fourth-year man out of Miami who’d already been with the organization since 2015, heading into the draft, Cleveland’s roster also listed a new name under the “RB” category: Carlos Hyde. Dorsey had signed Hyde, the Ohio native and product of THE Ohio State University, to a three-year deal with the Browns back in March, luring him away from San Francisco, where he’d put up decent statistics for several years. All signs pointed to Cleveland using their many draft picks to fill more pressing holes at positions other than running back.

But the Browns front office had other plans. Three running backs were taken in the first round of the draft, none of whom were Nick Chubb. Sony Michel, Chubb’s teammate from Georgia, went to the Patriots at #31 and went on to have a great year for New England, rushing for 931 yards in 13 games and becoming a vital cog in the Patriots offense. However, although the Browns passed on Chubb in the first round, with the third pick in the second round (35th overall), Cleveland selected Chubb. Along with Johnson and Hyde, Chubb would become the third piece to the Browns running back trio. Unlike some other situations on some other teams, wherein three backs sharing carries could never work, the Browns rolled into the regular season with the philosophy that everyone would receive touches. Each man had his own strengths–Hyde had had the most success in the NFL, Chubb played tremendously well in college and Johnson was the most familiar with the Cleveland organization and the AFC North. It would be difficult, but with a little determination, under Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley and Running Backs Coach Freddie Kitchens, the Browns could make this work.

Through the first six games of the season, though, the balance between the three running backs was out of whack. Duke Johnson only averaged about three rushing attempts per game, although that could be overlooked with consideration given to his status as more of receiving back. Carlos Hyde was the main running back through the Chargers game, eclipsing 20 carries in three different games and scoring five touchdowns on the ground. The rookie Chubb, on the other hand, barely saw the playing field. He only ran the ball 2.67 times per game on average, and aside from the game against Oakland, in which he scored on a 63-yard run as well as a 41-yard run, Chubb’s first six games in the NFL had been largely uneventful.

Then on October 19, something happened that would exponentially change Nick Chubb’s fortunes in Cleveland: two days prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Browns traded Carlos Hyde to the Jacksonville Jaguars. In so doing, Cleveland gave Chubb, its young, developing back, an opportunity to receive increased playing time and touches. This also allowed Chubb more breathing room to learn and grow, without having to worry about one extra guy vying for the same game minutes. In Week 7 at Tampa Bay and Week 8 at Pittsburgh, Chubb’s carries ballooned up to 18 per game, even starting the game against the Buccaneers.

All was not well in Cleveland, though. The Browns lost both of those games, putting the team’s record at 2-5-1 entering the halfway point of the season. With turmoil brewing in the locker room and fans calling for Head Coach Hue Jackson’s head, the day after losing to the Steelers, both Hue Jackson and Todd Haley were fired. Jackson’s final record as the Browns head coach, after two-and-a-half years on the job: 3-36-1. 

The second half of the 2018 campaign would be one of research and experimentation for the Browns. Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams became the interim head coach and Running Backs Coach Freddie Kitchens was elevated to the position of offensive coordinator. Depending on how well they performed in those roles, both coaches could possibly receive interviews following the season to stay with the team in either same capacity or a different one. October 29 was a turning point for the Browns as both a football team and an organization, a line of demarcation separating the Hue Jackson era from a new era of intrigue and unknowns.

Under new OC Freddie Kitchens, Nick Chubb was given the full opportunity to thrive and realize his potential in Cleveland. Chubb would end up starting the final eight games of the regular season for the Browns, rushing for 176 yards in the win over the Falcons then following that up with a Cincinnati game the next week in which he carried the ball a season-high 28 times. In those last eight games, Chubb tallied 100 yards on the ground on three separate occasions. He even began to be targeted through the air, snagging two touchdown passes and coming in with 30-plus receiving yards over the course of three straight weeks. At the end of the final match of the season, on the road against the Ravens, Chubb eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing on the year. 

Nick Chubb vs. Falcons

And although he would lose that distinction on a subsequent play, ending the season with a total of 996 yards on the ground, Chubb’s presence in the Browns lineup had definitely been felt. Cleveland went 5-3 with Williams manning the helm, going 7-8-1 on the season overall and coming close to a playoff berth. Now, on January 1, 2019, as Gregg Williams prepares for his job interview for the permanent head coaching job in Cleveland, Nick Chubb should be pleased with himself and his play in 2018. As was the case with many players on the Browns roster, Chubb’s statistics on the year are really a tale of two halves. Early on, when he was having trouble breaking into games, Chubb’s numbers probably left him somewhat disappointed. But once Hyde, Jackson and Haley were removed from the Browns locker room, Chubb found himself with a clear path to improvement in the second half of the season. 

Going into the final Ravens game, GM John Dorsey sat down with Nathan Zegura and called Nick Chubb “the consummate professional,” that he “goes about his craft in a worklike manner,” “plays the game with passion,” and is “competitive.” Dorsey added that “he is one of those teammates that are very special in his approach to the game of football and all of us are very excited to have him on this team.”

That is a sentiment Browns fans can wholeheartedly agree with.

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