Stump Mitchell began to feel the disappointment a few games before the final week of the season last year.
His top focus, of course, as the Browns running backs coach was on helping Cleveland win games with a talented group of running backs. The Browns had one of the best running backs rooms in the NFL last season with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who both could be considered top five running backs in the league.
Mitchell was also trying to help Chubb win a rushing title for his second NFL season. He finished 47 yards short of the record to Derrick Henry despite leading by 124 yards in Week 17.
But Mitchell believed Chubb had missed some big yardage opportunities in previous games. If Chubb had hit a few of the open holes he saw on tape, the rushing title wouldn't have been close.
"I was disappointed in games before that last game because there was an opportunity for us to have done better, and we missed a couple of cuts," Mitchell said Thursday in a video call with local reporters. "We have been working on a little more patience. It's a team game, and unfortunately, we didn't win enough games for Cleveland Brown fans, so we didn't deserve to please ourselves either."
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This season, Mitchell believes the Browns running backs could be in more favorable position for success. Sure, Chubb's 2019 season was memorable, but now the Browns will have Hunt — who won the rushing title in 2017 — for a full 16 games. With a revamped offensive line and a new run-first offensive playbook, Mitchell's men could become one of the top position groups in the league.
Mitchell knows how a powerful running back is built. Since his first season as a running backs coach in the NFL since 1999, Mitchell has worked with 1,000-yard rushers in Ricky Watters, Shaun Alexander, Clinton Portis, David Johnson and Chubb.
He also knows what a running back needs in preparation to have a monster season. Last season, the Browns' offensive line was in constant flux in training camp when starting battles occurred at three positions. Running backs need chemistry with linemen similar to how a quarterback needs chemistry with receivers — each lineman has tendencies and weaknesses, and a running back can help lessen those by avoiding certain gaps and making correct reads.
This season, the Browns have positional battles at just one position up front: right guard. Wyatt Teller has taken all first-team reps at the position so far, though, and has looked strong.
All other positions have clear, capable starters.
"It is great for us to have the offensive line hopefully fixed," Mitchell said. "These runners need to understand the strengths and maybe slight weaknesses of an offensive lineman so they can make things happen."
That process had a late start after the COVID-19 pandemic shortened the amount of time players will have on the field together. Chubb has also been sidelined since Monday after he left practice early with a trainer and was placed into concussion protocol. The Browns, however, have the luxury of two top-tier running backs, so Chubb's temporary absence will only create more reps for Hunt, who had 464 total yards and three touchdowns last season.
Hunt, who didn't play last season until Week 10, missed the majority of training camp last season due to a hernia injury. He's taking the extra carries with the first-team offense with Chubb sidelined and has hit open holes with an even quicker burst now that he's 100 percent.
"He's had a great offseason," Mitchell said. "He's fully healthy and he knows that at one point in time, he led the league in rushing just a couple years ago, so he is hoping to have the opportunity to showcase what he can do again."
The Browns' running back personnel is nearly identical to last season, but the landscape for Chubb and Hunt appears to be much better. With two healthy, proven running backs, Mitchell is hopeful that less holes will be missed, more yards will be gained and the league's rushing leaderboard can be taken up by not one, but two Browns players.
"These guys, they are not happy with any mistakes that they make," Mitchell said. "They are always trying to improve. We are just going to be happy when those guys do get an opportunity to play, and hopefully, we will showcase what we can do."