Harrison still working to gain respect from Browns
BEREA — So Jerome Harrison leads the Cleveland Browns to wins in their final four games last year, breaking rushing records held by the iconic Jim Brown while gaining 286 yards in one game.
And what does he get when he returns to preseason camp? He’s faced with doubts, cynics, questions and a battle for his starting job.
In the offseason, the Browns drafted a running back and also traded for one.
“I’m still not respected. That’s fine with me,” Harrison said in the August heat after one of the Browns’ first workouts. “You just have to prove it every year. Anybody can have one good game or two good games. The goal is to put them back-to-back-to-back and just keep having them.”
In just seven starts last season, the fifth-year back out of Washington State had 862 yards on 194 carries and scored five touchdowns. He was the No. 1 reason the Browns went from an offense that didn’t run for a touchdown until the 13th game to the NFL’s best rushing attack over the last four.
Harrison’s running mate at fullback, Lawrence Vickers, was asked what calls clicked during the final month.
“Everything,” he said with a laugh. “Everything they ran worked, for some reason. Maybe it was luck, maybe it was just us hitting our stride.”
After gaining only 9 yards in a 13-6 win over Pittsburgh on Dec. 10, Harrison piled up 286 yards (breaking Brown’s franchise mark by 49 yards) on 34 carries and scored on runs of 71, 8 and 28 yards in a 41-34 victory at Kansas City. A week later, he picked up 138 yards and a TD on a club-record 39 carries as the Browns beat Oakland 23-9. Then he closed out the season with 127 yards on 33 carries and another score in a 23-17 win over Jacksonville.
That gave Harrison 561 yards rushing over the last three games. The only NFL backs to gain more over a similar span are O.J. Simpson (twice), Walter Payton, Ricky Williams, Mike Anderson and Earl Campbell (twice).
Coach Eric Mangini, whose job was saved by the late rushing revival, described what the running game was like in the stretch run.
“It was like a flood,” he said, grinning. “That’s all it was. We needed to get that dam out of the way and then it flowed.”
Even though Harrison was the central figure in that flood, it didn’t earn him any pats on the back.
The Browns traded up to grab second-round draft pick Montario Hardesty out of Tennessee. Some have already pegged Hardesty as the guy who will start the opener on Sept. 12 at Tampa Bay, even though that prediction took a hit when Hardesty twisted his right knee two days before camp opened. Now he’s rehabbing the knee, which didn’t require surgery.
The club also traded with Denver to get big back Peyton Hillis, who has been one of the brightest spots during training camp. He figures to back up Vickers at fullback, see action as a receiver out of the backfield in passing situations, and to spell Harrison and Hardesty at running back.
“At this moment, they’ve pretty much had me do a little bit of everything,” the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Hillis said in his Arkansas drawl. “They’re trying to get me adjusted to a couple of positions on the team, to see where I fit in.”
Meanwhile, everyone wonders if Harrison, a 5-9, 205-pound Michigan native who seldom played much until his late heroics in 2009, can do it over the long haul.
“Quit writing it!” he yelled at reporters in jest, referring to questions about his durability. “No, I don’t get tired of hearing it. It’s because of my size. That’s just something people write about. I don’t know what the heck it means. When big running backs get hurt, it’s OK, it’s fine, but when a little running back gets hurt, he’s injury prone and this and that. You just laugh at stuff like that because it really doesn’t make any sense.”
Harrison, who got married this summer, teased and laughed with reporters. But it’s clear that he still chafes at all the doubts swirling around him.
“He does have a chip on his shoulder,” said Vickers. “This is a year where he’s coming in off an amazing last year. People want to see if he’s for real or not. And he’s for real.”
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