By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor
The question hovered over the Browns throughout training camp and the preseason: When will Montario Hardesty show that he has fully recovered from the devastating knee injury that ended his rookie season before it ever began?
After all, Hardesty spent camp practices doing more watching than practicing. And he wasn’t inserted into preseason games so much as he was eased into them.
As far as so many of us were concerned, the Browns’ rushing attack was exactly the same as it had been for most of last season: Big Peyton Hillis pounding between the tackles and tearing through defenders for long gains on the way to the cover of “Madden NFL 12.”
That was still the case through the first two weeks of this season. And that was why there was a clear sense of panic when it was learned, just before kickoff of Sunday’s game against the Dolphins, that Hillis had been sent home with strep throat.
The only one who wasn’t panicking? Hardesty. Although he began the day with only eight NFL carries, he was fully prepared to meet the challenge of filling the enormous hole that had suddenly been created in the Browns’ offense.
It would be a stretch to say that Hardesty made anyone forget about Hillis. But the more he touched the ball, the more comfortable he seemed handling the No. 1 role.
In the first half, Hardesty had only six attempts, but averaged an impressive 4.2 yards per carry. By the end of the game, he had more than doubled his total carries. And his yards-per-carry average grew to 4.8. Hardesty’s total yards were a modest 67, but they were good enough to allow the Browns to capitalize on numerous opportunities that their defense provided their offense to recover from a series of miscues.
At times, such as on a game-long, 19-yard run, Hardesty showed off the explosiveness and open-field speed that the Browns were looking to add when they drafted him last year. Before Hillis had the chance to grab the starting spot by the throat, Hardesty was supposed to be the dynamic playmaker that would eventually own the position. And once he had fully recovered from the knee injury, he was supposed to be the faster alternative to the outside, complementing Hillis’ powerful inside running.
But there were other occasions on Sunday when Hardesty displayed some of the power that defines Hillis’ game – times when he used second and third effort to get through traffic.
Hillis might not have anything to worry about when it comes to having a serious threat to his starting job. But when Hardesty was called upon to pick up some serious slack in the backfield, he responded quite well.
Well enough to provide a resoundingly positive answer to a question that has hovered over the Browns since the start of training camp.
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