Cleveland Plain Dealer
For four years, John Greco waited for an opportunity to be an instrumental member of the “orchestra.”
That’s what the Browns guard calls an NFL offensive line, a unit that doesn’t include situational players or require frequent personnel changes.
It’s all about developing a chemistry and rhythm, about knowing where the lineman next to you is going to place his foot in a certain blocking scheme. It’s five men working in concert to repel waves of pass rushers and create holes on running plays. There are no third-down specialists in his profession.
“That’s the way I prefer it,” the Boardman High graduate said of five players taking almost all the snaps. “And I think if you asked any offensive lineman he’d say the same thing.”
Greco finally earned consistent playing time last season after Jason Pinkston was lost for the year to a blood clot in his lung on Oct. 21. The Boardman native performed admirably in his 11 starts at left guard, drawing praise from coaches and critical acclaim for his run blocking from ProFootballFocus.com.
But Pinkston is healthy again and the 28-year-old Greco finds himself having to compete for a starter’s spot under a new coaching staff. The fight for the two guard jobs will produce the best position battles on offense heading into training camp, which opens July 25. Greco, Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao rotated with the first-string offense throughout spring practices that concluded last week.
Coach Rob Chudzinksi loves the competition, which could include seventh-round draft pick Garrett Gilkey and, once healthy, undrafted free agent Chris Faulk (knee).
“He’s [Greco] been really good, very solid — smart guy,” Chudzinski said. “It’s tough out here when you don’t have the pads on. But he’s picked things up well and he’s done a nice job.”
As his coach alluded, Greco will have to win a spot during training camp and in the exhibition games, where the hitting is live and linemen and linebackers often separate themselves. He puts little stock into spring football depth charts or past reviews.
“I don’t think you can look at it,” Greco said of the coaches’ tinkering in minicamps and organized team activities. “You start doing that and you dig a hole for yourself. You start thinking, ‘Why is this guy taking this rep and that rep?’ You just trust that by Week 1 they have the right two guys.”
Last year was a productive and “bittersweet” one for a guard who had never played more than 289 snaps in any of his first four seasons with the St. Louis Rams and Browns. Pinkston is not only a teammate but a friend, someone who feared his career might be over when he learned of the blood clot.
While Greco is thrilled about Pinkston’s return, he wants to maintain his starting job. He plans to spend the next few weeks helping his fiance arrange their spring 2014 wedding plans. Once training camp begins, however, talk of DJs, tuxedos and honeymoon locations will be the furthest thing from his mind.
“I’m going to have to earn a spot again,” Greco said. “We’re happy to have [Pinkston] back, he’s a really good player. It will be good competition for everyone.”
The offensive line is one of the team’s few strengths, anchored by left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack. None of the guards are as athletic as former Brown Eric Steinbach, but they are stout at the point of attack.
Football Outsiders ranked the Browns 12th best in pass protection and 20th in run blocking last season, while Pro Football Focus rated them fifth in pass protection and 14th in run blocking. Offensive line coach George Warhop was one of the few assistants from last year’s team retained by Chudzinksi.
“We look at ourselves as leaders, maybe not vocally but we try to do it by example,” Greco said of the offensive linemen. “We’ve got a smart crew, starting with Alex Mack, and a lot of talent and veteran talent.”
Greco wants to become more proficient at finishing blocks and giving the second effort that helps turn a 4-yard run into a long gainer.
“I have been looking back and finding things I can correct, little things that if I had done better might have changed the play,” Greco said. “It’s a new year and I’m back to square one trying to help this team win.”