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With emerging stars at the running back position, the Texans and Browns both appear to have figured things out when it comes to their respective rushing attacks. An undrafted find for the Texans, Arian Foster burst onto the scene last season with an NFL-best 1,616 rushing yards. Meanwhile, Peyton Hillis, considered to be a throw-in as part of the Brady Quinn trade, had a breakout campaign that was so successful it landed him on the cover of "Madden NFL 12."
Their seasons solidified them as clear-cut No. 1 backs and made both Foster and Hillis key cogs for the future of their respective franchises.
But it wasn't supposed to be that way.
Looking for answers
Following the 2009 season, both organizations had questions to answer regarding their running games.
Houston had finished 30th in the NFL in rushing, thanks in large part to the unexpected struggles of second-year RB Steve Slaton, who had had an extremely productive rookie season.
The Browns had a surprisingly successful season on the ground, ranking eighth in the league in '09, but proceeded to trade away their leading rusher, Jerome Harrison, and released his two primary backups, Jamal Lewis and Chris Jennings.
With uncertainty surrounding both teams, the two organizations addressed their issues in a similar manner.
With the 26th pick in the second round of the '10 draft (58th overall) the Texans selected Auburn RB Ben Tate. One pick later, the Browns took another SEC back, Tennessee's Montario Hardesty.
Those were the two players expected to take the RB reins. And last summer, it appeared as if they would do exactly that.
"I was performing well throughout camps," said Hardesty, whose main competition for the starting job, Hillis, had compiled just 397 rushing yards his first two seasons in the league. "I was getting reps with the first team. I'm not sure how it was going to pan out for the season, but in my mind I was preparing to play and contribute to the team."
The same was true for Tate.
As an undrafted free agent, Foster had rushed for 257 yards late in his rookie season. However, there was an open competition for the starting job, and Tate was very much in the mix.
Hitting a hurdle
Hardesty and Tate had impressed during the offseason and finally had the chance to show what they were capable of when the preseason rolled around.
Tate's opportunity came first.
On his second rushing attempt of the Texans' preseason contest against the Cardinals on Aug. 14, a 12-yard gain in the third quarter, Tate gave fans a glimpse of what the buzz around the rookie back was all about.
"I just remember seeing a small seam and hitting it pretty hard, breaking through, and getting all the way up into the secondary," Tate recalled. "In my mind, I'm thinking 'make this one guy miss, get him to turn around, and I can pick up a good amount of yards here.' "
From there, all Tate can remember is a body crashing into the lower part of his leg. A few days later, his season officially came to an end, as a broken ankle led to Tate being placed on injured reserve.
Hardesty had missed the Browns' first three preseason games with a minor knee injury, but got the starting nod in the team's preseason finale against the Bears.
On his seventh carry of the game, Hardesty planted his foot in the ground to make a cut, turned to go upfield, and immediately felt pain in his left knee.
"In my head I was trying to hope for the best but I kind of knew it was something," Hardesty said. "I didn't know exactly what it was, but I knew it was something."
It turned out to be a torn ACL, which would keep Hardesty out of action for the entire season.
The two once-promising rookies, who had come so close to achieving their dreams of playing in the NFL, would now have to wait until next season to receive their first regular-season carries. Neither welcomed his unexpected time off with open arms.
"I'm just mad I can't be out there to play," Hardesty said in relating how he felt. "I'm used to, during that time of the year, playing football. I've been playing since I was seven or eight years old."
Both Hardesty and Tate agreed that watching from the sideline took some getting used to. It didn't help that Foster and Hillis were making national headlines on a weekly basis.
"It was just tough not being able to play, that was the toughest part," Tate said. "On top of that, to see the man that you were competing against go out and do well, that kind of worries you a little bit. But at the same time you still want to see guys, and you still want to see the team, do well. I'm glad that (Foster) had a great season."
Preparing for a second chance
As the regular season rolled through the postseason and then into the offseason, both Hardesty and Tate continued their rigorous rehab sessions.
It has been about 10 months since the injuries, and while neither player would say he is 100 percent healthy, both admitted to being anxious and ready to play.
But that part is out of their hands.
The owners' lockout has kept players from communicating with their coaches, which can be extremely frustrating for players who have something to prove.
Tate, who turns 23 in August, has his work cut out for him. The second-year back is not only stuck behind last year's rushing leader, Foster, but also has to compete with Derrick Ward and Steve Slaton.
He was medically cleared to return to football in February, but admits to dealing with some lingering issues.
"There's still little minor things," said Tate, who has been participating in player-organized workouts with his Texans teammates. "You still have to deal with little aches and pains and just being tight and things like that. But if we had OTAs, I would do every drill."
Hardesty is back in Knoxville, where he is continuing rehab on his knee at the University of Tennessee in preparation for the upcoming season. He might not be facing as much competition for carries, but he has to deal with a new coaching staff in Cleveland.
Hardesty has not yet had the chance to show his coaches what he can do and hasn't been able to learn the new offense. For now, he is forced to lean on his teammates, whom he has been able to catch up with during the "Camp Colt" workouts organized by QB Colt McCoy.
"I've been going back and forth with Colt during the lockout trying to get some of the plays and terminology down," Hardesty said.
With no immediate end to the lockout in sight, all players can do is continue to work out and train for the upcoming season, whenever that might be.
"For me, I just prepare to play," said Hardesty, who turned 24 in February. "And if I'm ready to go out there and play and do my job, then I get an opportunity to do that."
But neither Tate nor Hardesty will be given carries without working for them. After missing an entire season, and watching their teammates flourish in their absence, they both will have to earn every snap they receive.
"I'm not really too worried about it just because I know what I can do," Tate said. "I know how hard I've been working. With time, they'll see. I think they started to see the preseason before I got hurt. But it will be figured out."
The Texans' crowded backfield will work itself out, as all position battles eventually do. The real question will be how far down the depth chart Tate — and in Cleveland, Hardesty — will slide with health factors already a becoming a concern this early in their careers.