ANDERSON, Ind. — Just a few weeks past his 23rd birthday, Trent Richardson already has faced a rare double whammy heading into his third NFL season.
First, he was called a bust after the Cleveland Browns, who traded up to the third pick in the 2012 NFL draft to get him, dealt him to the Indianapolis Colts after only 17 games. Then Colts fans, angry that their team traded a first-rounder to land Richardson, had their "bust" turn with him after he averaged a paltry 2.9 yards a carry last season.
There is one big difference with Richardson this season: He's finally healthy, he says.
"I don’t want to be the story. But I am a man, and I have faced up to [the bust talk]," Richardson told Shutdown Corner Tuesday morning prior to practice. "I went through the whole year … broken shoulder, didn’t complain. AC joint was torn, I didn’t have anything to say. I just fought through everything.
"I know there are going to be ups and downs, but I am just trying to make it mostly ups. I am going to do anything I can to make this team better."
The Colts have every intention of letting him, too. Although Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw both will get their chances this season to be the team's three-down backs, Richardson hasn't shied away from making statistical predictions this season and vowed to win over every last doubter.
"It doesn’t get to me. A year ago, they were ready to love me. And this year, they are going to love me — I guarantee it," Richardson said. "From where I was even a few months ago to now, there’s no turning back."
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Injuries have been the story of his brief career. He underwent two knee surgeries prior to entering the NFL, then played through broken ribs as a rookie with the Browns. Following the shoulder and AC joint injuries last year, Richardson had to overcome a hamstring problem early in camp before he arrived to where he is now.
And it was that hamstring injury that brought out one of Richardson's biggest supporters with the team. Colts owner Jim Irsay might be mostly staying out of the public light since his DUI arrest and since handing out $100 bills on the first day of Colts training camp, but behind the scenes he has been close to the team. Richardson said he considers Irsay far more than just the man signing the paychecks.
"When I see him," Richardson said, "he always says to me, ‘We’re behind you 100 percent.’ Even when I had [the hamstring injury], which was minor, he said, ‘Don’t worry about the naysayers. We’re behind you all the way. You’re our guy.’ He told me he’s happy with me and likes what he’s seen. He said he can’t wait to see me out there at 100 percent, it’s what he’s always told me."
If there are two Colts who can relate to each other, both facing public scorn, unlikely pair or not, it might as well be Irsay and Richardson.
"I’ve never seen or heard of an owner as good to his players as him. I love him," Richardson said. "He treats us like we're all his kids. Not too many owners who get their guys an Xbox for Christmas.
"Jim Irsay has been my biggest supporter since I got here. He's got my back, I've definitely got his. And I am proud to be a Colt."
The narrative of Richardson being overwhelmed following the Week 3 trade isn't just talk. Richardson really was a stranger in a strange land and had to play catch-up almost every day thereafter just to figure out what he needed to do. But Andrew Luck said he was impressed how Richardson handled the situation, even if it didn't translate to banner rushing totals.
"Really tough coming in here midseason," Luck said. "I think it was Thursday [when Richardson arrived], we were doing third-down prep for the San Francisco 49ers, and you’re expected to contribute like that ...
"So I think he has a much better mastery of this offense."
Richardson agrees. It's not that the playbook, route depths and terminology were vastly different from the Browns' offense to the Colts' playbook. It was that the term for one thing in Cleveland meant something completely different in Indianapolis.
"We’d run a square out, we called that a 'wild route' in Cleveland. We’d run a 'wild route' here, and it’s something different," he said. "A lot of people didn’t realize I was learning my third different playbook in 18 months. Four if you go back to college."
Backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck encountered a similar situation with the Seattle Seahawks when they acquired Marshawn Lynch early in the 2010 season. Lynch's yards per carry dropped by nearly a yard after the trade, only five of his 165 carries went for more than 20 yards and he lost three fumbles. Hasselbeck said people forget just how bad the Seahawks were at running the ball that season.
"His numbers we're great, and we were the 31st rushing team in the NFL," Hasselbeck said. "We struggled to win the division, won a playoff game, but running the ball just wasn't working. It wasn't that Marshawn wasn't a good runner. It wasn't that the linemen weren't good linemen. It's important to jell and practice and come together — you can't overlook that stuff.
"I am not at all surprised that last year wasn't as fantasy-football-friendly [for Richardson] as people expected it to be."
Did Richardson ever think about what might have been had his trade happened, say, two months earlier?
"I have thought about it a lot," Richardson said. "It would have made a big difference. I would have known what was going on. I would have known the timing of the linemen, all the calls Andrew makes at the line of scrimmage, the different calls the linemen make, all the different reads we have …"
None of those things appeared to hold Richardson back in Monday's practice, when he put forth a solid outing. After dropping two passes in individual work, Richardson picked it up in the group phase. He looked strong in red-zone work the Colts focused on that day, with one particularly impressive touchdown run on a delay.
After practice, Richardson continued to work on his hands, catching a series of passes with his teammates in front of him to ramp up the degree of difficulty. They also waved their hands at him while he tried to catch the ball. Out of 20 passes in that session, Richardson dropped only one. He also has changed up his weight routine slightly and said he's noticed the results when it comes to staying limber throughout the course of a long practice.
Luck has noticed the improvement and likes what he sees, predicting big things ahead.
"He runs the heck out of the ball, he’s great getting out on routes and catching it, so he’s going to have a great, great year," Luck said.
Patience, Richardson said, is one of his best virtues. But he lost it last season when he tried to press as the holes seemed to close quicker than before and the offense wasn't fully embossed into his head yet. Richardson thought back to his days at Alabama, where he had to wait behind Mark Ingram to get his chance, and Eddie Lacy had to wait behind Richardson.
"There were times at Alabama where I would have to take a back seat to those guys," he said. "It made me learn a lot — that I am not always going to be that guy. Sometimes I might be that guy. That was something I had to learn."
Richardson knows that his patience might have to extend when it comes to the Colts' offense, too. With Luck and the passing game expected to be featured more this season as offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton loosens the reins a bit, there will be games where Richardson might be called on more for the dirty work and less for the glorious rushing numbers.
"I know a lot of folks might be talking about last year," Richardson said. "But a lot of folks don’t realize, they were sticking with this running game and then there were nine of 10 in the box. When you’ve got a guy like Andrew Luck out there, that’s stealing. I feel like I am doing my job sticking my nose up in there if Andrew Luck can have a great day."
In 541 NFL touches, 455 of them runs, Richardson has only 11 plays of 20 yards or longer. Eight of those 20-yard plays were receptions. His longest play from scrimmage was a 32-yard touchdown as a rookie. Richardson is not going to transform into a home-run hitter overnight.
He knows that. But he also knows that there is so much more to accomplish, so many minds to change.
"I can handle the load here, and I can handle whatever adversity there is along the way," Richardson said. "I always thought of myself as a workhorse, and a workhorse is going to hit a few bumps on the road. But that's what I plan to do, roll right through them."
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