For decades, running back was regarded as one of the most important positions on the field. Titles, after all, came when you ran the ball and stopped the run. Somewhere around the turn of the century, this conventional wisdom was turned on its head. For every Marshall Faulk, there was some top-five rusher Mike Shanahan found in the sixth round. Save for the occasional Adrian Peterson, backs were suddenly replaceable.
This is where we find ourselves today. For the first time in history, no running backs were selected in the first round of last year’s draft. Even including Peterson, the average draft position of 2013’s top-five runners was No. 70. Since Peterson was the No. 7 overall selection in 2007, teams have used a grand total of three top-10 picks on running backs. That’s out of 60. There was Darren McFadden in 2008, C.J. Spiller in 2010 and Trent Richardson in 2012.
Only Richardson wasn’t just a top-10 pick. He was No. 3 overall. Exactly three running backs have gone in the top three since 2001. Ronnie Brown, Reggie Bush and T-Rich. The Browns wanted Richardson so badly, they traded up from No. 4 to get him, swapping first-round position with the Vikings while surrendering fourth-, fifth- and seventh-round picks. It was an against-the-grain gamble in a league where the next All-Pro back is just as likely to be found on the undrafted scrap heap as in the top 10 picks.
Richardson’s Rookie Year
In grain is where Richardson appeared to be running in 2012. Adrian Peterson set the single-game rushing record as a rookie. T-Rich? He set the single-season nicks-and-bruises record. A meaty — perhaps fatty — 5-foot-11, 236ish pounds, Richardson accrued nearly as many injuries as touchdowns, managing just 3.55 yards per carry before he was mercifully shut down for Week 17 with an ankle issue. His 702 snaps were ninth amongst running backs, but his 3.55 YPC was 40th.
It was a hugely disappointing season, but that’s all it was: One disappointing year. Richardson was hardly the first player to underwhelm as a rookie, and he wouldn’t be the last. This wasn’t a talent you give up on after only one season. Unless you’re the Browns.
What Went Wrong
Technically, the Browns didn’t give up on Richardson after only one year. It was one year and two games. But two games was all the new — and now former — regime needed to see out of Mike Holmgren’s franchise runner. Mike Lombardi and Joe Banner decided they’d rather watch Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell attempt a league-leading 681 passes than watch Richardson at all.
So off to the Colts he went for a first-rounder, making Richardson not only the rare running back selected within the first three picks, but the even rarer runner to be acquired for a first-round pick. Rarest of all is a back who’s been a first-rounder twice over. That’s what Richardson will officially become when the Browns cash in the Colts’ No. 26 pick in May. Compare that to the sixth-rounder the Redskins spent on Alfred Morris, or the pick the Texans didn’t use on undrafted free agent Arian Foster.
What did the Colts’ first-round investment turn into? Abraham Lincolns on the George Washington, and vindication for Banner and Lombardi. You already know the story. Richardson was arguably the worst running back in the league, averaging 2.91 yards per carry as a Colt. Only Bernard Pierce and Willis McGahee were worse. Pierce was a backup running behind perhaps the league’s worst run-blocking line. McGahee, a 32-year-old spare part who was signed off the street.
Richardson’s longest run of the season went for 22 yards. It was his lone carry to gain more than 20. Richardson averaged nearly half as many yards per carry as league-leader Andre Ellington. A sixth-round rookie, Ellington managed 5.53 yards every time he took the rock.
Richardson had 188 carries. 101 of them went for two or fewer yards. That’s 53.7 percent. 41 of Richardson’s rushes were stopped for a loss or no gain (21.8 percent). Richardson was 23rd in carries, 36th in yards. He scored three rushing touchdowns. Redskins FB Darrel Young scored three rushing touchdowns in one game.
In the postseason, the Colts “trusted” Richardson with four carries in two games. He responded with as many yards — one — as lost fumbles. They’re staggering numbers in a league where the average rush gained 4.16 yards in 2013. They’re even more staggering when you consider Richardson’s draft pedigree, and what the Colts surrendered to acquire him.
Richardson’s first three carries of the season went for nine, five and 10 yards. Those three totes would end up accounting for 6.04 percent of T-Rich’s rushing yardage. Only nine more times all year would he bust a run of at least nine yards.
On film, it was easy to see why. For starters, the Colts were not a good run-blocking team. Richardson’s interior linemen allowed penetration early and often. But you know who else wasn’t a good run-blocking team? The Seattle Seahawks. Ask Marshawn Lynch if you can still have success behind a bad line. It was Lynch who many — including this website — said Richardson needed to start emulating if he was to shake his slow start.
But it was not Lynch who Richardson channeled as the year wore on. It wasn’t even a football player that T-Rich most resembled. The No. 3 overall pick of the 2012 draft ran like a semi-truck, and not one that accelerated particularly quickly.
Richardson can still get a good head of steam once he’s warmed up. In the open field, he remains fast for his size, and extremely hard to take down. But he almost never made it into the open field. That’s because, like a semi, Richardson’s top half caught too much wind as he gained speed. His bottom half seemed weighed down by the top, making him as stiff and rigid as an 18-wheeler. A Toyota Camry can weave in and out of traffic with impunity. Semis like Richardson can’t move side-to-side without 3-4 seconds to gain speed and warn other drivers.
Richardson wasn’t just slow as he attempted to go from 0-60, but mind-bogglingly hesitant. There were times when Richardson would get the ball and literally stop moving. He ran like a player who didn’t think about where he might be going before the football was safely stuffed into his gut. By the time Richardson had decided on his next move, the defense was swarming like starved hyenas. Although the full stops were (relatively) rare, even rarer were the times where T-Rich saw the hole and hit the hole. Instead of using his force to impose his will, he chopped his steps as he pondered. Richardson seemed to put so much planning into every step that you could practically see the gears turning in his head. That might work when you have five All Americans clearing lanes for you at Alabama, but in the NFL it gets you hit before you can even cross the line of scrimmage.
Things were even worse when the Colts tried to bounce Richardson outside. Every single T-Rich outside run took the form of the same shape: A half circle. Richardson would get the ball at Point A, make a 180-degree loop and get tackled at Point B, which was always on the same beginning plane as Point A. He’d run five yards, but gain zero.
The few times T-Rich did find a hole or get around the edge? He’d flash his speed, but not his moves. That’s because it’s unclear if Richardson has any moves. Some runners spend all their time trying to shake and bake, often to their detriment. Richardson does no such thing, but it didn’t appear to be a conscious decision in 2013. It looked like the limitations of a man who may not be the athlete we thought he was. Richardson has enough bulk and speed that this wouldn’t necessarily be an issue if he could get beyond the first level of the defense at a league-average rate. But as we laid out above — 53.7 percent of Richardson’s runs went for two yards or fewer — he did not get beyond the first level of the defense at a league-average rate last season. Whether it was his blocking or his brain that was the culprit, T-Rich looked nothing like a franchise runner on film, but a fullback with long speed.
What Could Still Go Right
No player is a lost cause after just two seasons and 455 career carries. Richardson will still be only 23 years old in 2014. The recent NFL landscape has seen plenty of late-blooming runners. Lynch, Ryan Mathews, Cedric Benson, Fred Jackson, Knowshon Moreno.
The Colts also remain committed to their run-heavy scheme and its supposed No. 1 back. Coach Chuck Pagano wants OC Pep Hamilton to run the ball like he’s still at Stanford. With each of Donald Brown (free agent), Ahmad Bradshaw (neck, free agent) and Vick Ballard’s (knee) status still uncertain, T-Rich remains the best — and most expensive — bet the Colts have on their roster.
But despite Richardson’s seemingly plum place on the depth chart and the Colts’ public votes of confidence, he’s going to be a on a chihuahua-length leash in 2014. T-Rich has admitted he never really got a feel for the Colts’ offense following his mid-season trade. Finding one will be Priority No. 1 this offseason. Not far behind will be losing weight and gaining confidence.
T-Rich entered Week 1 claiming he was down 12 pounds from his 2012 weight of 236-237, but that certainly didn’t appear to be the case on film. You could see Richardson’s girth shifting as the gears grinded in his head. In theory, gaining a more nuanced understanding of Hamilton’s system while shedding LBs will do wonders for Issue No. 3, Richardson’s confidence.
But even if Richardson does all the right things, there’s no guarantee he’ll “bounce back.” That’s because Richardson doesn’t even have a good NFL form to bounce back to. He needs to rediscover the quick-twitch athleticism that hasn’t been evident since his days with the Crimson Tide. Richardson has the opportunity to right the wrongs of his 2012-13, but his futures market still calls for light trading.
Our Best Guess For 2014
Forecasting positive things for Richardson’s future requires not only faith, but a leap of it. 31 games of NFL film have provided no more than one or two nails to hang a hat on. There is his role. The Colts don’t just want Richardson to succeed, they need him to succeed. He was more expensive than a Mars rover, and as of now, has no clear challenger to his depth-chart supremacy.
There’s also the faint glimmers of hope his film provides. This is still a fast man who’s hard to take down once he’s out of the gates. If Richardson could shed even half his tentativeness at the line of scrimmage, he’s not a player who’s going to be getting stopped for a loss every fifth carry. Richardson is inarguably one of the most over-drafted players of the past decade, but the reasons he went No. 3 overall haven’t all been undone in less than 23 months.
Are these exciting reasons to Vote Richardson in 2014? Not exactly. But if you’ve made it this far in your Dynasty league, the time to sell low was three months ago. Richardson is positioned to be one of the biggest busts in recent memory, but the car is still only at the edge of the cliff. There’s still time for him to throw it into reverse. If that sounds like a hedge, it’s because it is. The odds are low that Richardson emerges as an above-average back, let alone the back the Browns thought they were getting. But they’re not nonexistent, and that counts for something when you’re a 23-year-old former No. 3 overall pick.