The Trent Richardson trade was an absolute disaster for the Colts last season. They badly overpaid, trading a valuable first round pick for Richardson, a talented but unproven running back. With the NFL becoming a more pass-happy league, the value of running backs has diminished. Teams are (correctly) reluctant to pay ball carriers, much less give up high draft picks for them. The trade was almost universally thought of as an overpay by the Colts even before Richardson then fell off the face of the earth, averaging just 2.9 YPA (Yards Per Attempt) as a Colt last season.
Saturday, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano confirmed reports that running back Vick Ballard had torn his left achilles. He missed all but one game last season with a torn ACL, but was expected to compete with Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw for the starting job. Coming into camp, the Colts were solid with Richardson and Ballard competing for carriers and Bradshaw as a change-of-pace back. With Bradshaw’s history of injuries, he’s not a realistic candidate to carry the load. It has to be Richardson, which is scary for Colts fans given his incompetence last season.
Richardson is still young, 23, and this upcoming campaign will be just his third in the NFL. Football isn’t like other sports in terms of mid-season trades and how they impact players. In baseball, a hitter can change teams without being affected negatively. He doesn’t have to learn a new playbook and the play style of his new teammates doesn’t dramatically affect how he hits. Switching basketball teams comes with an adjustment period, but role players are typically able to perform on a number of different teams. Football is a whole other animal.
There’s a reason we don’t see a ton of movement at the NFL Trade Deadline each year. A coherent unit in football is like an orchestra. For a unit to be successful, it takes all eleven players working in unison to execute a unique scheme. Learning an NFL playbook takes time and it’s difficult for players to change teams, and schemes, mid-season and have success. For some players – Chad Johnson immediately comes to mind – they’re not able to learn the playbook at all.
Changing teams mid-season is especially hard for a running back, who relies on reading the blocks of his teammates to have success. Richardson’s 14 games as a Colt last season were bad, but they don’t necessarily doom him moving forward. He’s had an entire offseason to absorb the playbook. And with Ballard now out for the year, he has a golden opportunity to redeem himself.
In Cleveland, there were warning-signs that Richardson may not be very good. In 267 attempts as a rookie, he averaged just 3.6 YPA. In 31 attempts last season before the trade, he averaged 3.0. Much of his struggles stem from his bad vision as a ball-carrier, but he was also playing with lousy quarterbacks.
With Andrew Luck behind center for the Colts, teams won’t be stacking the box to stop the run. Indianapolis is hardly an offensive machine – 18th in offensive DVOA in 2012, 13th in 2013 – but they’re more than good enough in the passing game to open up holes for Richardson. Although offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton came from Stanford, notorious for its power running game, the Colts threw on 65% of their attempts. Adjusting for quarter and score (if you’re behind, you’ll pass more), Mike Clay at Pro Football Focus found that the Colts threw on 4% more attempts than they were expected to.
Indianapolis passes a lot, but they want to establish themselves as a power running team. In theory, Richardson should be a fit to run this kind of scheme. Like Darren McFadden in Oakland, Richardson isn’t an East-West runner. He’s best running downhill and the Colts offense is tailored to fit that strength. He was the third overall pick just three drafts ago and hasn’t suffered any catastrophic injuries. Physically, he still has the tools to develop into a good back.
If Richardson is unable to improve on his poor vision, the Colts running game will be in trouble. As mentioned earlier, Bradshaw is unfit to carry a full load. The other backs in camp include Dan Herron, Chris Rainey and Zurlon Tipton. I hope Zurlon Tipton becomes a relevant NFL player solely because I enjoy saying his name. It’s so fun! Zurlon Tipton Zurlon Tipton Zurlon Tipton!
Regardless, neither of those three backs are proven. With Luck being as good as he is, it’s not improbable to see one of them – Herron probably – being productive in the event that Richardson gets injured or is unproductive. But it’s not encouraging to go into the season relying on any of them.
Over the past two seasons, there’s evidence to suggest that the Colts aren’t as good as back-to-back division titles would imply. In 2012, they were amazing in close games and finished 25th in DVOA. Last season, their point differential of +55 was the worst of any division champion sans Green Bay. In terms of DVOA they finished 13th, worse than all playoff teams except Green Bay. With regression staring them in the face, the Colts need to improve on both sides of the ball if they truly want to compete for a championship. They’re not there yet.
Given that both Super Bowl participants last season finished in the top 7 in offensive DVOA, the Colts offense could certainly use a bump in production. They’ll be relying largely on Trent Richardson to help them. The old adage says that a good running game is a young quarterback’s best friend. In Luck’s first two seasons, he’s been great without a considerable threat lining up behind him. For Richardson, an elite young quarterback should open things up for him to turn his career around. If he can’t make in Indianapolis, he probably can’t make it anywhere.