That was the question going into Monday night's contest between the defending AFC South champion Colts and their challengers to the crown, the Houston Texans. More than anything, even more than the injury report, I felt that was the hot topic. Who would get the most carries? Who would be the most effective?
Truthfully, there were a number of topics I could have covered for this week's Big Blue Breakdown. I considered writing about Jacob Tamme, Brody Eldridge and life after Dallas Clark. I thought about taking a look at Pat Angerer and his performance at SAM in lieu of my criticism of Philip Wheeler at the same position. For a brief while after then no-call on Bernard Pollard's late hit out-of-bounds on Anthony Gonzalez, I even thought about devoting an entire diatribe to the neverending incompetence of Tony Corrente's officiating crew.
But in the end, it was always going to be about Donald Brown and Mike Hart. Just like it was going into the game. So, after the jump, let's take a look at how things went for each back, why they went that way and what that means for the future of Hart, Brown and the Colts' running game.
Mike Hart: 12 rushes for 84 yards, 7.0 yards per carry, three receptions for 19 yards
Donald Brown: nine rushes for 16 yards, 1.8 yards per carry, two receptions for 13 yards
Now, assume ignorance. Complete ignorance, like a baby being born unto the world of football, laying your delicate eyes on the gridiron for the first time. Or a Jaguars fan. Either way. If I were to ask you which of those two runningbacks was a first round pick and which was a sixth-round utility back who spent time on the practice squad, how would you answer?
Of course, that's a misleading question. One game does not a career make, to quote Bill Polian quoting Yoda. You cannot consider a career in a vacuum. Everything is contextual, informed by a body of work, most of which is unseen by your average NFL fan. But you get the point: there are expectations for Brown. High expectations. The kind commensurate with his draft status. It's an unfortunate truth of professional football: when you're a first-round draft pick, you're expecting to perform well. Not perform average or okay or good enough to make final cuts. Well enough to justify the fact that the team chose you over a dozen other guys making a notable impact on their respective teams.
It's funny how that works, then. Specifically, how a player like Brown comes to be a first-round draft pick (2009) and a player like Hart is buried in the sixth round (2008.) Brown plays at a small football school, Connecticut, and leads the FBS in rushing yardage his senior season as his Huskies play a schedule that featured one ranked opponent prior to the start of the season (North Carolina.) As history has proved, when you gain yardage, you gain notice, though. Sometimes regardless of competition. So Brown completes his stellar senior season, earning an All-American nod, and earns an obvious invite to the NFL Scouting Combine. There, Brown records the fifth-fastest time in the 40-yard dash, second in the 20-yard shuffle, first in the 60-yard shuffle and first in the long jump with a measured 41.5-inch vertical jump. Impressive numbers to compliment an impressive season. Brown then proceeds to rocket up the draft boards and, (allegedly) much to Robert Kraft's chagrin, Bill Polian takes the promising young runningback with the 27th pick in the 2009 NFL draft. Immediate comparisons are drawn between Brown and Thurman Thomas. The Colts finally have a dynamic compliment to Joseph Addai, maybe even a guy who can replace Addai, coming off a tough, marginally-productive 2008 season. Things are really looking up for the run game in Indy...
Turn the clock back a year and consider the story of another record-breaking runningback: Mike Hart. All Hart has done, as he's sitting on the sofa waiting to hear from an NFL general manager, is set records. All Hart has done is score a 1280 on his SAT in high school and graduate with a 94 percent average, lead his high school team to a 46-1 record whilst setting the national high school record for rushing touchdowns and earn a scholarship to play at football powerhouse Michigan. All Hart has done is set a school record for most rushing yards by a freshman, logging 1,455 yards in 2004. All Hart has done is re-write the Wolverines' history books as the school's all-time leading rusher.
And then it's the sixth round, and Hart is still sitting on the couch. Why? Because of the same criticisms he's always heard, the voices his numbers - which should speak for themselves - could never drown out. Too small. Too slow. Unlike Brown, Hart didn't 'wow' with his Combine numbers. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds, a number projected more for a receiving tight end than a runningback. His vertical jump was only 28 inches, more than a foot less than Brown's mark. So suddenly, despite all the accolades, all those amazing things Hart has ever done, he's on a couch. In the sixth round. Waiting. Because in the NFL, speed is sexy. Size is sexy. Guys like Raiders owner Al Davis get so worked up over those things, they sometimes ignore the production preceding, the foundation already laid forth. To those guys, Hart is slow. Hart is small. Hart is not sexy. Nobody will be sending him Pevre-y text messages anytime soon.
Fast forward back to the present, my little McFlys, and we enter a Monday night contest where the Colts' leading rusher - Joseph Addai - is out with a shoulder/neck/probably hamstring too injury. The men aspiring to replace him? A former first-round pick named Donald Brown and a former sixth-round pick named Mike Hart. One designated as part of the franchise's future, a dangerous compliment to Addai projected to eventually inherit the esteemed starting RB position once held by guys like Edgerrin James and Marshall Faulk, taking handoffs from Peyton Manning while the defense is entirely preoccupied by the downfield threat d'jour. Another a utility back, a reserve player who has shined in several preseason contests but has been largely thrust into a featured role. We would have expected it with Brown. With Hart? The guy who ran a 4.67 at the Combine and got drafted in the sixth round? Not so much, collegiate numbers be damned.
And then Mike Hart is named the starting RB.
If there were questions before, there is a Congressional debate now. Let's take a look at their first respective series and get an idea of why Hart is starting, how these backs differ and what it means in a larger team sense. We'll note, first, that Brown is presumably playing on a less-than-100-percent hamstring in this contest and, by Jim Caldwell's own admission, on a bit of a snap count. We have to consider the context.
Hart is going to get the first series, and for all intents and purposes, his first series is really the offense's second series, as the offense's first series is just a trio of ugly passing plays that don't really involve Hart outside of blitz pickup (not to be discounted, but we don't have all day.) Hart's first carry is going to come with 11:03 remaining in the first quarter, on a 1st-and-10 from the Colts' 22-yard line. The Colts have an obvious run-blocking package in the game, as their standard OL is bookended by TE Gijon Robinson on the left and TE Brody Eldridge on the right. WR Pierre Garcon will be our most relevant flanker for this play and is split out in his traditional spot wide right. Manning sets up under center and surveys the defense, seeing a heavy coverage look from the Texans with four down linemen, three linebackers five yards off the ball and only one defensive back in the picture. The play is designed to go stretch off right tackle and reliant upon Garcon getting that initial seal block once Hart begins to round that corner, which Garcon easily does. Eldridge has consumer a linebacker and RT Ryan Diem is chugging upfield to engage the next linebacker. Hart has five yards before he even needs to make a move, where he cuts inside of Diem's, Garcon's and LT Charlie Johnson's (no idea how he got to that spot so fast) blocks, in front of DE Mario Williams who has been successfully held up at the line-of-scrimmage, and continues upfield. Hart then has almost 20 yards until he has to make another move, where he attempts to sell a hard cut inside on safety Eugene Wilson, cuts back outside and begins stumbling in the process. Maybe an elite RB like Adrian Peterson turns this into an 80-yard TD, but Hart does well to get 35 on the play. And his blockers do even better.
The next play is a delayed counter inside, against a nearly identical defensive look, but Robinson and RG Mike Pollak hold their blocks for a combined .5 seconds and Hart is stuffed behind the line-of-scrimmage as two, then three, Texans swarm him. He has no chance. And this is why Robinson is no longer the designated blocking TE, but rather the beneficiary of a mile-long injury report. Hart does well to drive his legs and even get close to the original line, but overall it's a busted running play, and Brown (SPOILERS!) will see more than his share of these. No fault to the back, all fault to the blockers.
Later in that drive is one of the first signs that Corrente's crew has no idea what the hell they're doing out there. The Colts have a 1st-and-Goal from the Texans' 71/2-yard line and line up with Eldridge next to C. Johnson at LT, TE Jacob Tamme split into the slot, WRs Reggie Wayne and Garcon in their standard positions and Hart behind Manning. Manning is going to show the ball as if pumping toward Tamme in the slot momentarily before quickly turning and handing off on a counter to Hart, who is going to steer himself left, presumably to run off left tackle. As he gets to the LT, where C. Johnson is attempting to seal Texan DE Antonio Smith inside, Eldridge fails to sustain a block on a linebacker further upfield, and the appearance of the linebacker in the hole slows Hart for a second. As Hart slows, Smith grabs enough of Hart's facemask to re-create a scene out of 'The Exorcist' and Corrente's crew was apparently drawing unicorns and doing sudoku puzzles all the while, because no whistle is blown, and somewhere in Section 642 I'm screaming words that will have all surrounding second-graders question God and Santa both. Terrible call, but shoddy blocking as well.
The next play is a shotgun look with Eldridge out of the game, Tamme aligned next to Diem and WR Anthony Gonzalez in the slot. The Texans actually do a remarkable job in coverage here, so Manning's only option is Hart as he releases into the flat sans a blocking assignment (Texans only come with four) and gathers in a pass at the seven-yard line. By the time he turns upfield and scoots, two defenders are practically on top of him, so the best he can do is get it to the two-yard line by fighting off leg tackles and lunging forward. Good play by Hart, who recognizes there is no blitz pickup, releases, makes the catch and fights for all available yardage.
Brown isn't going to line up in the backfield until there is 4:11 remaining in the first quarter. His first tote is going to come on a 1st-and-10 against a defensive look remarkably similar to the one Hart saw on his first carry and on a nearly identical run play (stretch right, but one of those stretches where you question whether or not Manning can effectively run the stretch well anymore.) The Texans absolutely swarm to the spot, with six defenders at the line-of-scrimmage against seven blockers and Garcon still sealing upfield (he's really good at this.) Center Jeff Saturday fails to sustain his block and allows his man to corral Brown, and if Saturday hadn't failed to hold his block, Diem and Pollak would have. All eligible receivers (Robinson, Eldridge, Garcon) actually do a fantastic job blocking on this play, but the offensive line lets Brown down, and he's tackled for maybe a yard, as Texan DT Amobi Okoye is on his back. It's a fantastic play by Okoye, a continually-emerging interior presence in this league, and I tend to doubt Hart would have done much more with this carry given the blocking breakdown and play by Okoye than Brown did.
The next play, however, does strike me as a play Hart would have done more with had he been in the backfield. The Colts actually come out in a passing look with Tamme and Gonzalez in the slot positions, Wayne and Garcon outside, Manning under center and Brown in the backfield. It's a sprint draw where Manning again shows the ball - this time toward Gonzalez - before sprinting back to meet Brown with the handoff. Brown has a fantastic hole to work with, typical on sprint draw plays for the Colts; they really tend to block these well. C. Johnson has sealed Mario Williams upfield and out of the play, ditto Diem on A. Smith. Saturday and Pollak are firmly engaged with the Texans' DTs and Tamme and Wayne are locked on the DBs outside. Nobody seems to pick up Glover Quin though, and he is waiting for Brown to emerge between around the right guard spot. Now, this is a great play by Quin, who was supposed to bite on the pump to Gonzalez and move further upfield/away from the emerging hole. He briefly bites but resets himself and squares up to make the tackle. This just seems like a play that Hart would have trucked his way through though, and it's going to end up being my primary criticism of Brown on the night: in one-on-one situations, he just doesn't do enough. Whereas Hart will make a guy miss, run through a guy or otherwise drag him, Brown just seems to run into individual defenders and go down on contact. That's pretty much exactly what happens here. Brown allows Quin to slow him, and by that time, DT Shaun Cody is able to come back into the play and make the tackle. Brown needs to explode through his opening here and figure out a quicker way to get by Quin. He's too hesitant and a play that Hart might have taken for 10+ yards ends up as a two or three-yard gain.
To further examine the divide between these two guys on the night, I want to look at two receptions, one by Hart and one by Brown. Hart's reception comes on a 3rd-and-2 with 5:16 left in the second quarter. The Colts line up with Robinson off RT, Tamme in the slot, Wayne coming in motion toward the line-of-scrimmage and Garcon out wide right. Manning is under shotgun with Hart with his left. He'll take the snap and Hart will immediately clear toward the sideline, with Tamme engaging his defender in a block as the ball leaves Manning's hands. Hart collects the ball at the 40-yard line and has four more yards to go before he achieves a first down. Texan OLB Zac Diles will meet him two yards before the sticks and have him solidly wrapped up, attempting to drive him into the ground. Hart, though, will fight the tackle and continue hopping forward, eventually lunging the ball forward to pick up the first. It was all effort by Hart, who should have been tackled for no gain but ended up turning the play into a first down.
Brown's reception comes on a 2nd-and-11 with 1:11 left in the first quarter. The Colts show a passing look with Tamme in the slot, Wayne and Garcon flanking, Eldridge dropped just off and to the side of the line-of-scrimmage and Brown standing to Manning's left in shotgun formation. Manning is going to take the snap and isolate Brown in space; he looks Brown's way the entire time, it's an obvious play to see what Brown can do in space, more or less an aerial handoff. Brown catches the ball, gains two yards and faces his first defender: Texan CB Kareem Jackson. Remember how Hart powered through Diles for yardage? Brown freezes, stopping when he sees Jackson to contemplate his next move. By then, Jackson is able to dive into him and wrap up. He makes an ankle tackle and Brown falls forward for a total gain of three yards. Manning looks very annoyed with Brown as he jogs back, and I understand why: as a RB, you just can't let a DB tackle you in that situation. He had space and Manning had the matchup he wanted - Brown on a cornerback. Instead of making a great one-on-one move like Hart did all night, though, or powering through the defender, Brown just kinda freezes. In my estimation, we can chalk it up to a number of things (hamstring and rustiness come to mind), but the bottom line is production. Brown was healthy enough to play, and the Colts haven't been shy about holding players out this year. He has to make that play; Manning had exactly what he wanted. But he didn't.
Overall, I don't want to slam Brown too hard. More often than not, his night did seem like a case of "wrong place, wrong time." Blocking wasn't consistent for either back all night. But Hart made the most out of his runs and finished strong even when there wasn't much there. Brown looked hesitant and slow all night, didn't win one-on-one battles and inspired so little confidence that RB Javarris James took snaps at the end of the game...and I'm pretty sure James' grasp of the playbook could be classified as tenuous at best. Hart clearly outshined Brown on the night in just about every regard, yet I found myself almost feeling bad for Brown. You could sense that the crowd was almost disappointed when Brown was in the game; some morons a few sections over were even booing when he would walk out with the offense. It was Hart's night, and there was nothing Brown could do about it.
If you look at the game as a whole, I don't think we can take too much in terms of assessing Brown as a player. Right now, he looks hesitant, rusty and slow to accelerate through holes. He looks like the third-best option right now, and honestly has all season (Hart clearly has been the better RB2 option on the year.) I'm afraid, though, that this means fans will start writing Brown off entirely, and I just don't think you can do that yet. Maybe he's a bust; I don't know. Maybe that turns out to be the case. But evidence is still inconclusive in my book. He hasn't received consistent blocking, hasn't been consistently healthy and generally hasn't been put in great positions to succeed.
Of course, neither has Hart. Hart has always been relegated to the corner, to underdog territory. He's always been told he's too small or too slow or a great kid and tremendous competitor but just not big league material. Except on Monday night, Hart stepped up and did what he's always done to the detractors: moved forward - often at the expense of the defense's dignity - and left everyone in a cloud of dust. Hart's had his share of diversity -- and make no mistake, he's still injury-prone, for all the praise we heap upon him -- but he's largely met it head-on and kept his legs churning. Brown has yet to prove he can handle diversity, and he needs to, because this team needs him to succeed in the long run.
Right now, Hart is the better RB2 for this team, and I'm not sure I see that changing this season. But this team needs Brown to succeed in the long-term. Heck, given Hart's ankle, they might even need him in the short-term. It's to their best interest and, consequentially, ours as well. I don't like this anti-Brown movement I see building, but I understand the frustration. It all goes back to draft day and all the expectations that come with. Brown was handed a large role in the Colts' offense and has yet to really seize it and be consistently effective there. Hart has. I wish Brown the best and hope he can perhaps play with more confidence as he gets healthier. But right now, if the question is Donald Brown or Mike Hart?
The answer, if his ankle allows, is Mike Hart.