Should the Colts Start Donald Brown?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson looks at the question of whether the Colts should start running back Donald Brown, who is having a terrific season, over Trent Richardson, who isn't.

Everybody paying attention to the NFL this season knows about it. About the blockbuster deal the Indianapolis Colts pulled off to get last year's third overall pick Trent Richardson from the Cleveland Browns for a first round pick in the 2014 draft.

So far, though, Trent Richardson has been anything but special. In fact, he has hardly been average. In eight games with the Colts this year, he has carried the ball 96 times but gained only 272 yards and 2 touchdowns, averaging 2.8 yards per carry and just 34 yards per game. He has also caught 12 passes for 116 yards, averaging 9.7 yards per reception. Those numbers stink, to be honest, for a top three draft pick and a guy who the Colts acquired for a first round draft pick as well.

I looked at Richardson's struggles in-depth a few weeks back and tried to find out why he was struggling. I came to the conclusion that poor offensive line play was a huge part of it but that Richardson wasn't completely absolved of all fault, either. I advocated getting Richardson out in space more and around the outside and I advocated mixing it up some with the play calling and formations. While Pep Hamilton still has room to improve, I think he has made massive strides recently and I have seen him do those very things. There are becoming less and less excuses for Richardson. Ultimately, until this offensive line gets better, we won't know for sure what he can do so it is unfair to completely make a judgement on him, but it is fair to judge this trade, and so far it is a big fat "F" for the Colts. Giving up a first round pick for a guy who was a top three pick just a year ago and was hailed as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson only to get a guy who needs the offensive line to give him a massive hole in order for him to gain yards isn't a good move, period. We knew this line was bad, but Richardson needs to be able to make more plays than this given his draft position and prospects.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the Colts' second string running back, Donald Brown - himself a former first round draft pick who didn't live up to the billing - is having a career year and is making Colts fans forget about the whole "Dammit Donald" incident. In his four seasons in Indianapolis entering this year, he was averaging a good but unspectacular 4.1 yards per carry. This season he has raised that average by 1.8 yards per carry, a very significant improvement. And not only has his yards per carry improved, he has also been the Colts' most consistent and productive running back. The team lost two starting running backs to season ending injuries after each of their respective first starts of the season, and then traded for another starting back after week two. But despite going through three starting-caliber backs, Donald Brown has outplayed them all and on top of that he has played in every game this season so far.

The big question Colts fans have been asking is how Donald Brown is doing so well when Trent Richardson is doing so poorly and much of it has seemed to be the offensive line - the same line that Brown is running behind. On Friday following the Thursday Night Football win over the Titans, Chuck Pagano was asked quite a bit about this very issue, and he didn't seem to have an answer to it either. Here's what the head coach had to say:

When you look at the running game, do you look at it as it doesn't matter who starts but who's playing better during the game as far as snaps go?

"Yeah, I think we obviously have a really good situation right now with Trent (Richardson) and Donald (Brown). Donald had an exceptional football game and he's been playing well this entire season and doing a great job for us. You look at Trent's runs, for whatever reason, there's penetration, a guy is pulling and falls down. There's a guy in the backfield waiting there. He had some really good runs, plays that he made in space, screens, things like that he does a great job with. That's going to come. I think the way we're going with those two guys has been productive for both players. A guy gets hot, you can always go with the hot hand but I like the way we're doing things now."

Do you see a difference? It seems like the holes seem to open up for Donald compared to when Trent is out there.

"That's just, for whatever reason, like I said, we miss a block here or there and a guy is sitting there free in the hole. It just happens to be that we just handed the ball to 34 (Trent Richardson), so it's nothing that he did. I don't know if he's snake bit, I don't know what the heck is going on. We'll get it fixed. We'll get the holes there. He's making the right reads, he's doing all the right things, he knows what to do. He played great without the ball, protection-wise, those things. His numbers are going to come. I'm not concerned about that."

You seem just as baffled by it as we are.

"Yeah, you feel bad. A guy gets the ball handed off to him and all of a sudden, there's a guy sitting there for whatever reason but we'll get that fixed."

That fix that Pagano is looking for is being advocated by many fans as starting Donald Brown, or at least giving him an increased role. But honestly, that's nothing new - they've been doing that already. Look at the number of carries for Richardson and Brown per game since Richardson came to Indy:

Number of Carries Per Game (Richardson vs. Brown)
@ SF @ JAX SEA @ SD DEN @ HOU STL @ TEN
Richardson 13 20 18 10 14 8 5 8
Brown 3 3 6 3 11 6 2 14

Brown has notched his two highest single game carry totals of the season in the past four weeks, while Richardson has notched his three lowest single game carry totals of the season in the past three weeks. In fact, going back to his 17 games played with the Cleveland Browns, he carried the ball less than ten times in a single game only two times (8 times in a road loss to the Colts and 9 times in a road loss to the Broncos). That means that only twice in 17 games with Cleveland did he carry the ball less than ten times in a game, and that has happened in Indy in each of the past three weeks (3 in 8 games played for Indy). Yeah, the Colts have been behind big in each of the past three games which certainly plays a big part in it, but it still signifies that perhaps the coaches see what the rest of us see - Trent Richardson isn't getting it done.

But should he be benched? Fans will point to the production of the two players, and it makes a nearly inarguable argument. Have a look for yourselves at the production of the two in Indianapolis this year:

Trent Richardson (8 games) vs. Donald Brown (10 games) in Indy - 2013
Rush att. Rush yds. Rush TD Rush avg. 1DN Receptions Rec. yds. Rec. TD Rec. avg. 1DN FUM
Richardson 96 272 2 2.8 15 12 116 0 9.7 4 1
Brown 55 323 3 5.9 14 15 153 1 10.2 7 0

Just looking at those numbers, it's nearly impossible to make any argument for Trent Richardson continuing to start over Donald Brown. When asked about Brown on Friday, Pagano said the following:

"He's playing really well. He's playing really well. Running hard, hitting the hole, breaking tackles, yards after contact. We all know out in space, he's a dynamic guy, can take it the distance when he gets loose. He's playing exceptionally well."

So should Donald Brown be starting over Trent Richardson? That is the big question people want answered. I know I'll be in the minority here, but my answer is no. Absolutely not. Why not? Allow me to explain.

In the two games this season where Brown has carried the ball more than 10 times, he has 25 carries for 103 yards and 2 scores, for an average of 4.12 yards per rush. In the eight games where he has carried the ball less than 10 times, he has 30 carries for 220 yards and 1 score, averaging 7.33 yards per carry. In the games where he gets less than 10 carries, he has averaged 3.21 yards per rush more than in the games where he gets the ball more than 10 times per carry.

And that goes beyond just this year, too. For his career, Brown has been viewed in a very negative light and hadn't impressed. A major reason for that was not that Brown was a bad player, it was that he was being used wrong. He just isn't an every down back and can't carry the load. Or, at least, when he has to do that is when he is least productive. The Colts have done a tremendous job at maximizing Brown's talent this year and he has had a breakout year - largely because of the fact that he is making the most of his limited opportunities. If the Colts give him a much bigger role, I really think that we might go back to the Donald Brown of the past instead of the present Donald Brown, and that would end up hurting the team more than the running game already does now.

Now, I recognize that Brown received a season high 14 carries in the Thursday night win and rushed for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns. I fully realize that and think he played a phenomenal game. Chuck Pagano has said that the team will go with the hot hand to an extent and that is definitely Brown, coming off what was quite possibly the best game of his career. If the Colts were ever going to give Brown a starting shot, it would be this week, but they won't.

They can't give up on Richardson yet. Regardless of your opinion of him right now, you have to realize that he has only played 8 games in Indy, and those behind a terrible line as well. You can't just give up on him. My friend Tom James of the Terre Haute Tribune Star likes to point out that Richardson's stats through the start of his Colts career are similar to those of Marshawyn Lynch near the beginning of his Seahawks career (Lynch averaged 3.27 yards per attempt in his first eight games with Seattle and 3.69 yards per touch - receptions and rushes combined. Richardson averaged 2.83 yards per rush in his first eight games with Indianapolis and 3.59 yards per touch). The Colts can't give up yet, and they aren't - they are going to start Trent Richardson on Sunday.

Donald Brown is having a great year. I'll be the first one to point it out. But I don't want it to end, and I really think that if the Colts give him more carries, his production will decrease. Now think - do you really want two unproductive backs? You have to seriously consider what the move would mean, and when doing that, I think that the Colts are absolutely right in making the choice to stick with Trent Richardson. And we'll just keep saying, "wait until next week" regarding Richardson. But hey, I'm a Cubs fan, so it's much easier than the "wait until next year" that we always say. Oh well. Trent Richardson will have his breakout game sooner or later.

Just wait until next week.

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