I've taken a little over 24 hours to let the news settle in that the Colts have traded for big-time running back, and while my views of the trade as a whole haven't changed much, I've had a chance to think about how this will affect the Colts long-term, and how exactly we need to judge the trade.
For anyone who's been around Stampede Blue for any amount of time, you know I've been adamant for years now that the way you win in the NFL is by passing the ball, and stopping the pass. An NFL team should be using all of their available resources to maximize their ability to pass the ball, as well as stop other teams from throwing. It's really not even close, which is why I've been very skeptical with the Colts talking ad nauseum about being a power running game. With the addition of Richardson, it's clear they at least want to appear as though they are going to run the ball with some regularity.
Now, there's absolutely nothing wrong with being good at running the football, which the Colts have done the first two games, sitting at a 47% RB Success Rate (8th). The problem is the Colts currently sit 13th in Adjusted Net Passing Yards per Attempt, a stat that is much more important than RB Success rate. Running the ball well must be able to add-to and enhance the passing game, or else it really doesn't matter at all. This is where my concern pops up for this trade.
Could the Colts have used their 2014 first round pick to improve passing the ball / stopping the pass better than Richardson? The simple answer is absolutely. Running Backs are a dime a dozen, with only 8 teams currently employing a RB picked in the first 24 picks of the draft. Really it's Adrian Peterson and then everyone else, so the Colts using a pick we all hope ends up in the low teens / high 20s on a RB isn't the best use of a pick. For a team that desperately needs defensive Front 7 help, as well as Offensive Line help, taking a RB, even one as talented as Richardson, seems to be more of a luxury than the Colts can afford right now.
So just how can this trade end up working for the Colts? In a general sense, it needs to be able to help Andrew Luck and the Offense pass the ball better. More specifically, I see six things that will tell me it was a success, and one thing I couldn't care less about that everyone has been talking about / will talk about. Let's dive in:
1) Play-Action Passes increase by 25%
In Luck’s rookie season under offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, he completed 65 passes in 102 attempts for 9.23 yards per attempt, six touchdowns and two interceptions when play-action was part of the concept. Without play-action, he completed 274 passes in 525 attempts for 6.25 yards per attempt, 17 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
This year, the Colts are running more play-action, but they’re getting less impressive results. In play-action, Luck is 10-of-17 for 137 yards, one touchdowns and an 8.1 YPA. Without play-action, he’s 33-of-49 for 362 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 7.4 YPA.
With an effective Richardson in the backfield, teams will bite on the play-action, making Luck's job of finding any one of his numerous receivers that much easier. He was very good last year, he was very good at Stanford, and he needs to be much better this year, and in years to come. If Richardson runs the ball well, teams will have to account for the play-fake, and Luck will throw all over them.
2) RB Success Rate on 3rd/4th and Short better than 75%
This one worries me the most, as when you look at last season's stats, Richardson really didn't fare all that well on 3rd/4th and short. According to Pro-Football-Reference, he only converted 3/10 runs on 3rd/4th and 3 yards or less. That's not good at all. To contrast, the Colts were 22/27 last year, and 12/16 on non-Luck sneaks. One could argue that the blocking scheme is better in those situations for the Colts than the Browns, and Richardson will benefit from both better blocking, and the fact the Defense will have to at least keep an eye on Luck passing, which I'm sure most defenses did not do to Cleveland last year.
Why 75%? That's what the Colts did last year with Vick Ballard, Mewelde Moore, Delone Carter, and Dwayne Allen, and you can't really expect much more out of an Offense. Remember, the Defense gets paid too, so nothing will be perfect. This is a stated reason by the team for going and getting him, even though they did it just fine with a rag-tag bunch last year. This needs to maintain status quo from last year.
3) Red Zone Efficiency improves from last season
Last season plus the first two games this year, the Colts had 13 carries by a RB inside the 5 yard line, and only scored on five of them (Luck was 5/6). Richardson is 5/13 on those same plays as well in his career (eerie, isn't it?). He did have 11 touchdowns in total last year, breaking the Browns franchise record set by Jim Brown, so he clearly can find the end zone.
How was the Peyton Manning-led Offense so good in the Red Zone? They were able to run the ball, and it was mostly because they feared the pass. The Colts will eventually get to that level, potentially initially because teams are respecting Richardson. The Colts will have to have success running the football in the red zone, as it is much less susceptible to turnovers, and in turn will help running play-action down there (it pops up again), which should lead to easy TD tosses. The Colts only ranked 18th in the Red Zone last year. It must go up.
4) Sack Percentage goes down with Richardson on the field
Since the start of 2012 with Richardson on the field, Browns quarterbacks were sacked on 4.8 percent of dropbacks. With Richardson off the field, Browns quarterbacks were sacked on 9.4 percent of dropbacks.
Colts quarterbacks have been sacked on 6.2 percent of dropbacks since the start of last season, the ninth-highest rate in the league.
I've listened to some radio interviews with reporters in Cleveland, and nobody could give a straight answer on how good Richardson is in pass blocking. Based on these numbers, and a trust that the front office looked into this, I feel confident he'll get the job done. We'll keep an eye on this stat as we go through the season, as it is imperative that the Colts keep Luck upright.
5) Richardson averages 15 games per year
He played 15 games last year, and the only way this move works is if Richardson is on the field over the next four years. Sure anyone can get injured at any time, but if he misses any significant time, this will be a failure. He must stay healthy.
6) A dominant pass rusher / Interior OL doesn't fall to the pick the Colts traded away
The Colts need more help getting to the Quarterback, and elite pass rushers are almost all exclusively from the first round (Robert Mathis an obvious exception). The Colts are woefully thin on the interior of the Offensive Line. Both of those positions have a direct correlation to our stated objective of passing the ball / stopping the pass, much more than a RB does. If a guy like that is available at that pick, there's going to be a lot of second guessing the trade.
What do I not care about?
Richardson's Yards/Carry is Absolutely Meaningless
Now, I'll clarify a bit. He has to be over 3.0 YPC, or else he's just a bad RB, but I don't expect that to happen. Lots has been made of his 3.5 YPC in Cleveland, and how bad that is, and how will he be better behind an inferior line? First, I actually think the run blocking is better in Indianapolis than Cleveland. Second, I'm much more concerned about his Success Rate in certain high-leverage situations, which I've already talked about. Do I care if he can gain 8 yards on a 3rd and 18 draw? Not at all. I care about getting the 3rd and Goal at the 2, which after looking at the numbers, is much more worrisome than his 3.5 Yards per Carry. Add in that Yards per Carry leads to less wins than pretty much every other stat, and I don't care what his YPC is, even though that will be the main stat everyone will champion when judging this trade. It's utterly meaningless, unless he's terrible, which will be obvious to us all.
The first judging of the trade will come in early May next year after Round 1, when we'll be able to compare who is available, and how well Richardson did in the first five areas I mentioned above, which are all easily quantifiable. Then it'll be a few years to see how those potential draftees fared, with a few more years of Richardson in Indianapolis.
Everyone will want to make a snap judgement, but I think this is a three-plus year process. The Colts are going all-in for a Super Bowl run by 2016. A ring by then will trump everything in this article. I'd be ok with that too.