The Indianapolis Colts ran the ball well this year.
This might come to a surprise after all the talk during the season about the Colts run-emphasis, but the bottom line is that they ran the ball well. Their 1,743 team rushing yards were the highest total for a Colts team since 2006, their 7th highest single-season total of the past 24 years and the 12th highest total in their 30 seasons in Indianapolis. Considering the Colts history with Hall of Fame caliber running backs - Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, and Edgerrin James - that's impressive. Furthermore, according to the Indianapolis Star's Phil Richards, the Colts 4.3 yards per carry average in 2013 was the third highest total in their 30 seasons in Indianapolis, and their 15 rushing touchdowns were the ninth highest total since coming to Indianapolis. And keep in mind that they did this all while losing two starting running backs early to season ending injuries, having another one that severely disappointed, and running behind an interior offensive line that featured Hugh Thornton, Samson Satele, and Mike McGlynn. All things considered, the Colts ran the football very well in 2013.
You'd be completely wrong if you said the Colts didn't run the football well. But you'd be completely right if you said it still didn't really work.
You see, Chuck Pagano's mantra all along has been that you need to run the football to win games. But the Colts ran the football and it still wasn't the primary reason they won many football games. Yeah, the San Francisco 49ers game - perhaps the Colts best of the season - was won exactly the way Ryan Grigson, Chuck Pagano, and Pep Hamilton wanted to play football this season, by running the football. The Colts ran the ball well in the two wins against the Titans. But for the most part, the run game worked best when complimenting Andrew Luck's passing, not the other way around, and that's why it is fair to say both that the Colts ran the ball well and that the coaches run-emphasis offense didn't work. That's why they switched to a more pass based offense later in the season - they realized what was really winning them games.
The running back position in 2013 was a bit of a roller coaster ride. The team opened the season with a running back depth chart of Vick Ballard, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Donald Brown. That's a good group of backs to open the season with. Vick Ballard had been a very good fifth round pick in 2012, rushing for 814 yards in his rookie campaign. Ahmad Bradshaw was signed as a free agent in the offseason and was coming off of another injury, but had enjoyed a very successful career that included two 1,000+ yard rushing seasons and two Super Bowl rings. Donald Brown was first round bust from the 2009 season but a guy who could still be a nice change of pace back if needed. With Bradshaw's injury, Brown saw a lot of time in training camp - something that undoubtedly paid off later. I remember talking with a few of the other media members at camp and saying how surprised I was at Brown's role in the offense, and while I knew that he was mainly filling in for Bradshaw, I said that perhaps I underestimated the role he would play this season. The other media folks completely agreed.
I didn't know how true that statement would turn out to be. After a very impressive week one performance where Ballard averaged 4.8 yards per carry while rushing for 63 yards, he was lost for the season after suffering a torn ACL in practice during the week.
It was then Ahmad Bradshaw's turn to step up, and step up he did. In week two, Bradshaw averaged 4.3 yards per carry while rushing for 65 yards and a touchdown, plus catching 3 passes for 19 yards. Donald Brown also averaged 4.3 yards per carry, adding another 30 yards on the ground. The two of them stepped in nicely.
During the week that week, Colts general manager severely shook up the running back position by making a blockbuster trade with the Cleveland Browns to bring 2012's third overall pick, running back Trent Richardson, to Indianapolis in exchange for a first round pick. Brown was relegated to third on the depth chart once again, as Richardson took over the number two spot.
In week three against the 49ers, Bradshaw got the start and had by far his best game of the season, rushing for 95 yards and a touchdown on 5 yards per carry and catching 3 passes for 16 yards. Trent Richardson's first carry went for a touchdown, and considering the fact that he just arrived a few days earlier, his 2.7 average and 35 yards wasn't that bad. Donald Brown received only 3 carries on the day, but he made them count, gaining 25 yards (8.3 yards per carry).
During the 49ers game, Bradshaw had suffered a neck injury. I didn't realize how serious it was until someone sent me a message telling me about how it could very well end Bradshaw's season. After a few weeks of contemplation on what to do, the Colts and Bradshaw agreed to opt for surgery and he was placed on injured reserve.
So after just three weeks of the 2013 season, the Colts had lost two starting running backs and their new starter had just been acquired less than a week before. And once again, Donald Brown moved to the number two running back role. Trent Richardson started the next eight games, but he was less than impressive. He struggled mightily, and Chuck Pagano finally made a move for the week 13 matchup against the Titans, starting Donald Brown. He would start the last 7 games of the season, including the playoffs.
Including the playoffs, Donald Brown rushed 130 times for 655 yards and 7 touchdowns (5.04 yards per carry), caught 32 passes for 264 yards and 3 touchdowns (8.25 yards per catch), and only fumbled 1 time, losing 0 (the now famous Andrew Luck fumble recovery touchdown in the wild card game against the Chiefs). Including the playoffs, Trent Richardson rushed 192 times for 564 yards and 3 touchdowns (2.94 yards per carry), caught 35 passes for 316 yards and 1 touchdown (9.03 yards per catch), and fumbled 3 times, losing 2.
Donald Brown's season was incredibly impressive. His 5.3 rushing average in the regular season ranked tied for second in the entire NFL among players who qualified. He set career regular season highs in rushing average (5.3), rushing touchdowns (6), receptions (27), receiving yards (214), and receiving touchdowns (2), all while having the second highest rushing yards total despite having the second lowest carry total of his career. The former first round pick by the Colts in 2009 had been very underwhelming in his career in the first four years in the league, but in his fifth year, he broke out and ran very, very well.
Trent Richardson's season, on the other hand, was incredibly disappointing (I named him the Colts most disappointing player of the year in my Colts postseason "awards"). Last year's third overall pick out of Alabama, he was touted as the next great running back and possibly the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. I was sold on him - I thought he would do great. In his rookie season in Cleveland, he rushed for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns while averaging 3.6 yards per carry, along with catching 51 passes for 367 yards and 1 touchdown. It was an impressive rookie season. The Colts traded a first round pick for him two games into the 2013 season, and he was anything but impressive. In 2012, he rushed for more than 50 yards in a game 8 times (in 16 games). In 2013 with the Colts, he rushed for more than 50 yards in a game 3 times (in 16 games - 14 regular season, 2 playoffs). In 2012, he topped 100 total yards (rushing plus receiving) 7 times; in 2013, he topped 100 total yards 1 time. His regular season was bad, and his postseason was worse. He carried the ball only 4 times for 1 total yard and lost a fumble in two postseason games.
Throughout the season, the Colts signed several running backs for depth, and both Tashard Choice and Dan Herron received carries. Both ran well in very limited time, but Herron especially was impressive when he got a chance - but before long he was placed on injured reserve with an injury.
Despite how uncertain the running back position was this past season, it faces even more uncertainty entering the offseason. Both Donald Brown and Ahmad Bradshaw are free agents, Vick Ballard and Boom Herron are recovering from season ending injuries, and Trent Richardson is entering his first offseason with the Colts - a very important one, at that.
Here is what I wrote last week in my look at the Colts free agents on Brown and Bradshaw:
Ahmad Bradshaw, RB: He was a good signing last offseason and ran well in the limited time he played, but a neck injury in week three ended his season. For a running back coming off of neck surgery and for a team with Trent Richardson and Vick Ballardalready under contract and with Donald Brown likely to be a bigger priority than Bradshaw, I don't expect him to be back.
Donald Brown, RB: Before the season, we all were talking about how we only had one more year of Donald Brown on the Colts. Now, everyone is asking me whether they'll re-sign him. He was a huge part of the 2013 season and turned his career around. Now the Colts face a decision on what to do with their former first round draft pick (from the Bill Polian regime). They already have Trent Richardson and Vick Ballard under contract, which makes the return of Brown unnecessary but still would be nice to have - as we saw this year. The Colts will give him a nice, fair offer, but I think Brown can find better than that elsewhere, and he seems to already know that he probably won't be coming back, ashe tweeted the other day that it "Was an honor and privilege to play for the Colts. An organization made up of phenomenal people. Will always be indebted to the horseshoe." I think he'll get a better offer elsewhere, and I don't expect him to be back.
The Colts would love to re-sign Brown, but the fact of the matter is that Brown will find a better deal elsewhere and a better situation somewhere else, too - he likely wouldn't be starting in Indy, and neither would Ahmad Bradshaw.
That makes Trent Richardson and Vick Ballard very important for next season. Ballard is recovering from a torn ACL, and some have wondered how that will affect him. It's fair to wonder, and it's expected that it will affect him to some degree. But he was never the fastest running back and instead was productive based on his vision, decisiveness, and hard work. None of that has to do with his knee, and as long as he isn't running hesitant to test his knee, then he'll be fine. He's a good young running back best suited for a number two role, and he might have that now in Indianapolis - depening on how Richardson develops.
Several people tried to diagnose what was wrong with Richardson this season. Ryan Grigson said it was "confidence." Richardson needs to improve his vision and his decisiveness and he needs to run hard. He needs to trust his offensive line, his offensive coordinator, but mainly, he needs to trust himself. He needs to run hard and, as Grigson said, he needs more "confidence." He didn't really know the playbook until a few weeks after he came to Indianapolis and was immediately thrust into the lineup. An offseason with the team in the Colts program working with the Colts coaches and players should be huge for Richardson, and as long as he applies himself to working hard this offseason to improve, I know that he will. It's too early to give up on him yet, but there is no doubt that this offseason will be huge for him.
Also, the best thing the Colts can do to improve the running game is to improve the blocking. They need to upgrade the interior of the offensive line very badly, and consider that they will get left guard Donald Thomas back - who was also lost for the season within the first three weeks, in week two. That will be big. But the biggest thing that will improve the Colts running game next year won't be Richarson's offseason of work, getting Thomas back, or any free agent or rookie they will bring in. The biggest thing that will improve the run game is getting tight end Dwayne Allen back - who also was lost in the first three weeks of the season, in week one. Allen is a real weapon in the passing game, no doubt, but is also a tremendous blocker who can block as a tight end or as a fullback. I honestly wonder how much of Stanley Havili's role this year would have been Allen if he had been healthy. But either way, Allen is a top-notch blocking tight end whose return should really help the run game.
Boom Herron has potential and he should put up quite a case for the roster in training camp. Tashard Choice might be in camp, too, but Herron is a much better option for the Colts than Choice. If Brown leaves, I could see them trying to move Herron into the same role they opened the season with for Brown this year - a change of pace speed back.
As far as fullbacks go - Stanley Havili had a fine year. I honestly didn't have a problem with Havili but rather offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's use of a fullback - two very different things. Havili did an admirable job as a blocker and, as far as fullbacks go, he did a pretty good job receiving, too (catching 18 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown, averaging 7.1 yards per catch). I thought Havili did a good job this year, but I also think that Ryan Grigson will probably be looking to bring in another fullback this offseason, too. The main issue most people have with the fullback, however, is not with the fullback himself but really with the offensive coordinator, and that was certainly the case with Havili this year.
The Colts ran the ball well in 2013, but they endured a roller coaster ride to do so. They had three running backs on injured reserve, two of whom were starters both injured within the first three weeks of the season. They made a trade for a big-name running back that didn't work out in year one. And a former first round bust and player that fans would ridicule turned out to play a huge role.
General manager Ryan Grigson said last week that "we don't win 12 games this year if Trent Richardson isn't here. That's just a fact." While I completely disagree with that statement, it definitely is true about Donald Brown. The Colts really wouldn't have won 12 games without him this year. He entered the season as third on the depth chart and only saw a lot of work in training camp because of an injury to Ahmad Bradshaw, but he ended up being the team's leading rusher and one of the most important players on the offense.