I've always liked Dominic Rhodes, even when he was just practice squad filler back in 2001. I remember logging on to the Indianapolis Star message board and reading about someone's account of training camp in 2001. They raved about this new undrafted rookie from Back Woods Hick State University (Midwestern State), and how the Colts might finally have found someone to spell Edgerrin James. Remember, prior to Dom, finding a back-up for Edge was a real priority. Fatigue and wear cost the Colts a playoff game against Tennessee in 2000. They ran then-rookie Edgerrin James into the ground, and by the time the post-season came he couldn't do what he normally did. They brought in players like Fred Lane, whose life was tragically cut short prior to the 2000 season. Following Lane's death, Edge's back-ups consisted of such stellar immortals like Kevin MacDougal, Jim Finn, Lennox Gordon, Keith Elias, and Billy Dean Davenport.
Then came Dom, and Dom was a Godsend.
In 2001, the Colts seemed to find their back-up RB in undrafted rookie Dominic Rhodes. Rhodes went undrafted despite a very good college career. Why did he go undrafted? Because his school was not well known and because of his chronic shoulder problem. People did not think him an every-down-back. Dom made his name with the team returning kickoffs. In one game, against the Chiefs, Dominic Rhodes returned a kickoff for a TD that iced the game. It just so happens that in that same game Edgerrin James tore a knee ligament, ending his season. Dom went then went from the back-up to the starter of one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history, and he did not disappoint.
In his rookie season, in just 9 games, Rhodes ran for 1,104 yards and 9 TDs. He averaged 4.7 yards a carry. He set a record as an undrafted rookie for most rushing yards. In a season of misery in 2001 (Colts went 6-10 that year), Rhodes was one of the few bright spots. There's a funny story about Rhodes and his record breaking game:
Prior to the game, Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison approached Rhodes and told him that if he ran for X number of yards in the game, the NFL was going to stop the game and honor his accomplishment as the first undrafted rookie to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing. During the game, Rhodes took a carry and broke 1,000 yards. He stood up with the ball, expecting the game to stop to honor him. The game didn't stop. Rhodes turned around to the huddle and saw Manning, Harrison, and the others on offense having a good laugh at Rhodes' expense.
Perseverance, drive, and toughness are trademarks of Rhodes. Following his great 2001 season, he tore a ligament in his knee running during training camp in 2002, the first season under Tony Dungy. He spent all of 2002 rehabbing, and then returned to backing up Edgerrin James in 2003, 2004, and 2005. When James left via free agency after 2005, the Colts "promoted" Rhodes to the starting RB position, and then promptly drafted a highly regarded RB out of LSU with their first round pick: Joseph Addai.
For many players, such an action by the Colts could be seen as a sign of "disrespect." Unlike most players, Dom is not an ego-maniacal schmuck. He embraced Addai and took him under his wing the way Edge had tutored him. During the 2006 season, Rhodes and Addai were inseparable on the sideline. When Addai got his first TD as a pro against the Houston Texans in Week 2, the first guy to run over, from the sidelines, and congratulate him was Rhodes. When Addai scored the winning TD in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots, Rhodes was there again to congratulate. Rhodes' mentoring of Addai warmed fans like me, because many of us thought Rhodes quit on the Colts in 2005. His attention to Addai, and his focus in 2006, changed my mind about him.
Rhodes' true wealth to the Colts as a back really paid off in the 2006 playoffs. All season long, fans saw a play featuring Rhodes carrying the football as a "surrendered play." Rhodes was only averaging 3.4 yards a carry while Addai was averaging almost 5 a carry! However, in the playoffs, Rhodes became a beast. Against the Chiefs he ran for 68 yards on just 13 carries. He seemed to single-handedly end Baltimore's season in the fourth quarter of the playoff game at Baltimore. Rhodes held the ball for 7 minutes, chewing up yardage and eating clock; bleeding the Ravens dry enroot to a game icing FG by Adam Vinatieri. Against the Patriots, he made Pats linebackers miss left and right, gaining 69 yards on just 14 carries. His play in the second half ignited the Colts to the biggest comeback in Championship Game history. In the Super Bowl, he ran for 113 yards and a TD. In hindsight, it would have been more fitting if Rhodes and Addai were crowned co-MVPs of Super Bowl 41 and not Peyton Manning.
In many ways, Rhodes, an undrafted free agent rookie from a school no one had heard of, turned out to be a better running back for the Colts than Edgerrin James, the #3 pick in the 1999 NFL draft from "The U" of Miami. Rhodes did what James could never really do: perform well in the playoffs. Rhodes' pairing with Joseph Addai formed a more potent, physical rushing attack than any of the seasons prior.
Now, Dom has moved on. He's now splitting carries with the highly-overrated fantasy bust that is Lamont Jordan in Oakland. Just like with Edge last year, I wish Dom well (unless he plays the Colts). Dom will always have a special place in the heart of many Colts fans. He will most likely fizzle out in Oakland, a team managed by an incompetent owner who resembles Mr. Burns on crank. Still, the Raiders are getting a high character guy for their low character team. Just that alone makes them better in 2007.
For me, I will certainly miss Dom wearing #33 for the Colts, and I'll have a tough time seeing another Colt wear that number. He might not be the franchise leader in rushing, but Dom will always be remembered as a Colt for his clutch play in the playoffs and his mentoring of younger players like Addai.
Dom is a true wearer of the blue shoe, and we fans will indeed miss him.