"As much as optimists in Indianapolis preach the importance of patience when faced with these facts, it's becoming hard to see the upside in a player who was supposed to be special and cost the Colts a first-round pick." - Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN.com, October 31, 2013
"The big question facing the Colts -- and one we imagine they might be afraid to know the answer to -- is whether Richardson is in a slump, or simply playing to his ability. Remember, Richardson averaged just 3.6 yards per carry during his rookie season with the Browns. That middling production was blamed on nagging injuries and a subpar Cleveland line. But how about now?" - Dan Hanzus, NFL.com, October 22, 2013
"Nevertheless, saying that Richardson hasn't impressed would be an understatement. The former third-overall pick has looked slow, indecisive and lacking vision in his first four games as a Colt." - Kyle J. Rodriguez, Bleacher Report, October 17, 2013
On September 18, 2013 the Indianapolis Colts shocked the football world by pulling off a monster mid-season trade to bring second-year running back Trent Richardson to Indy. The Colts acquired the third overall pick in the 2012 draft for a first round draft pick, and immediately fans and media alike began raving about the combination of Andrew Luck and Trent Richardson - both top three picks in last year's draft.
Since that moment, however, that optimism has cooled off tremendously and now the discussion is about how Richardson looks like a real bust for the Colts, which is what the above quotes are discussing. It's impossible to suggest that Richardson has lived up to expectations since the trade, averaging just 3.0 yards per carry and just 45.6 yards per game in the five games with Indy. But the questions we need to ask are whether or not that is more indicative of a rough stretch getting acclimated or whether it is a sign of much bigger issues. In order to do that, we also need to look at why it is that Richardson is struggling.
Several smart football people have looked at this, most notably Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, who compared Richardson at Alabama to Richardson in the NFL. I highly recommend that read if you want more on this subject.
Before we dive into the tape on Richardson, let me make something extremely clear up front: I am not looking at whether or not Richardson was worth a first round pick. That's up to you to decide. The bottom line is that the trade was made and Richardson was acquired for a first round pick. In this article, I'm purely looking at Richardson on the football field. For example, people still criticize Donald Brown for not living up to his first round draft pick expectations. But that doesn't make him a bad player, and now, years later, we need to evaluate him based more on his play on the field than his draft position. While there certainly is need to look at the draft position, it is more important to look at a player's on field performance, and that is what we will attempt to do here.
What is the Reason for Trent Richardson's Struggles?
I'll be honest and say that my opinion of Richardson has changed since watching the tape on him. Coming into it, I was really down on Richardson. I saw a back who was averaging just 3 yards per carry, wasn't creating any runs, who fumbled at a crucial point in the game against the Broncos, and who had yet to do anything special since coming to Indy. I still believe all of that, but there's an added dimension now - it is clear that it is not all his fault.
Here is what Pro Football Focus's Sam Monson wrote of Richardson's performance against the Broncos:
"Trent Richardson ended the game with a -2.2 grade, which you might expect for a player who could only muster 37 rushing yards from 14 carries, but in truth almost all of that came because of his fumble - a play where he was being gang tackled and the ball was stripped from his grasp as half of Denver rode him to the ground. Otherwise he was dealt the blocking equivalent of the Dead Man's Hand, meeting players in the backfield on seemingly every carry, and barely getting an opportunity all day to run the ball without having to make a cut in the backfield as the play had been blown to hell. Richardson forced five missed tackles, and gained 25 of his 37 yards after contact. That means that on 14 carries his blocking generated him just 12 yards before he was hit. The same ran true for Brown, who gained 12 of his 23 yards after contact. Richardson may be killing some fantasy teams, but the fault lies not at his door, at least not entirely."
Everyone acknowledges that the Colts's offensive line isn't that good, but it seems to become such a commonplace statement that you can get away with saying it without actually watching the film. Watching the film, you're reminded just how true it is. I don't mean to turn this article into a "bash the offensive line!" article, but honestly, it's hard to evaluate Richardson's play without it. I'm not trying to make excuses but rather state the truth: the Colts's offensive line is responsible for a lot of Richardson's early struggles. The Colts often run the ball right up the middle behind their two worst offensive linemen, Samson Satele and Mike McGlynn. That makes for problems running the ball, but it's much more than just them. Everybody along the line misses blocks at different times it seems. Coby Fleener has had huge problems blocking for Richardson, maybe even more so than Satele or McGlynn.
How is Richardson supposed to make a play out of this? The picture doesn't do it justice - the play all fell apart at the last second, too late for Richardson to cut it outside. Instead, three defenders all came off their block at the last second and left no room to run.
Or what about this one? Richardson is supposed to follow Hugh Thornton, and like the previous one it looked good until the last second, when the defender came off of his block to plug the hole and bring Richardson down.
Those two plays are all too common for the Colts this year. I was honestly surprised at how many plays were over before Richardson even had a chance to do anything about it. We seem to have such high expectations of Richardson that we think he needs to make something out of nothing on every single play, and that is unrealistic - especially for a second year back learning a new system.
So far this year, there has been a lot of nothing for Richardson and he has done his best to make something out of it. But it hasn't always happened, and that can easily be attributed to an offensive line that has failed to make holes or hold blocks long enough for Richardson to make a play. It's incredibly hard to run behind that sort of a line.
That said, we can't absolve Richardson of all the blame, because he still has some. Often times when he is in the backfield looking at where to run, it gets to the point where his feet stop for just a split second, and he seems to have trouble accelerating fast enough to get away from defenders from that situation. He has quite a few instances of being indecisive. One of the biggest things I wrote down while taking notes on Richardson's tape, however, still goes back to the line. I wrote in all caps - and later even went back and circled and then starred - a note where I wrote that it looks like Richardson just doesn't trust that offensive line. That's just compounding to the problem, because not only is the line not blocking, but Richardson seems to think they won't before the play even develops (and often that's a fair assessment but not good for a running back to have).
If I'm blaming the offensive line for Richardson's struggles, however, the question must be asked why Donald Brown (and previously Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw) all did well behind that very same line. That is a huge question to look at. So, to better answer that, I also went back and watched film on Brown. Why has he done so well behind that line if Richardson has struggled so much in large part because of it?
Why is it just Richardson Struggling Running the Ball?
One reason is that Brown looks more comfortable. He looks more decisive and seems to stay more "north and south" instead of "east and west", like Richardson has tried to do at times. Essentially, this means that Brown doesn't wait as long to cut it upfield as Richardson does. Brown is also quicker off the cut and accelerates faster than Richardson. Donald Brown is having a tremendous year after having a dismal first few in Indy, and he has been good enough this year that not only do I think the Colts will re-sign him at the end of the year, but I think it would be a good move - something I never thought I would think coming into the season. We can't ignore the fact that Donald Brown is having a really good year and that is attributed to a variety of factors, including (but not limited to) the fact he hasn't had to shoulder the whole load, improved vision and decisiveness, and an increased comfort level.
All of that said, we haven't hit on the main reason for Brown having so much success while Richardson isn't, and this may be the biggest issue that no one is talking about: the playcalling.
It has become somewhat popular to criticize offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton this year, and a lot of it has been justified, but almost no one is talking about this aspect of it. I think that Richardson is actually doing exactly what should be expected of him given the play calls.
I mentioned earlier that almost all of Richardson's runs are straight up the middle. The Colts don't really hide it - they often run in obvious run situations and in obvious run formations - and instead just try to overpower the defense. They just hand it off to Richardson and tell him to run straight up the middle, with the little variance often coming from Richardson bouncing a designed run up the middle outside.
The truth is this: Trent Richardson is a very good short yardage back. Both of his touchdowns this year have been 1-yard scores, and he has done a good job in the other short yardage situations they have given him the ball in. It is probably his biggest strength and he has certainly done well there so far. Here's the problem, though: the Colts are treating most Richardson runs the same way, regardless of the situation. Lining up in a run formation when the defense knows it will probably be a run and then just pounding the football up the middle? That's what you do in short yardage - when you need 3 yards or less. They are essentially running a short yardage running game no matter where they are on the field and no matter how long it is to the first down, and the results have been about what you would expect from a short yardage run game - 3 yards per carry.
This also answers perhaps the two biggest objections to the offensive line failures being to blame for Richardson's struggles: 1) why is Donald Brown doing so well then? and 2) why did Richardson look so much better with the Browns when they had a bad line too - perhaps even worse?
Here's the answers to those two questions:
1) When Donald Brown is in the game, the Colts often are either in a passing situation or a passing formation - at least much more often than when Richardson is in the game. Quite a few of Brown's runs have come out of the shotgun and quite a few of his runs have been when defenses were expecting pass. That is in stark opposition to Trent Richardson, who has gotten most of his handoffs while Luck was under center and quite a few of them came when the defense was expecting pass. While not taking anything away from Donald Brown, a lot of his runs have been made possible because Pep Hamilton mixed up the formations and play calling a bit. He hasn't seemed to do that near as often when Richardson is in the game.
2) After watching tape on Richardson in Indy and seeing the offensive line struggle so much, I too wondered how he rushed for 950 yards and averaged 3.6 yards per carry last year for Cleveland playing behind an offensive line that is just as bad as the Colts's line. It was evident just by watching film of the Browns with Richardson (for the first two games this year, too) that they mixed it up a lot more. It wasn't always the best play calling but they still varied in their calls much more than the Colts have and they ran Richardson outside a ton more than the Colts have. They pitched the ball outside to him numerous times in the games I watched a bit of and they helped mask the problem of a bad offensive line by not running directly up the middle of it every single play.
What Can We Learn from This?
Basically, here's my summary of what I saw on film: Trent Richardson looks indecisive, somewhat slow to accelerate, and looks like he doesn't trust his offensive line, which is understandable because they haven't given him any room to run whatsoever. I place a lot of the blame on the line, but even then they haven't been helped out whatsoever by the coaching staff (namely, Pep Hamilton).
As much as we'd like to think they will, the offensive line likely won't be improving much this season, and if things remain that way then Richardson will continue to average just 3 yards per carry and carry the "bust" label on him. But I think that while we won't see Richardson become a Pro Bowler or anything this year, Pep Hamilton can help him out by creating more opportunities for him to run and setting up Richardson, the offensive line, and the entire offense to be more successful.
We all understand that Trent Richardson is a good short yardage back, but Hamilton needs to mix it up in situations that aren't short yardage, otherwise Richardson will continue to average right around 3 yards per carry - a solid number in short yardage situations but rather dismal in other situations. What do I suggest Hamilton do?
1) Get more creative. Get Richardson outside some. He'll never be the best outside runner in football, nor is that his strong point, but that doesn't mean the Colts shouldn't ever do it. If nothing else, it keeps the defense honest. Right now, they know where it is going when Richardson gets the handoff - right up the middle. Mix it up with some outside runs and I think we will see not only Richardson's average rise but also we will see the runs up the middle (which will rightfully continue to be the main running plays) be more successful as well. This doesn't need to be a dramatic change, but when the Colts are giving Richardson the ball 15 times per game, some of those carries need to be outside.
2) Become less predictable. Run Richardson out of some passing situations and passing formations, like they have done with Donald Brown. Since Richardson is the number one back, it is understandable that he gets the carries in running situations and running formations, but that shouldn't always be the case. By making things less predictable, we should also begin to see Richardson's average increase, as well as his effectiveness.
3) When they do run behind the line, run more behind the left side. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is a very, very good run blocker. I don't have then numbers on how often they do this, but what I do know is that they need to run behind the left side of the line more often than they run behind the right side. Utilize your best run blocker in Anthony Castonzo.
There are plenty of people to blame for Trent Richardson's struggles early on in his career with the Colts, mainly Richardson himself, the offensive line, and Pep Hamilton. It hasn't been a great start but it is entirely unfair to call him a bust already, because honestly I'm not sure many backs in the league could do that much better.
It hasn't been great so far, but don't give up, because a lot of the struggles are identifiable and fixable. It just might take some time, but don't give up on Trent Richardson yet. And don't by any means call him a bust yet.