The Indianapolis Colts are seemingly on the brink of becoming a legitimate Super Bowl contender. A third-year quarterback in Andrew Luck, who has flashed brilliance at times, most notably during January’s thrilling comeback victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, is positioning the Colts for years of success the same way a young Peyton Manning was doing 15 years ago.
Still, Luck could use a boost from an oftentimes lackluster supporting cast to push the Colts over the top, as there is no real evidence to suggests a weak AFC South didn’t inflate Indianapolis’ win total in 2013 and essentially make it division champions by default.
An enhanced rushing attack obtained by the long-awaited emergence of Trent Richardson, the 2012 draft’s No. 3 overall pick, would give the Colts’ offense the extra punch it needs to not only continue rolling through inferior opponents within the division, but to dethrone the league’s heavyweights without needing an extraordinary performance from Luck.
But is there any reason, outside of Richardson’s draft status, to believe the Alabama product will begin living up to his potential in 2014?
With tree trunks for legs and a bulging upper body, Richardson certainly has the physique to become the bell-cow runner he projected to be coming out of college. And the 11 touchdowns he tallied as a rookie with the Cleveland Browns before the Colts traded a first-round pick for his services the following September was proof that he’s capable of being an effective goal-line back, if nothing else, at the pro level.
Furthermore, Richardson’s struggles in 2013 have been attributed, by some, to an incomplete understanding of the Colts’ playbook. He was traded to Indianapolis during the season and was asked to assume a large role immediately, after all. It takes time and reps to develop a full understanding of something as complex as an NFL playbook.
With an entire offseason of OTAs under his belt, Richardson should have a thorough grasp of his responsibilities on every play, which could eliminate the hesitancy he displayed last fall. However, it takes much more than not being comfortable within a new scheme to explain something so inept as a 2.9 yards-per-carry average, which is all Richardson managed per attempt with the Colts last year.
One of Richardson’s biggest problems was missing holes. If you’ve followed Richardson closely as a fantasy owner or Colts fan, you’ve likely seen the cutups of game film where Richardson chose to run into a group of defenders rather than through a gaping hole. And those misses, which can be pinned on porous vision and instincts more so than incompetence in regards to the playbook, happened far too often.
Of course, the Colts’ offensive line wasn’t exactly stellar. In fact, Pro Football Focus tabbed it the league’s ninth-worst run blocking unit last season. But shortcomings up front didn’t prevent Donald Brown from averaging 5.3 yards per carry, Ahmad Bradshaw from averaging 4.5, Vick Ballard from averaging 4.8 or Tashard Choice from averaging 4.0.
Even with a new playbook, a lack of vision and shoddy blocking, Richardson’s imposing size should have been able to elevate his production. In addition to scoring a mere three touchdowns in 14 games, though, Richardson only managed 1.90 yards after contact per attempt, ranking 29th out of 32 eligible running backs, according to Pro Football Focus. And even as a rookie in Cleveland, with 11 touchdowns to his name, Richardson’s 2.09 yards-after-contact average ranked 19th among 24 eligible backs by the scouting service.
Richardson’s impressive rookie season with the Browns is obviously prolonging the hope he’ll break out with the Colts. His 11 touchdowns ranked fifth and his 950 rushing yards ranked 18th in the NFL two years ago. But accumulative statistics can often mislead. Richardson managed that production with the 11th-most carries in the league, and his 3.6-yard average was slotted 40th.
The Colts are ready to compete for Super Bowls. In that environment, there will be very little patience for Richardson. If he doesn’t exemplify immediate improvement, expect Ahmad Bradshaw or Vick Ballard, who are Richardson’s main competition after Donald Brown’s departure in free agency, to accrue more carries in 2014. Unless the light bulb has finally turned on, being relegated to a reserve role appears more likely for Richardson than finally making sense of the two first-round picks that have been burned on him.
Cody Strahm is an NFL Senior Writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter.