Cleveland Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson's transition into the NFL has encountered its fair share of bumps in the road, and the question of whether he has been pushed too hard is a valid one.
The Browns are a team desperately in need of the type of talent that Richardson brings to the field. By making him the third overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Browns front office made it clear that their offense would run through the former Alabama Crimson Tide runner.
Prior to the draft, Richardson underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee which he suffered during Alabama's BCS National Championship victory against LSU. The surgery, which took place on February 3rd, 2012, did nothing to lessen the interest that NFL teams had in drafting Richardson.
The Browns were obviously not concerned about Richardson's recovery from that February surgery when they drafted him. The pick was generally lauded as being a good one for the team, and the front office and fans alike were excited to see him take the field.
However, that excitement became tempered when, during training camp, it was announced that Richardson would undergo surgery on the same knee he had been operated on previously. Cleveland sports fans, as they have become familiar doing, immediately feared the worst despite reports of how minor the surgery would be.
The surgery would remove a small piece of loose cartilage that was irritating Richardson's knee. It was a precautionary surgery which was mainly done in order to avoid a worse injury down the road. Richardson was confident that he would be ready to play in the regular-season opener. Despite his own optimism, it was widely believed that Richardson would miss at least one game as the time frame only left him one month to recover and would preclude him from getting any preseason playing time.
Therefore, it was a mild surprise when Richardson suited up for the September 9th season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. What was even more surprising was the amount of work that Richardson got. Just one month removed from knee surgery, the Browns gave Richardson 19 carries and even worked him into the passing game.
Despite the amount of work, it was obvious to anyone watching the game that Richardson had a lot of rust on his game. On those 19 carries, he managed to gain only 39 yards for a measly 2.1 YPC. Even though his stats from that first game were none too remarkable, Richardson did show fans why he was worthy of such a high draft choice when he trucked the Eagles' Kurt Coleman, knocking his helmet off. It was very evident that Richardson knew how to finish a run in the NFL.
A week later, the rookie RB once again received 19 carries against the Cincinnati Bengals. This time, he made those carries count, racking up 109 yards rushing with a touchdown. He also added in four receptions for 36 yards and another score. It seemed that any rust that Richardson did have was shaken off in that season opener.
Then came the next five games.
Richardson struggled to get anything going in the next five games on the Browns' schedule. His best game in that stretch of the season came against the New York Giants in which he totaled 81 yards on the ground. During this stretch, he was fairly active in the passing game, but questions about his knee started to crop up due to his lack of running success.
Richardson's lowest point, and the point at which the questions of pushing him too hard were the greatest, came during the Indianapolis Colts game on October 21st. While dealing with a nagging rib injury suffered the week before and wearing a flak jacket, Richardson carried the ball eight times and totaled eight yards. He was then benched for the rest of the game.
His ineffectiveness made it seem like he might have been rushed into the NFL game too quickly by the coaching staff. However, this is not true at all. If Richardson had been unable to play at any point this season, then he would have sat on the bench for those games. The Browns are not about to risk a serious injury to the running back they hope will carry their offense for years to come.
His most recent performance backs this opinion up. Against the San Diego Chargers on October 28th, Richardson had his most impressive statistical day as a professional. On 24 carries, the rookie racked up 122 rushing yards to go along with a touchdown. He also caught a pivotal pass for a first down to help ice the game for the Browns.
Trent Richardson has not been pushed too hard by the Browns at all. He has simply had a little trouble adjusting to the speed and size of the NFL. His standout games make it obvious that he has the talent to excel at that level. The preseason knee surgery and the more recent rib injury have also not helped. However, he has been fully capable of playing in every game and was never pushed beyond his limits.
Look for Richardson to close out the 2012 NFL season as one of the most successful rookie running backs from this draft class.