The Indianapolis Colts traded a first-round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns for running back Trent Richardson earlier this season. This blockbuster move was supposed to cement the Colts as one of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL.
Unfortunately for Indianapolis, it just hasn't worked out that way.
Since joining the Colts, Richardson has only been able to muster one game in which he averaged 4.0 yards per carry. On the year, Richardson has rushed 139 times for only 411 yards—an average of just 3.0 yards per carry—and two touchdowns.
This isn't how the Colts saw things unfolding.
The struggles of this second-year running back lead us to beg the question: What’s really wrong with Richardson?
The first positional unit that is easy to blame is the Colts' offensive line. It has been decimated with injuries and unable to jell as a unit this season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the offensive line currently ranks 19th in the league in run-blocking with a -23.9 grade.
This lack of production brings about concerns as to whether Richardson has struggled to due to big men in the trenches. However, that does not seem to be the case.
Backup running back Donald Brown has put together a solid season behind the exact same offensive line. Brown has rushed 71 times for 378 yards—an average of 5.3 yards per carry—and four touchdowns.
|Trent Richardson vs. Donald Brown in 2013|
If Brown is able to produce behind this line, then why can’t Richardson?
Head coach Chuck Pagano knows his team is in a fight for position in the upcoming 2013-14 playoffs. He did not want to take any chances, so the team decided to name Brown the starter for its Week 13 matchup against the Tennessee Titans and again for its upcoming contest against a stout Cincinnati Bengals defense.
Richardson had all the right things to say about the decision during an interview with Mike Wells of ESPN.com:
I think it's only fair that Donald is the starter, especially the production he's been putting up and the numbers. He's been playing good ball. I tell people all the time that when I first got here, they thought it was a two-headed monster with me and Ahmad Bradshaw. I always said it was a three-headed monster.
Injured wide receiver Reggie Wayne shared some insight into this matter during his radio show, which was transcribed by StampedeBlue.com.
He came to me, he wasn't pouting or anything. This was the next day after he found out he was demoted and he said, "Now I can sit back and actually watch the way it's supposed to be done." He kind of feels that he was maybe forced into it early without actually learning it.
There is a great amount of truth to this statement.
The week after Richardson was traded to Indianapolis, he was thrown right into the fire against a very talented San Francisco 49ers defense. Richardson struggled, averaging just 2.7 yards per carry in that game. He did not get a chance to get familiar with the system, and that hurt his decisiveness out of the backfield.
Additionally, that poor performance from Richardson could have severely hurt his confidence with the Colts' offensive system going forward. After all, this is still a young player in the midst of his second year in the league.
Richardson’s lack of confidence is severely hindering the way that he runs at this point in the season. Simply put, he’s thinking too much.
Instead of hitting a hole in the offensive line with authority, Richardson has remained hesitant when making decisions in the backfield. He is constantly seen stalling behind the line of scrimmage and making the wrong decisions regarding which cut to make and which direction to go in.
During his interview with ESPN.com, Richardson shared his sentiment on the matter after he watched the offense against the Titans:
It was different when I went out there Sunday. It was kind of like this is a place in your life where you have to learn and really see the offense and how things flow. I learned about myself Sunday, how humbling it was. I have to step up. I have to make sure I'm doing my job.
Richardson knows that, first and foremost, he must learn this offensive scheme and how he fits.
On the other hand, Brown—who is very familiar with this offensive scheme—has been able to flourish simply because he has enough confidence to hit the hole hard and make decisive cuts when coming out of the backfield.
This does not mean that Brown is a better runner than Richardson. It simply means that Richardson is still dealing with a steep learning curve.
After all, the offensive schemes in Cleveland and Indianapolis differ greatly.
Pagano and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton are doing the right thing regarding Richardson. Allowing him to spend some time on the bench to digest the offense is the best remedy to instill confidence in the second-year player.
Allowing Richardson to continue to receive plenty of carries in Week 14 would surely backfire on the Colts. They are facing a Bengals team that currently ranks eighth in the league in rushing yards allowed per game.
Continuing to push Richardson into action against this type of defense could only hurt his tendencies going forward.
The Colts already paid a high price for Richardson. There is no sense in trying to force their money’s worth out of him while he continues to struggle.
Some running backs are able to join a new team and pick up the offense in a matter of days. Others have a more significant learning curve and are best served to watch from a distance as they prepare. Richardson is the latter of the two.
Don’t count out Richardson just yet, because his demotion is exactly what he needed to get back on track.