The "Trent Richardson experiment" is about to begin its second year in Indianapolis, and as hard as it is to imagine that the highly touted running back out of Alabama could be any less productive than he was during the 2013-14 NFL season, there's a number of factors this season that suggest this just may be the case.
For one, the Colts have already lost a number of key offensive linemen to injuries this preseason, and devoid of any last-minute pickups, may have to resort to starting rookies and inexperienced linemen in some very key positions on the line. This situation would be tough for any running back to succeed in, but may prove almost impossible for a player like Richardson, who is still trying to regain his confidence and settle in to a comfort zone with a relatively new team.
Then, there's the emergence of Andrew Luck, whose talent is no longer a secret or question to the rest of the league. This emergence of Luck's talent, and the Colts' successful offense in the air, means that when opposing teams circle the Colts on their calendar, their defense has one thing on their mind: stopping the pass.
On the surface, this pass defense strategy sounds like a good thing for Richardson and the rest of the Indianapolis Colts' running corps. After all, if defenses are more focused on Luck, then there's less focus on stopping the run game. But defending against the pass means passing becomes less successful for the offensive team, especially in longer yardage situations. This puts more pressure on the running game to gain those few extra yards on first and second downs, and forces the offense to run on a more "predictable" play structure in order to secure a shorter third down situation.
And the statistics are there to prove that point.
Take, for instance, Luck's rookie year in 2012. In that season, Luck's ability to perform in the NFL was still relatively unknown, and in that year, the Colts' third down conversion percentage was 41%; even with a rookie in the backfield. Last season, with Richardson in the backfield, the third down conversion percentage dropped to 38%.
Currently, during the preseason, the Colts are sitting at an even worse 36% third down conversion rate. And, while this may not be indicative of their regular season performance, none of the starting running backs have shown anything to suggest that this number would be significantly higher if they played the whole game.
And, while the debate on whether or not high third down conversion rates truly equal success, it seems hard to discount the overwhelmingly high historical correlation between teams that convert on third down and those that hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season. But even with the conversation on third down conversion and winning up for argument, there's almost no disagreement that gaining key yards on first and second downs leads to a higher third down conversion success.
Meaning, if the Colts want to be successful in the regular season, then whomever they have starting at running back in their first regular season game against Denver needs to be someone that can consistently gain three or four yards on first and second downs, and allow Luck to have the more attainable third-and-four, or less, situations to work with. After all, in third-and-long situations, passing is almost an inevitability rather than an option. Making the play more predictable and easy to stop.
But the numbers and the variables seem to suggest that Richardson may not be that guy to get those key few yards on first and second downs this year. Last year, Richardson seemed to struggle with choosing the right hole to run through; he seemed to bounce around in the backfield looking for an Alabama-sized gap, and he's shown more of the same this preseason with holes that have become even more small due to the injuries on the offensive line.
And, in a year when the running game will be crucial to the Colts' success, but tougher to accomplish due to a weak line, Richardson appears to be almost doomed for failure from the start.
But if Richardson won't be the guy to lead this team to success in the backfield, perhaps the even scarier thought is: who can?