Thursday, February 5, 2009

Know Your Colts: Running Backs

The Colts were 31st last year in rushing yards and dead last in yards per rushing attempt. At ColtPlay, we think that’s ridiculous. Not only do the Colts have a high-powered offense, but they were usually ahead in most games — exactly the situation where running the ball makes the most sense. That they aren’t in the top half of the league in rushing yards boggles the mind.

Fans have floated a few theories as to why. As part of ColtPlay’s look at the Colts’ running backs, it might be interesting to look at them:

Blame Manning’s injury: Early in the season, many observers noted that Manning’s bursa sac ailments reduced his mobility and prevented him from being able to accomplish the stretch play — the Colts’ bread-and-butter in the running game. While that is true, it seems to me that the running game should be able to survive the loss of one play (heck, the passing game was reduced by about 40 percent of its options). In fact, if the team’s quarterback is ailing, isn’t it incumbent on the running backs to pick up the slack? Shouldn’t the running game actually have gotten more yards?

Here’s a chart that shows how many passing yards (blue bars) and rushing yards (red bars) the Colts got in their 16 regular-season games. The blue line represents the NFL average of passing yards per game and the red line represents the NFL average of rushing yards per game.

You’ll note there’s no discernable trend in either. While Manning’s passing efficiency improved as the affects of his injury lessened, he did not pass for more yards, nor did the backs rush for more.

Also interesting is that while the Colts recorded just one game with fewer passing yards than the NFL average, they recorded only two games above the NFL rushing average. And one of them was in Game 16, in which a guy named Lance Ball was the primary ballcarrier.

My conclusion is that Manning’s injury didn’t hurt the running game, but that the running game let the Colts down while Manning was ailing.

Blame the offensive line: It’s become trendy to blame the Colts’ rushing woes on the rookies and injury replacements on the offensive line. While it is true that the Colts lost both of their starting guards from 2007 (Jake Scott to free agency and Ryan Lilja to injury) and that left tackle Tony Ugoh missed four games due to injury and inconsistent play and star center Jeff Saturday also missed four games due to injury, the line didn’t actually suffer all that much.

While Charlie Johnson was not great at left tackle, he was pretty darn good at guard. And while Steve justice did not look comfortable and seemed to lack functional strength, the other rookie linemen certainly were not the cause of the rushing problems. The Colts were 16-4 (an .800 winning percentage) in games started by rookies Mike Pollak and Jamey Richard, and 44-16 (a .733 winning percentage) without them. I charted their progress as the season went along, and really don’t think the Colts would have played noticeably better had Lilja replaced either. Although I will admit that both were somewhat better in pass pro than they were in blocking for the runningbacks, the difference was not that great — neither was all that bad in the running game. I’d certainly grade both better than veterans Ryan Diem, Dan Federkeil or even Johnson. But that will all come out in a later article.

And if it was the rooks’ fault, you would have seen the rushing game record better numbers in the games they did not start, but it didn’t. If the problem arose from their learning curve, then you would have noticed the Colts’ rushing attack get better as the season progressed, but it didn’t.

My conclusion is that while the Colts do not have a powerful run-blocking line, it was not significantly worse in 2008 than it was in any of the previous Manning-led seasons. Rookies and injury replacements played significant chunks of time, but they didn’t appear to hurt the line all that much. They would have had to have been awful for the rushing game to suffer the way it did.

Blame the coaches: Don’t be ridiculous.

Blame injuries: In the 2008 season, Joseph Addai reported head, hamstring and shoulder injuries, and he missed four games. Dominic Rhodes suffered chest and ankle injuries, which kept him out of one game. Mike Hart’s ACL tear led to 14 missed games. Chad Simpson’s ankle game him trouble. A concussion sent Clifton Dawson to the IR. It got so bad, the Colts signed (and played) well-worn and never-all-that-good-anyway Najeh Davenport and activated a shadowy figure named Lance Ball from the practice squad.

Injuries to running backs obviously played a part in the Colts’ tepid running attack — and that’s worrisome. The Colts don’t have one of those offenses that expose backs to a high number of big hits (like Denver, for example). If they are getting injured that often, maybe they are an injury-prone bunch. Not good news.

And it’s important to keep in mind that injuries usually affect running backs more profoundly than players at other positions. Remember Edgerrin James before and after his ACL tear? Two different players.

Conclusion? If injuries are the problem, then maybe that brings us to the unspeakable, but inevitable …

Blame the backs: Maybe, just maybe, the Colts don’t have the enviable pool of talent in the offensive backfield that the media and fans assure us they do. So, in that spirit, here’s ColtPlay’s look at the Colts’ running backs. Before we look at the individual backs, let’s look at some of their 2008 statistics. It’s interesting that Addai and Rhodes had virtually the same number of carries, with similarly unnimpressive results.

Yards per carry
Ball 6.385
Hart 4.500
Rhodes 3.539
Addai 3.510
Davenport 3.250
Simpson 3.000

Yards per carry without longest run included
Ball 5.000
Addai 3.383
Rhodes 3.311
Davenport 2.571
Simpson 2.500
Hart 2.000

Percent of carries for 1st downs or touchdowns
Hart 100.00
Simpson 46.67
Ball 38.46
Addai 25.16
Rhodes 21.71
Davenport 12.50

Percent of carries stuffed
Ball 0.00
Hart 0.00
Addai 11.61
Davenport 12.50
Simpson 13.33
Rhodes 17.11

Fumbles per 100 touches
Rhodes 0.000
Davenport 0.000
Addai 0.556
Simpson 5.556
Ball 7.143
Hart 33.333

Percentage of passes caught
Ball 100.00
Davenport 100.00
Hart 100.00
Rhodes 76.27
Simpson 75.00
Addai 64.10

Yards per catch
Hart 18.00
Davenport 13.50
Simpson 10.00
Addai 8.24
Rhodes 6.71
Ball 5.00

Yards per pass target
Hart 18.00
Davenport 13.50
Simpson 7.50
Addai 5.28
Rhodes 5.12
Ball 5.00

Yards after the catch per catch
Hart 15.00
Simpson 10.33
Rhodes 5.87
Addai 4.36
Ball 0.00
Davenport 0.00

Percentage of 1st downs and touchdowns per catch
Hart 100.00
Davenport 50.00
Addai 44.00
Rhodes 37.78
Simpson 33.33
Ball 0.00

29 Joseph Addai Numbers: 5112/214/4.40c in 06 2008 Statistics: 155-544-5 rushing, 25-206-2 receiving, 1/1 fumble/lost 2008 preseason statistics: 12 games played/12 games started (10-2), 18-35-0 rushing, 6-25-0 receiving, 1/1 fumble/lost, 1 tackle
After James left in 2006, everyone knew the Colts would select a back in the first round. The media and fans were about evenly divided between Minnesota’s Laurence Maroney and LSU’s Addai. Maroney had a bit more magic in his step, but Addai played a more complete game. I thought both sides were wrong. I wanted UCLA’s Maurice Jones-Drew. Guess what? I still do.

But I digress. The Colts picked Addai, and he is their guy. I have to admit he looked really good as a rook. Although Rhodes started every game (rushing for just 641 yards and a paltry 3.43 yards per carry), Addai outgained him significantly (1,081 yards and 4.78 yards per carry). He also ran decent routes, he caught the ball and he blocked like a pro. It was a great season, and the Colts won the Super Bowl. But while Addai started that game, Rhodes outgained him 113 yards to 77. In it, Addai really didn’t look ready for prime time.

But Addai moved in as the starter for 2007 and looked, well, pretty decent (1,072 yards and 4.11 yards per carry). Rhodes signed with the Raiders and was just one of many backs who suffered behind their poor line, lackluster passing game and … uhm … eccentric play calling. Then came 2008. Rhodes came back, but Addai was the established starter. He didn’t produce like one. He couldn’t run (554 yards and a 3.51 average per carry); he couldn’t catch a cold (he brought down 64.10 percent of passes thrown his way, while starting running backs average about 80 percent). He was so bad that the Colts basically abandoned the running game and stopped throwing to him.

While you can say 2008 was an aberration that happened because of a multitude of injuries to Addai, I would counter with two arguments:

a) Even at his best, Addai is not that great. Good, but not great. Look at the stats of the top back in Indy since the dawn of the Peyton Manning era:

1998 Faulk 1,319 yards rushing/908 yards receiving
1999 James 1,553/586
2000 James 1,709/594
2001 Rhodes 1,104/224
2002 James 989/354
2003 James 1,259/292
2004 James 1,538/483
2005 James 1,506/337
2006 Addai 1,081/325
2007 Addai 1,072/364
2008 Addai 544/206

Okay, now which of these backs just doesn’t belong? I don’t blame Addai. There’s a real difference between backs drafted in the top 10 picks of the first round (Faulk was picked 2nd overall and James 4th) and backs drafted at the tail end of the first. As long as the Colts keep winning, they won’t have a chance at the Adrian Petersons of the world and will instead have to field backs that are somewhat less complete or outstanding. It is ColtPlay’s assertion that Addai can only truly be effective if he’s part of a committee.

b) And he’s only good if he’s healthy. Addai’s 2008 was atrocious in a large part because he was nicked up. For many players, I’d consider that an aberration, but I’m always observant of injuries to backs because it often affects them more than other players, and Addai has a long history of durability problems. Although he’s only missed five of 48 possible regular-season games as a pro, he never really won the halfback job at LSU because he couldn’t be relied upon to be healthy enough to play.

38 Dominic Rhodes Numbers: 5090/209/4.47pd in 01 2008 Statistics: 152-538-6 rushing, 45-302-3 receiving 2008 preseason statistics: 15 games played/0 games started (2-2), 13-39-0 rushing
I’ve never been a big Rhodes guy. Actually, that’s not entirely true. When he showed up as an undrafted rook out of Nowhere U and won the No. 2 job behind Edgerrin James in 2001, I was really, really impressed. But then Edge tore his ACL and Rhodes stepped in as the starter. Yeah, he gained 1,104 yards and the fans went wild for him, but the Colts lost most of those games when they would have won most of them if Edge was still in there. He wasn’t James. That’s not surprising; very few Edgerrin James have walked this Earth. I know Rhodes has a lot of fans out there, but face it, Rhodes isn’t a No. 1 back. And then he tore his own ACL. And like all backs who do that, he wasn’t the same afterwards. Look at his yards per carry through his career: 4.74, 4.24, 4.79, ACL tear, 2.95, 3.43, signs with Oakland, 4.03, goes back to Indy, 3.54.

And these days, Rhodes plays hard and draws a lot of praise. People — the press, fans, Polian himself — rave about his courage, his discipline, his selflessness; but they neglect to mention that he averages about a yard per carry less than he should and has almost no breakaway potential. I understand. I like a guy who plays hard. And I know that a lot of that love comes from Rhodes’ performance in Super Bowl XVI. He really did step up in that game, although a big part of that was because Addai disappeared.

And now he’s an unrestricted free agent. He’s a 30-year-old back with lots of miles on his legs and an ACL tear in his past. He’s not likely to get a ton of bids for his services. The Colts will invite him back — mostly out of gratitude — but I really don’t think he’s the back you want to hitch your wagon to.

32 Mike Hart Numbers: 5087/206/4.69c in 08 2008 Statistics: 2-9-0 rushing, 1-18-0 receiving, 1/0 fumble/lost 2008 preseason statistics: 5 games played/0 games started, 17-95-0 rushing, 7-75-0 receiving, 1 special-teams tackle
I’ll admit I didn’t want the Colts to draft Hart. Yeah, I knew he was an incredible guy who was a one-man gang in college. But I watched him run at the combine and I immediately thought he was a great college player who just didn’t have what it takes to be an NFL back. And I remembered how hard Michigan rode him and wondered what he’d have left. When they did pick him, I kind of thought Bill Polian must know something; but my hopes were dashed when Polian himself compared Hart to James Mungro — a great guy who scared nobody as a back.

But then I watched Hart in preseason. He was magic. Really. Okay, it was generally against guys who are working at Wal-Mart now, but he looked like the second coming of Emmitt Smith out there. He was hard to find and harder to bring down. He ran nice routes, caught the ball and picked up blitzes. It wasn’t enough to make me think he’d be a threat to start or anything, but he really looked like he could be a nice change-of-pace back who could pick up tough yards, catch a few passes and pick up a few blitzes.

And it looked like that would happen once the season started. But then he tore his ACL. I’m sure he’ll work hard to rehab, but we all know backs are different after the ol’ ACL goes. But it brings up a sort of a dilemma — will Hart be robbed of what little speed he had and be rendered useless, or will he be a wily back that never relied on speed and simply take over where he left off?

Nobody knows for sure. And don’t pretend you do. The best-case scenario is that he is what they expected him to be before he was hurt — and that was a backup.

35 Chad Simpson Numbers: 5085/216/4.40c in 08 2008 Statistics: 15-45-1 rushing, 3-30-0 receiving, 15-344-0 kick returns, 2 special-teams tackles, 1/0 fumbles/lost 2008 preseason statistics: 5 games played/0 games started, 16-49-0 rushing, 3-22-0 receiving, 1-6-0 kick return, 1 tackle, 1 special-teams tackle
Here’s what ColtPlay said about Simpson when the Colts signed him as an undrafted free agent last spring:

Speed, power, wiggle, a nose for the end zone and a lightning-quick first step — what more could you want? Well, vision, route running, blocking skills and soft hands — all of which Simpson lacks.
Wow, kinds feels good to be right. As a rookie, Simpson showed all of those traits — both good and bad. The kid is a talent, but I don’t think he’ll ever be a big-time NFL back. Still, he could be a guy who can step in and do a decent job if he’s not exposed too much, especially if he’s running wild in the fourth quarter while tired defenses are trying to contain him.

Perhaps more important is his ability as a return man. He got a trial last year and was tentative at first, but seemed to get the hang of it as things went along. I expect he’ll be given a chance to win the primary return job outright this summer, but he won’t be the favorite.

30 Clifton Dawson Numbers: 5095/214/4.54pd in 07 2008 Statistics: 2 games played/0 games started 2008 preseason statistics: 5 games played/0 games started, 7-20-0 rushing, 1-6-0 receiving
If you saw Dawson play at Harvard, you’d probably think he was on his way to a long NFL career. He just ran all over the Ivy League, looking like a man among boys. In his 39 starts, he ran 958-4,841-60 and caught 80-759-4 in stylish fashion. The Colts signed him after the 2007 draft, and things changed for him a little. Facing NFL players instead of Ivy Leaguers, he could run over or away from them any more. He did everything the right way, but just didn’t seem quite quick enough to make an impact. He was a final cut. The Bengals grabbed him and he dressed for a couple of games before they sent him packing. The Colts signed him again, and he played a little after injuries hit (hmmm), rushing 30-64-1 and catching two passes for 15 yards. He was brought back for the 2008 camp and again was a final cut. They signed him again when injuries struck again, but after a couple of games of running around on special teams, he suffered a concussion and wound up on injured reserve.

I’m pretty sure Dawson will be asked to come back to Colts camp for 2009. And I’m pretty sure he’ll get cut. But I wouldn’t feel too bad for him. He’s a Harvard grad.

27 Lance Ball Numbers: 5091/220/4.56pd in 08 2008 Statistics: 13-83-0 rushing, 1-5-0 receiving, 1/0 fumbles/lost 2008 preseason statistics: 4 games played/0 games started, 31-137-2 rushing, 8-43-0 receiving, 1/1 fumbles/lost, 1 fumble recovery
Finally, a little good news — one Colts back did much better than expected last season. Ball never really took hold of the starting job at Maryland because of the presence of similarly sized, similarly skilled Keon Lattimore, but did manage to run for 549-2,487-26 in college. Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Rams, he had a very good camp and preseason with them, but couldn’t get a spot in their crowded backfield and was waived, then signed to the practice squad. When injuries forced a practice squad shuffle, the Rams cut him again and the Colts picked him up. He hung on their practice squad until he was activated for the final regular season game.

In a game that primarily pit backups against backups, Ball ran looked like the best back on the field. He ran with authority, followed his blockers and shook off would-be tacklers. He did drop the ball just as he was crossing the goal line for what would have been his first NFL regular-season touchdown, and he refreshingly blamed it on opening-night jitters.

Of course, one game against the Titans’ scrubs doesn’t say that much about a back’s NFL potential, but I do remember Ball from college and even high school in Teaneck, New Jersey (I was working for the sports section of a nearby paper at the time). As a runner, he’s strong and very quick in small spaces. He makes himself small and is hard to bring down once he has a head of steam. In college, he was just fast enough to be effective outside, but might not have quite enough to do that in the pros. Ball showed he was a decent receiver with soft hands, but he needs to run better routes and be more aware of the passing game’s nuances before he can contribute that much in the NFL. He demonstrated better run-blocking skills than pass-blocking moves, but has the potential to improve in that area.

Sounds good, right? Well, don’t think Ball is the answer to the team’s running woes, or even a shoo-in to make the team. Right now, he’s a pretty good inside runner with the potential to contribute as a pass-catcher and blocker. With a good camp (and no fumbles), he could make the team as an extra back or a short-yardage specialist.

Note: This is the first time I have mentioned Davenport without pointing out his lack of wisdom as regards where he poops.

How this affects the draft and free agency
Okay, let’s see what the Colts have:

Addai: Almost good enough to be a featured back, but needs a strong supporting cast and someone who can step in when necessary
Rhodes: A career No. 2 who’s approaching the end of his career
Hart: A guy who could be a decent No. 2 back if he rebounds from a torn ACL
Simpson: A maybe kick returner who could take a couple of snaps at runningback
Dawson: A CFL player on an NFL team
Ball: A between-the-tackles bowling ball who could stick if all goes well for him

Hey, I realize what the facts are. The Colts have invested a first-round pick in Addai and signed him to a five-year contract. He’s here for a while. And if the Colts grab a young back in the draft, it won’t be to replace him, but to augment him — at least in the short term.

There’s an outside chance the Colts will draft a back in the first round, but you can forget all those mocks that have Knowshon Moreno or Beanie Wells sliding to (or even past!) the Colts’ pick at No. 27. Moreno is a top-10 pick (top 15 at the worst) and Wells will be gone by 27 too.

They could grab Pitt’s LeSean McCoy. Or they could wait until the second and select a guy like Iowa's Shonn Greene, UConn’s Donald Brown, North Carolina State’s Andre Brown or Clemson’s James Davis. None of these guys is a truly complete back who could send Addai to the bench from Day 1, although McCoy could evolve into an outstanding back given time.

Of course, there is a chance that the Colts’ brass will decide that Addai will hold together, Rhodes has yet another year in his tired old legs and Mike Hart will bounce right back. That could happen; but I really, really hope not.

Running backs drafted since Polian took over

2008 Sixth Mike Hart
2006 First Joseph Addai
2005 Seventh Anthony Davis
2002 Sixth Brian Allen
1999 First Edgerrin James

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