Many thanks to Michael Pina of ESPN’s TrueHoop Network for providing us with the following guest post on Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson. Be sure to follow him on Twitter and let him know what you think.
The NFL has been a league of speedy, pass happy offense for a few years now. With emphasis zoomed in on quarterback play, efficient route running, and lightning-fast receivers with hands softer than freshly laid asphalt, the most successful teams are able to score quick and often.
Throwing and catching are prevalent and a priority for most. Not that the two aren’t connected in a very meaningful way, but one pass can have the impact of 20 rushing attempts, lessening the running back’s role as someone able to take over an entire game, or change momentum in an instant.
Here’s where the Cleveland Browns are going against the grain, trying to build their offense around a 23-year-old running back who was viewed by many as an overall disappointment in his rookie season.
Trent Richardson’s first 15 starts weren’t the best exhibition of raw football talent the National Football League’s ever seen, but despite the dismal yards per carry average (3.6: gross), there is still much to be extracted that could indicate success in the near future.
Richardson played most of last season hoping his three broken ribs would miraculously heal overnight, but still set a team rookie record with 12 touchdowns, showing glimpses of a rare physical power that makes adult defenders quiver.
One run doesn’t define a halfback’s identity, just like one throw, catch, or block can’t establish positive stature for any quarterback, receiver, or offensive lineman, respectively. What these single moments can do, however, is offer a quick peek inside a treasure chest’s worth of ability. Are this player’s instincts good enough?
In the second game of his professional career, Richardson brutalized the Cincinnati Bengals to the tune of 109 yards on 19 carries (he tallied 70 fewer yards in the exact same number of attempts in his debut). He also caught four balls for 36 yards, scoring one of his two touchdowns on one of them.
Here are two snapshots that indicate Richardson’s unique attributes might make him a franchise-altering player.
First, we see him faced with the dilemma every runner faces after breaking through the first line of defense. With a safety waiting in perfect position to take him down, Richardson can try cutting back into the middle of the field (usually the better option), or continue in the same direction. Either would result in a collision with the safety, and each is pointed out with the blue arrows.
Richardson opts for door number three, zipping hard right behind two blocking wide receivers and racing up the sideline. He doesn’t stop running until he hits the end zone.
It’s the type of decision that puts six points on the board instead of ten extra yards. It’s the type of decision that separates the good from the great.
The following photo needs very little explanation. Just know that moments after it was taken, Richardson scored a touchdown.
Surrounded by three Bengals, Richardson would eventually break four tackles before scoring.
Right around the time he was expected to run head first into the rookie wall, Richardson reeled off four consecutive weeks of unforeseen brilliance. In weeks 8, 9, 10, and 11, Richardson carried the ball 106 times for 407 yards. His opponents? The San Diego Chargers (a 7-6 victory for Cleveland, single-handedly won by Richardson), Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys, and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The 3.83 yards per carry average isn’t anything to brag about, but it still sits 0.27 yards above his disappointing average for the season. It also comes after Richardson ran for just eight yards on eight carries in a brutal Week 7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts (running for eight yards on eight carries, indoors, is difficult to do on purpose).
In those four games, Richardson also caught 17 passes for 119 yards—not great, but very good for a player once described by All-Pro Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngatahas having a “bowling ball” in his helmet (Richardson caught 51 passes on the year, eight more than C.J. Spiller).
According to Football Outsiders’ similarity scores, the player Richardson most resembles so far is one of the greatest running backs to ever play, Emmitt Smith. Obviously that comparison should be taken with a dump truck’s worth of salt, but another back who draws a more recent correlation from a pure style vantage point is Ray Rice—fantastic news for tortured Browns fans who have helplessly watched the three-time Pro Bowler thrash their defense twice every year since 2008.
This comparison should also be taken on thin ice, but the foundation is strong enough to walk on. Both are stocky runners, standing at 5’9″ with enough lower body strength to shatter arm tackles. Both also scamper low enough to the ground where eluding defenders in a scrum is second nature, and are smart enough to level linebackers honing in on a weak side blitz.
As a 22-year-old in his second year as a pro, and the first full season as the premier rushing attack in Baltimore’s offense, Rice tallied four 100-yard rushing games, averaged 5.3 yards per carry (1,339 total yards on 254 attempts), caught or ran for eight touchdowns, and hauled in 78 catches for 702 yards.
With 15 starts to his name, in an offense far less imposing than the one Rice stepped into (Baltimore’s rushing attack was top-10 in 2008, per Football Outsiders, the year before Rice took Willis McGahee’s role as full-time starter), Richardson’s numbers compare like this: three 100-yard rushing games, 3.6 yards per carry (950 yards on 267 attempts), 12 total touchdowns, and 51 catches for 367 yards.
Apart from touchdowns, Richardson has very little in his favor, but taking into account that it was his first season, playing beside a quarterback who completed 12 of 35 throws in his debut, and a mediocre offensive line, Richardson’s year was definitely positive for a rookie campaign. His second year should be even better.