The 21st century began on January 1, 2001. With it came a tidal wave of information and innovation. Nothing has been the same since, including football.
For decades, running back was regarded as one of the most important positions on the field. Titles, after all, came when you ran the ball and stopped the run. Somewhere around the turn of the century, this conventional wisdom was turned on its head. For every Marshall Faulk, there was some top-five rusher Mike Shanahan found in the sixth round. Save for the occasional Adrian Peterson, backs were suddenly replaceable.
This is where we find ourselves today. For the first time in history, no running backs were selected in the first round of last year’s draft. Even including Peterson, the average draft position of 2013’s top-five runners was No. 70. Since Peterson was the No. 7 overall selection in 2007, teams have used a grand total of three top-10 picks on running backs. That’s out of 60. There was Darren McFadden in 2008, C.J. Spiller in 2010 and Trent Richardson in 2012.
Only Richardson wasn’t just a top-10 pick. He was No. 3 overall. Exactly three running backs have gone in the top three since 2001. Ronnie Brown, Reggie Bush and T-Rich. The Browns wanted Richardson so badly, they traded up from No. 4 to get him, swapping first-round position with the Vikings while surrendering fourth-, fifth- and seventh-round picks. It was an against-the-grain gamble in a league where the next All-Pro back is just as likely to be found on the undrafted scrap heap as in the top 10 picks.
Richardson’s Rookie Year
In grain is where Richardson appeared to be running in 2012. Adrian Peterson set the single-game rushing record as a rookie. T-Rich? He set the single-season nicks-and-bruises record. A meaty — perhaps fatty — 5-foot-11, 236ish pounds, Richardson accrued nearly as many injuries as touchdowns, managing just 3.55 yards per carry before he was mercifully shut down for Week 17 with an ankle issue. His 702 snaps were ninth amongst running backs, but his 3.55 YPC was 40th.
It was a hugely disappointing season, but that’s all it was: One disappointing year. Richardson was hardly the first player to underwhelm as a rookie, and he wouldn’t be the last. This wasn’t a talent you give up on after only one season. Unless you’re the Browns.
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What Went Wrong
Technically, the Browns didn’t give up on Richardson after only one year. It was one year and two games. But two games was all the new — and now former — regime needed to see out of Mike Holmgren’s franchise runner. Mike Lombardi and Joe Banner decided they’d rather watch Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell attempt a league-leading 681 passes than watch Richardson at all.
So off to the Colts he went for a first-rounder, making Richardson not only the rare running back selected within the first three picks, but the even rarer runner to be acquired for a first-round pick. Rarest of all is a back who’s been a first-rounder twice over. That’s what Richardson will officially become when the Browns cash in the Colts’ No. 26 pick in May. Compare that to the sixth-rounder the Redskins spent on Alfred Morris, or the pick the Texans didn’t use on undrafted free agent Arian Foster.
What did the Colts’ first-round investment turn into? Abraham Lincolns on the George Washington, and vindication for Banner and Lombardi. You already know the story. Richardson was arguably the worst running back in the league, averaging 2.91 yards per carry as a Colt. Only Bernard Pierce and Willis McGahee were worse. Pierce was a backup running behind perhaps the league’s worst run-blocking line. McGahee, a 32-year-old spare part who was signed off the street.
Richardson’s longest run of the season went for 22 yards. It was his lone carry to gain more than 20. Richardson averaged nearly half as many yards per carry as league-leader Andre Ellington. A sixth-round rookie, Ellington managed 5.53 yards every time he took the rock.
Richardson had 188 carries. 101 of them went for two or fewer yards. That’s 53.7 percent. 41 of Richardson’s rushes were stopped for a loss or no gain (21.8 percent). Richardson was 23rd in carries, 36th in yards. He scored three rushing touchdowns. Redskins FB Darrel Young scored three rushing touchdowns in one game.
In the postseason, the Colts “trusted” Richardson with four carries in two games. He responded with as many yards — one — as lost fumbles. They’re staggering numbers in a league where the average rush gained 4.16 yards in 2013. They’re even more staggering when you consider Richardson’s draft pedigree, and what the Colts surrendered to acquire him.