Season in Review: Running Backs

The Colts struggled all season to run the ball. What was the problem and what can they do to fix it? In the first of our series of season reviews, Brad Keller takes a look at the year that was at running back.

Season in Review:

Starter: Joseph Addai.  Reserves: Dominic Rhodes, Mike Hart, Chad Simpson, Najeh Davenport, and Lance Ball.

The running attack came out of the gate sluggishly and never quite got its feet under it throughout the course of the regular and postseason.  Addai and Rhodes struggled equally, both posting 3.5 yards per carry and barely totaling 1,000 yards between them.

True to form, the running backs in the offense got a number of red zone looks with 12 rushing touchdowns, almost exclusively scored inside the 20.  Hart was placed on injured reserve early in the season and Davenport signed on late as a filler player that could contribute in the kicking game, on third down, and in short yardage situations.


Dominic Rhodes
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Simpson and Ball saw limited opportunities, as the coaching staff was content to trust the veteran starters to bear the burden of the load, evidenced by the fact that Hart and Addai combined for 307 of the 345 total carries by tailbacks and Simpson and Ball combined for only 28 of those carries.

Ball looked good in Week 17, running behind the Colts reserves and at Tennessee's third string, but was not given any action in any games of consequence.

Simpson is still an unknown quality and certainly was not impressive on kickoff returns — one of the primary reasons that Indianapolis decided to keep him on the roster once TJ Rushing was placed on injured reserve.

An entire season has come and gone with three rookies on the roster and the Colts are no closer to knowing what they have at the position outside of Rhodes and Addai.

Kenton Keith and Clifton Dawson were jettisoned, ostensibly, so that the coaches and front office could pursue youth movement at the position and see what the rookie pool had to offer.

A season-ending injury and 28 carries later, they know that they have three young, presumably talented players, one versatile veteran, and two men capable of being the starter, though Addai holds the obvious edge in that competition.

Strengths:

When healthy, Addai proved that he is still one of the better backs in the NFL.  He caught the ball well out of the backfield, with the highlight being his 55-yard scamper against the Titans on his first (and only) series in Week 17.

There were many, many lowlights and a number of missed games to be sure.  But, when he was suited up, in the lineup, and 100 percent healthy, he got the job done and got it done well.

Rhodes may not be a game breaker, but the Colts certainly know what they have in him.  Any Indianapolis fan that was disappointed in his 2008 performance was obviously viewing his 2006 season through rose colored glasses, as he only averaged 3.4 yards per carry that season. He is not on the decline and is perfectly capable of taking 20 carries per game, if necessary.

They also have a number of young, talented players at the position, which will give them some much-needed depth should one or more of those players pan out as expected. Addai is still young as well and, to be perfectly frank, the running game would not need to do much in 2009 in order to outperform their 2008 totals.

Needs Improvement:

Now is not the time to panic and blow up the depth chart due to one bad season.  The offensive line should take their share of the blame, as should an offensive philosophy that favored the pass over the run throughout the course of the season and failed to give the running game much of a chance to warm up.


Chad Simpson
Harry How/Getty Images

However, the running backs should take their share of the blame as well, considering that Addai was injured or hampered for most of the season, wasn't as explosive or quick to the hole as he could have been, and Rhodes never was explosive or quick to the hole.

It is imperative that the Colts get their young running backs more involved throughout the course of the offseason, but also that they get Hart, Simpson, and Ball — who is sure to sign a 2009 contract before the week is up — involved during the 2009 regular season, should all those men make the roster.

Indianapolis has the luxury of taking only the best of this young crop, but they also need to find a longterm replacement for Rhodes... and quickly.  If he is re-signed, 2009 will be his last effective season.  The Colts will not be able to go back to that particular well forever, so the future is now.

What's Next?

Bill Polian and his staff will have a few decisions to make right away, starting with whether or not to sign Ball to a 2009 contract.  That decision should be easy enough for him to make and Ball should enter the offseason as a Colt.

The tough decisions come on February 27, when he must decide whether or not to re-sign Davenport and Rhodes, who are both due to be free agents.  Chances are that Davenport will be allowed to test the market, since he is generally available and can be re-signed at any time if need be and Rhodes will be retained at the veteran minimum.

He will probably be allowed to look around in free agency for about a week after it starts, but both he and Indianapolis realize that the situation works out a little too well for the two parties and he will re-sign for 2009.

In the draft, it is highly unlikely that the Colts will spend anything but a late round pick on a running back, as they do not have a pressing need, there is not a back that has distinguished himself as being an ideal fit for the team, and they have been able to find talented players that work in their system with undrafted free agents.

But, to be sure, Indianapolis will get younger and deeper at the position in the next 18 months.  By the 2010 offseason, Rhodes will be gone, Addai will be working himself into his second contract or on his way out of town, and at least three players from the 2008 and 2009 classes will be regular contributors.


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