We’re only two games into the Anthony Richardson era in Indianapolis and it’s not too early to admit that the physical punishment he’s subjecting himself to is a cause for concern. Four years ago, Andrew Luck retired mid-preseason from the same team Richardson now helms, to the astonishment of fans. The cumulative effect of years of hits had taken their toll on his 6-foot-4, 240 pound frame. Luck wasn’t viewed as a running quarterback because of his pocket proficiency, but nobody told the defenders who pummeled him into early retirement both behind the line of scrimmage and as luck bravely took on linebackers while scrambling to gain extra yards. By age 29, his body was worn down. He’d gone under the knife to repair several shoulder injuries, lacerated a kidney, partially torn his abdominal muscle, torn cartilage in his ribs and strained a calf. His rushing highlights are majestic and wince-inducing in retrospect.
There’s a diminishing return associated with running your colossal quarterback like a fullback. Coaches feel compelled to use them like battering rams rather than face the criticism of wasting their brawn. The Colts are discovering the delicate balance between having a quarterback with the size and strength of Derrick Henry and teaching him how to wield that power in moderation. The bigger they are, the harder they fall is an axiom that applies to quarterbacks as well.
Six minutes into his first quarter of the Colts’ clash with the Houston Texans on Sunday, Colts head coach Shane Steichen dialed up a fake reverse that opened up the left side of the field for Richardson to dash into the endzone for his second rushing touchdown of the game. However, on his way in, safety M.J. Stewart delivered a legal hit to Richardson that sent the quarterback flying and resulted in his head bouncing off the turf. Somehow, Richardson’s concussion slipped through the cracks and he remained in the game for two more possessions before he was taken to the medical tent, then left permanently for the locker room.
Structurally, Richardson is as sturdy a quarterback as there is. He’s 240 pounds of brolic mass streamlined into an aerodynamic frame. However, the greatest ability is availability, and Richardson’s size could matter less and less the more consistently puts himself at risk by throwing his body around. In week 1, Richardson scored on a designed run up the gut of the defense. In the fourth quarter, he briefly left the game after appearing to be dazed on a similar run.
Taking hits is part of the game, but the frequency with which Steichen uses Richardson as a runner and with which Richardson seeks out contact puts him at a high risk of taking hits that leave him dazed or worse. Richardson may look like an 18-wheeler, but in an ideal world where he wasn’t pressed into immediate action, he’d be handled with the care of a vintage muscle car.
Steichen’s previous quarterback protégé, Jalen Hurts, spent an extra season at Lincoln Riley’s Quarterback Finishing School in Oklahoma honing his grasp of the game from the pocket. Richardson was drafted as an unrefined block of marble. At Florida, that physicality earned him the Superman moniker because of his mutant-like feats of speed and strength. He was so much bigger and faster than most opposing defenders–even in the SEC– that there were fewer consequences.
However, Richardson getting rocked by a defensive back makes me harken back to former defensive end Chris Long recounting his welcome to the NFL moment. Throughout training camp, Long watched 6-foot-2, 240 pound running back, Steven Jackson in practice, wondered if he was the most physically imposing specimen he’d ever seen, observing him snort smelling salt packages only for him to get leveled by Eagles corner Sheldon Brown and realizing the NFL is a different beast.
In one instant, Long went from staring at Jackson in awe, wondering if it was possible to tackle him in space to comparing it to a movie where the best you have goes out there and gets pumped in the mouth and everyone else is looking around wondering what to do now. After taking off the red practice jersey, Richardson is learning that lesson firsthand, and so are the Colts play callers. The compulsion for the Colts coaching staff and Richardson himself to use his strength in rushing situations has to be weighed against the value of protecting his long-term health.
It’s Steichen’s job to drill two priorities into Richardson’s head. Protect the ball and protect himself. So far, he’s been unable to do the latter. For the second time in two weeks, Richardson suffered an injury trying to rumble forward for extra yardage.
Three or Richardson’s offensive scores through five quarters have been rushing touchdowns and one came by air. That ratio is unsustainable. The Colts are reliant on Richardson’s legs because he’s a relatively novice at diagnosing complex defensive coverages. We witnessed that inexperience in action throughout his junior year at Florida when he was one of the SEC’s most erratic quarterbacks.
Without Jonathan Taylor in the Colts backfield, Richardson’s legs are one of Indy’s most reliable tools for activating the ground game. Richardson’s first NFL touchdown was a designed run up the middle. In Week 1, RIchardson’s yardage on the ground was triple Indy’s next leading rusher, Deon Jackson. In Week 2, Zach Moss picked up 88 yards. If Richardson can’t matriculate the offense downfield without pummeling his own body into submission, it might be time for Gardner Minshew to hold down the fort until he’s ready.
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