Trent Richardson is proof that most instant analysis is useless. The consensus when he was traded from Cleveland to Indianapolis for a first-rounder was that the Browns were tanking, the Colts were deludedly trying to compete for a title, and Richardson could move faster than a steamroller traveling up an incline.
The first part of that was accidentally correct: The Browns don’t seem invested in winning this season. But based on the way Richardson has played since the trade, he wouldn’t have helped convert any Browns defeats into victories anyway. It also seems that the Colts are pretty good, and that Browns GM Mike Lombardi was right to sell his sophomore running back before his value crashed. Oh, and the steamroller-up-an-incline thing is technically true, but in a dissatisfying way.
All of this became apparent rather quickly, maybe three or four weeks into Richardson’s Indy tenure. The thing about players who move on from Cleveland — or any lousy team, really — is that they arrive on the national scene as an assemblage of half-remembered notions and highlight clips. Before Richardson was traded, I might have seen him play a game or two in full. I mostly knew him for his dreadlocks and the faint Adrian Peterson comparisons during the 2012 draft. Now that he’s featured for a team that’s competing for a division title, however, the popular sense of what he is and could be has declined rapidly. He has become first not a potential all-pro, then not an above-average back, and now a guy who probably should be benched in favor of the immortal Donald Brown.
Over the past month, the only drama remaining was over exactly when the Colts would acknowledge that Brown, while thoroughly not great, is the better option in both the running and passing game. That finally happened on Sunday afternoon, when news came that Brown was getting the starting nod.
The move was perhaps mostly symbolic. Richardson’s touches and snaps had become increasingly sporadic over the past five weeks, and it’s not as if the Colts have relied heavily on any of their running backs, since realizing that giving Richardson the ball 17 times a game results in 42 yards and a dyspeptic sensation. Even without Reggie Wayne around, Offensive Game Plans A, B and C involve Andrew Luck doing the best he can behind a stained glass offensive line.
The Colts evidently were right about being a borderline Super Bowl team, and they were right that a great running back would have helped take some pressure off Luck, perhaps turning down the intensity of the opposing pass rush. They were just dead wrong about Richardson. Starting Donald Brown is an acknowledgment by whoever is in charge of these sorts of things — Jim Irsay, Ryan Grigson, Chuck Pagano — that the Colts essentially threw away a first-round pick. This is at least an encouraging sign of humility, a willingness to focus on success rather than perceptions.
Sometimes just doing what’s reasonable is difficult, because it means confessing your own incompetence. We see this a lot in sports: A coach or general manager makes a decision and sticks by it, well past the point when it becomes obvious that a mistake was made. Self-belief sometimes trumps outcomes, whether that’s because the people in charge of constructing and coaching teams have fragile hubristic streaks, or because they don’t want to appear weak, for fear of losing their jobs.
In benching Richardson, the Colts have confessed their own incompetence. They’re minimizing the effects of a bad move, realizing that they can still get where they want to go if they aren’t stubbornly beholden to past decisions. This much, at least, will serve them well in the long run.