I was asked to compare the stats of two running backs yesterday. We'll call them "A" and "B".
Pretty interesting comparison. Back "A" was more consistent at getting forward yardage (he was actually 5th in the league in success rate). However, he didn't help much in the passing game, posting below average numbers.
Back "B" was more of a boom and bust runner, and while his raw numbers were similar, his advanced metrics said he wasn't quite up to back "A" as a runner. As a receiver, however, he was outstanding. His DVOA was top 10 in the league for running backs catching the ball.
Back "A" was Joseph Addai (cleverly disguised). Back "B" was Don Brown. Both players battled injuries during large stretches of the 2010 season, and their final carries and targets came out remarkably even. Quite frankly, as a major Addai supporter, I was shocked to see how close the final numbers were between the two players.
When last we really saw Brown, he was having the game of his life in the biggest contest of the season. In what was a playoff game for the Colts (which everyone now conveniently forgets), Brown exploded for 129 yards on just 14 carries. After nearly two years of waiting, it seemed that Brown had finally arrived. Then, just as quickly he vanished.
Over the final three games including the playoffs, Brown got just 9 carries for 37 yards. No word was ever given as to why. The Colts went with Dom Rhodes as the second back in the final two regular season games, and he played well racking up 146 yards on 28 carries (5.2 YPC), however he caught no passes. Against the Jets, however, Dom was terrible. Addai posted 60 yards on 13 carries, but Dom looked slow and ineffective, carrying the ball a ridiculous 14 times for just 33 yards. Playing Rhodes so heavily made no sense at the time, and caused everyone to wonder if Brown was healthy or if he had just kicked Jim Caldwell's dog.
The Colts enter the 2011 season with only one legitimate running back signed: Don Brown.
Mike Hart and Rhodes are free agents, as is Joe Addai, who has been tendered a contract as if he were a restricted free agent. While incredibly popular, Rhodes and Hart are not legitimate NFL backs at this stage. As much as everyone loves Mike Hart, he has not been able to stay healthy. He had one huge game in his career (against Houston last year), but apart from that one game, his career numbers are 59 carries for 180 yards (3.1 YPC). He's simply not very good. Dom is a classic Colt, and merits a roster invite, but don't be surprised if he doesn't make the team.
The Colts also have Javarris James on the roster, but he was abjectly terrible last year. Yes, he vultured 6 touchdowns, but averaged only 2.4 yards a carry, and had a DVOA of -31%, placing him among the worst backs in the NFL. There is no reason to consider him a prospect. He runs hard, but running hard is not the same as running well, a fact many fans often forget.
My gut tells me that Brown, while still struggling in pass protection, is due to break out in 2011. Brown is an edge runner rather than a pounder up inside. He has clearly suffered from the slow footed Charlie Johnson on the left side making it difficult to run plays wide. Brown's biggest limitation has been his inability to stay healthy, but which Colt back has? Addai has battled injuries, and Hart can't stay on the field for more than a game or two at a time. Brown isn't any more fragile than the other Colts' backs.
Two years ago, fans complained that Joe Addai's problem was his running style. He's a dancer, they said. It's nonsense, of course. Addai has been in the top six in success rate 3 of his 5 years, and was 10th and 14th in the other two. There has never been anything wrong with Addai's style. There has been something seriously wrong with his offensive line. I believe the same things hold true for Don Brown. Brown is running behind a line ill-suited to his personal style. He is still an explosive receiver out of the backfield and has the potential to break long runs (as we saw against the Jaguars). I tend to believe that fan complaints about a player's running style are rarely well founded. Not every running style works well with every offense or offensive line, but blaming a player for getting hit in the backfield a lot (as Brown frequently is), is generally a sign that the offensive line is faulty rather than the running back.
Colts fans should hope that Indy's tender on Addai holds. If the offensive line is rebuilt through free agency, Brown and Addai should prove to be an effective combination. They were quite similar in 2010, with slightly different strengths. There is still time for Brown to become an impact player for the Colts.
After all, the last time Brown saw the football he helped win the biggest game of the year for the Colts. If he had gotten the carries that went to Dom Rhodes against the Jets, Indy might have won that game as well.