A Defense of Don Brown

Regular contributor Nick Pease brings us this piece today.

The final preseason game is in the books. Kerry Collins made his much anticipated Colts debut and somehow the Colts pulled out a rare preseason win. Now the final roster cuts, roster moves, and the surprise cut of Tommie Harris are the talk of the town.

Outside of Curtis Painter, and perhaps Anthony Gonzalez or Jerry Hughes, there is little argument that no player has been under the microscope more than third year running back Donald Brown. As training camp closed and talk began, I was content to let the conversation carry on. I’ve always liked Brown and barely even recognized the notion he might not make the roster. But earlier this week I listened to a rant from a caller on the JMV show. He was railing against Brown and closed a sentence with this piece of brilliance: “I want to see him catch a ball.”

It seems a contingent of fans has settled on Brown as their chief whipping boy. The same people were haranguing Joe Addai two years ago, and now they are irate that Brown made the roster.

Look, to say that Brown has been a disappointment in his first two seasons if fair. It’s more than fair. He hasn’t lived up to his expectations or performed at the levels that a first round draft pick should. But let’s get one thing off the table right away: it’s not a matter of talent, skill or athletic ability. While at the University of Connecticut Brown rushed for a ridiculous amount of yards, racking up numerous records and awards along the way. One highlight being his school record of 17 games with 100 yards rushing or more. Donald Brown clearly has the ability to run the football and be an effective NFL running back.
However, that hasn’t happened yet.

In two seasons Brown has ran for 778 yards, along with 374 receiving yards and five total touchdowns. I believe three main factors have led to his dismal performance: health, a bad offensive line, and an inability to adapt to the NFL. The first two are hardly his fault, but the third most certainly is. We all remember the famous “Dammit Donald” video as a clear example of Brown’s failure to completely pick up the Colts blocking scheme.

But it’s hard to pin injuries and ineffective run blocking all on Brown. If he had managed to stay healthy all of last season and the Colts offensive line had not played musical chairs nearly every game, perhaps we’d be singing his praises right now. But alas we are not and the stats show what the stats show. In 13 games in 2010 Brown rushed 129 times for 497 yards to the tune of a 3.9 average along with two rushing touchdowns. The most telling stat there is simply the 129 carries. Brown’s other numbers were respectable, and he had a great season receiving, but 129 carries from a first round pick isn’t good enough.

He didn’t do much to help his stock Thursday night either, rushing three times for -1 yards and catching one pass for one yard. Despite these shortcomings, I think there is still reason to believe that Brown can be an effective NFL running back. And in very small doses, we’ve seen some of these flashes. In his rookie year Brown did not do much, rushing 78 times for 281 yards for a pedestrian 3.6 yards a carry. He did add 11 catches for 169 yards, for a 15.4 yard average. Most of the yardage came from a lovely 72 yard screen pass in a game against Arizona, in which many Colts fans viewed as a precursor of things to come.

In 2010 however, Brown did show glimpses of his ability to be a producer on the Colts offense.

The best example of his ability, and probably the best example of what the Colts were hoping out of a Brown/Joseph Addai combination came in week two against the New York Giants. In that game Addai rushed for 92 yards, on 20 carries, and Brown added another 16 carries for 69 yards and a touchdown. The duo combined for 161 rushing yards, 40 receiving yards, and one touchdown. Not too shabby. And the Colts also happened to thrash the Giants in that game, winning 38-14.

As the season carried on, Joseph Addai would become injured, and Brown himself would become dinged up as well. However, there were still some bright spots for the former first round pick. In week 10 in an awkward slugfest against Cincinnati, one in which the Colts barely won, Brown ran 12 times for 50 yards to average a strong 4.2 yards a carry.

The following week he followed it up with another solid performance against the New England Patriots in another shootout. Brown rushed 17 times for 68 yards and added three receptions for 40 yards. That’s four yards a carry and 13.3 yards a catch. And a few weeks later, in week 15, Brown had what many consider his long awaited coming out party. He ran all over Jacksonville, rushing 14 times for 129 yards, including a 49 yard scamper, and a touchdown.

The sad part of the story is that Brown could not build off of his career day against the Jags. Injuries continued to wear him down and Brown followed up his monster game with only nine carries in the final two games and he did not play in the Colts playoff loss to the Jets. Given Dom Rhodes awful performance in that game, however, some of the blame has to fall on the coaching staff for backing the wrong back. Brown was just gaining steam, and the coaches pushed him back down behind Rhodes, and the offense paid the price.

Donald Brown has frustrated fans and undoubtedly frustrated his coaches as well. To this point in his career he has been a major let down and for many the term “bust” already applies. But I think we’re still a bit too early to make that judgment call.

But I think Brown knows what is at stake and I look for him to come out of the gates ready to go. By seasons end I believe he’ll have maintained his position his the teams primary backup and have more yards, receptions, and touchdowns than newcomer Delone Carter, whom many have already heralded as Addai’s main backup. 

The most important thing Brown brings to the table for the 2011 Colts is experience. Fans who were calling for him to be cut weren’t paying attention. Evans and Spann may be fine young players, but neither has ever taken a hand off or caught a pass for Peyton Manning. Fans seriously wanted Indy to go into the season with three or four backs, the majority of which had never played a down in the NFL.

That’s insanity.

Considering Manning missed all of training camp and there were no offseason workouts, the Colts have to rely on players that know the system and have worked with Manning before. Don Brown had to make this team.  There was no question about it.

This is Don Brown’s last chance with the Colts. But he has clearly deserved, and was always going to get, one more chance.