Donald Brown: A Legacy Maligned

In 1998 Barry Sanders did the unthinkable for a 30 year old Hall of Fame running back: he walked away from the game and never looked back. At the time media speculation rampantly suggested Sanders was simply disgruntled and would return possibly with another team.

In the fifteen years that have passed Sanders has not resurfaced content instead knowing he perhaps made the shiftiest move he could ever make: a clean retirement with his health in tact.

Today's NFL is a starkly different world than the one that put Sanders and others like Eric Dickerson, Lenny Moore, Marshall Faulk or even Edgerrin James on a pedestal. The average length of career for good NFL running backs is less than seven years. The average draft position for running backs is dropping which is bad news because draft position is the only solid predictor of earning potential. In short the league doesn't value running backs in the same way it once did.

Enter Donald Brown, one of the most productive collegiate rushers available in the 2009 NFL Draft and clearly one of the brightest players available at any position. Fans and pundits alike praised the Indianapolis Colts after selecting Brown in the first round. Two short years later those same people had labeled Brown a "bust."

Today Brown was put on the IR ending his year and likely his tenure in Indianapolis. In retrospect I decided to look at Brown's career in Indy in an attempt to reconcile his legacy with the widespread perception that he was a poor selection. Was he a bust or just a player trapped on a poor team in an era when NFL running backs became less important?

Below are stats for three modern NFL running backs. Can you spot Brown?



Games Played Rushing Avg Long Fumbles
16 4.8 43 2
15 4.1 23 0
12 3.5 23 1
15 3.8 21 1


Games Played Rushing Avg Long Fumbles
11 3.6 45 1
13 3.9 49 0
16 4.8 80 0
10 3.9 19 0



Games Played Rushing Avg Long Fumbles
16 4.4 72 6
16 4.4 30 5
14 3.6 20 2
13 4.1 43 5

If you guessed B you'd be right. A was Joseph Addai's first four years while C was Edgerrin James's first four full years (without his abbreviated 2001 season). Are those seasons all that dissimilar? He was remarkably capable of holding onto the ball and pretty productive given two of Brown's seasons featured QBs not named "Manning." Further he split time with Addai and again this year the stable of backs the Colts have employed. He also got just over half of the carries that Addai got in his first four years and a third that James got during the quoted seasons. Addai played in 58 games, James in 59 and Brown in 50. If you consider the 2001 campaign Brown actually played in more games than Edgerrin James did in his first four years.  In short, the initial stats seemingly indicate that Brown simply didn't get as many carries as his predecessors. 

Was Brown just caught up in the league's transition to "passing league" as some have suggested? The problem with that argument is that the NFL has always been a passing league as points out:

The passing game has NOT grown more important in recent years. It's simply grown more common, as teams pass more. But the reality is dominance on the field has always been the direct result of dominance in the passing game, at least since the dawn of the T-formation era in the NFL in 1940.

The problem isn't that the the league has become a "passing league" but rather that most teams have finally realized that it always was a league built to reward passing. As teams put their money into passing and defending the pass it became clear that running backs were no longer a major priority. Teams could platoon guys, cut back on the number of carries and be a little more liberal when dealing with injuries. Brown wasn't a victim of this trend anymore than Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson yet his carries were a fraction of the league's best backs. 

The travesty of Brown's career is not one of injuries, talent unused or even that of a league that doesn't value running backs. It's a fate much worse: Brown was the victim of a team that simply didn't use his talents.


Todd Smith

About Todd Smith

Todd Smith is a part-time sportswriter who spends too much time arguing on Twitter. What he really loves is eating poorly and watching football. He got his first Colts t-shirt in 1984 shortly after the Mayflower trucks arrived and has never given up on his hometown team. He also still holds to the belief that Kordell Stewart stepped out of the end zone and thus cheated the Colts.