Should Donald Brown be the Featured Back in 2010?

As I was perusing the Colts headlines this morning I came across a link in Paul Kuharsky’s wonderful AFC South Blog on ESPN.  The link was to a story that said, rather matter of factly, that Donald Brown should start over Joseph Addai this year.  Here is the entire quote, in context:

Q: When you say Donald Brown will eventually take over, do you mean in a year or two, halfway through the season, week one of the season? Where do you see his progression?

A: I think it should be this season fro the get-go. He’s a lot more talented than Addai. Addai is a nice serviceable player in the NFL but I think Donald Brown has a lot of the same attributes as Ray Rice. He ran the same way in college and was dominant at Connecticut the same way Rice was dominant at Rutgers. He put up huge numbers and has real solid intangibles: work ethic, maturity. The same kind of size, maybe even a little bigger than Rice. I think Donald Brown needs to be the featured guy and it wouldn’t shock me if it was this season.

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Photo courtesy of the AP

The quote belongs to a gentleman named Dave Razzano. His bio says that he’s been an NFL scout for 22 years, with the San Fransisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams, and Arizona Cardinals.  I read his entire interview, which contains a lot of good information, and can be found here.

I don’t claim to be an NFL scout, I don’t play one on TV, and I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I’d still like to examine this statement and take a look at the Addai v Brown match up.

Joseph Addai was drafted in 2006 and had expectations placed upon him that were high, perhaps too high for a late first round draft pick.  These expectations had less to do with Addai’s draft status and more to do with the fact that he was being asked to fill the shoes of former Colts running back, and larger than life personality, Edgerrin James.

Addai responded to those expectations by rushing for 1,081 yards and 7 touchdowns while helping the Colts win their first Super Bowl of the Indianapolis era.  He followed the 2006 season with another thousand yard effort while almost doubling his touchdown totals from the previous year.  Since 2007, however, Addai has put up sub par numbers due to a combination of injuries and inconsistent play from the offensive line.

Donald Brown was drafted in the first round in the 2009 NFL Draft, and while Bill Polian stated that he was drafted to replace the departing Dominic Rhodes, some fans were hoping that Brown would step up and replace Addai, who put up only 544 yards in the 2008 as the starting running back.  Brown showed flashes early in the season, with stellar runs against the Dolphins and Rams, and a wonderful catch-and-run against the Arizona Cardinals, but his season would be more defined by injuries and an in-play quote from Peyton Manning during the Baltimore Ravens playoff game — “God Damn it, Donald!”, Peyton was quoted as saying).

Neither player put up stellar numbers in 2009.  Addai played in 15 games and rushed for 828 yards, 10 touchdowns, and a 3.8 yards per carry average.  Brown, on the other hand, played in just 12 games and rushed for 281 yards, 3 touchdowns, with a 3.6 yards per carry average. Advanced stats will tell you that Addai was the much better player last year, playing at a top-15 back level.  Due to Brown’s injuries, however, the sample size is simply too small to make a fair assessment of the situation.

What we can fairly assess, however, is this:  While Brown showed flashes of explosion that Addai hadn’t shown since his catch-and-run against the Patriots in 2007, he never seemed to fully grasp the offense.  Brown struggled throughout the regular season, and into the playoffs, with both audible calls and pass protections — something Addai has never struggled with in his tenure with the Colts.

From a fan’s perspective, Addai seems to be the whipping boy of choice on offense for a team that has a scarcity of candidates at the whipping boy position.  For his part, however, Addai continues to fight through injuries to produce.  He’s an elite pass blocker and a very good pass catcher.  In 2006 and 2007 he was able to put up per-carry averages of 4.8 and 4.1, respectively.  While Addai can be blamed for some of the failures in the running game, I feel a majority of the blame should be placed on the offensive line.

In the end it comes down to this:  Donald Brown may be more talented than Joseph Addai.  Heck, he could be the most talented running back in the entire NFL for all we know, but there is more to football than talent.  Talent can’t block a blitzing linebacker.  Talent can’t cover for you if you don’t understand the audible.  Talent can’t heal your injuries and keep you on the field.  Talent can’t erase from my ears the obscenities yelled at you by Peyton Manning.

Maybe Donald Brown puts it all together.  Maybe he works hard and becomes a decent pass protector. Maybe he studies day and night and learns the audibles and understands the complexities of this offense.  Maybe he stays healthy from now on.  And if all those things happen, we would all be lucky if Donald Brown became as good a player as Joseph Addai already is.

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