Michael Lombardi: Why the Colts are starting Anthony Richardson

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Why the Colts are starting Anthony Richardson

In 2022, when I first saw Anthony Richardson play quarterback at the University of Florida, my reaction was WOW.  My second reaction was, “I bet this guy to win the Heisman next year.”  That season, Richardson was alternating with Emory Jones, making me question then Florida’s head coach Dan Mullen’s judgment.  Why didn’t Mullen see the obvious?   Then Mullen was fired and in came Billy Napier, who has experience coaching quarterbacks to a high level.  And for all of the coaching skill that Napier possessed in terms of offensive strategy, he wasn’t able to get Richardson to play quick-minded, or with consistent accuracy.  Richardson’s run at the Heisman would have to wait until 2023. 

 

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Yet, for Richardson, the Heisman wasn’t in his plans.  He left school early, believed in his incredibly talented skill set, counted on NFL teams to look past his overall production and fall in love with his tremendous potential.  And they did.  The Colts went all-in with the fourth pick overall in the draft, and Richardson was no longer looking for a Heisman trophy. He was looking for a starting position in the NFL.  And after Week 1 of the preseason, Richardson is now number one on the depth chart—which should come as a surprise to anyone who watches the NFL.  But it even surprised Richardson, when he said:  You work for it, [but] you didn’t know when the timeline was going to be. I was just looking forward to Week 1 and just being ready for the opportunity and getting thrown in the fire hopefully. But then he told me, and I’m like, ‘Wow, it really happened.’”

When the Colts hired Shane Steichen as their new head coach and kept Gus Bradley as their defensive coordinator, it wasn’t an accident.   The Colts knew they needed to fix their quarterback position the right way, instead of using their “Band-Aid method” with a downtrodden veteran that hadn’t worked in the last three years.  From Phillip Rivers to Carson Wentz to Matt Ryan, all attempts to fix the position failed.  Now was the time to start from scratch with someone who developed a unique pro-offense in Philadelphia and a player with the skill set that fits the offense. 

For most NFL fans, the Philadelphia offense is unique.  For historians of the game, it’s not, and the roots of the offense can be traced back to Glenn Scobey Warner, or “Pop Warner” as he was known.  Warner developed the single-wing while he was a head coach at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the early 1900s.  (David Maraniss, writes a fascinating book about the life of Jim Thorpe called Path Lit by Lightning which also explores Warner’s life in coaching.)  During that era, the game of football was centered on the ground attack, and the single wing provided a divergent way of using the runners since there wasn’t a designated quarterback position.  Warner developed the offense, and as the quarterback became a vital part of the run game, the single wing dominated college and professional football.  

The single wing benefited teams that had an elite running athlete at quarterback, someone who could throw the ball all over the field but wasn’t a pure pocket passer.  There was no real drop back pass game in the single wing, as every play was built off the run.  With the emphasis on the quarterback running the ball, play-action passes were the centerpiece of the offense, allowing the quarterback to read one side of the field and throw to the open man.  The offense created confusion for the defense yet was simple for all the offensive players to learn. 

The Eagles under head coach Nick Sirianni and Steichen put their spin on the single wing, using the talents of Jalen Hurts as a deceptive runner.  Hurts is big, tough, hard to tackle, and when he has the ball in his hands the speed of the game is different for the defense.  During his second season, Hurts wasn’t running the single-wing 6-back offense.  It was more RPO’S.  When that shifted to the 6-back offense, Hurts, became a better passer and less a big play runner.  He had 24 more carries in 2022 than in 2021, and his average per attempt when down from 4.6 to 3.8.  By using the threat of the run, outside the RPO game, the Eagles improved their passing game and made Hurts more efficient and accurate.  Most everyone would assume Hurts was more effective running last season than in 2021, but the 6-back attack allowed him to use hard play action to make explosive plays.  Hurt’s yards per attempt increased from 7.3 to 8.0 with the shift of the offense. 

Additionally, it’s hard to prepare for the Eagles offense in a normal game week. Their deception, offensive speed and playmaking talent are hard to simulate for the opposing defense.  And what makes them more effective is always play from in front. They rarely fell behind in a game last season.  The Eagles scored 296 of their 477 points in the first half.  They scored 207 alone in the second quarter and went into halftime with a plus 121 in first-half point differential, an average of 7.11 per game. 

When a team never has to play from behind or play “catch-up,” then the single wing is able to stay on course, using the run and run-action to make big plays in the passing game.  For as great as the Eagles’ offense was last year, they never had to rely on a drop back passing game, which makes Hurts more effective.  This isn’t a criticism regarding Hurts.  Every player is enhanced when the system fits the talent, and credit the Eagles for making this happen.  In this system, Hurts threw the ball well, improved his accuracy and was the main reason the offense became so productive.  It was the perfect marriage. 

Which brings us back to Richardson.  Richardson needs to be a 6-back offense quarterback. His skill set translates perfectly into this style of offense.  Yes, he will have some inconsistencies in his play, much like Josh Allen demonstrated his first two seasons in Buffalo.  However, the only way he can improve is to play the game in the offense that suits his skill set and highlights his size and power in the run game.  Richardson will be a problem for any secondary player to tackle. His size and power are not common at the quarterback position, with a running style is much like Josh Allen, hard to get on the ground.  He will need to stay healthy, avoid the big hits and protect the ball.  Allen started 11 games as a rookie, had a 52% completion percentage, threw 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, fumbled eight times, and was sacked 28.  And for Allen, even though he played at a smaller school than Richardson, he had 27 career starts.  In fairness to this comparison, the Bills didn’t have the 6-back offense then and struggled to identify what scheme best fit Allen’s skill set.  Richardson has the advantage in terms of scheme fit, so his numbers might be slightly different. 

The hardest thing for any rookie quarterback with limited college starts is the speed difference of the game from college to preseason to the start of the regular season.  Each shift is dramatic, and it takes time to adjust.  And practice doesn’t help with the adjustment.  Only game reps, which is why the Colts need him to start.    

So, what is the expectation for Richardson and the Colts in the betting market.? For me, not high.  This will be a growing year for him and Steichen.  What troubles me about this season is: Are the Colts good enough on defense to keep their offense running the 6-back attack and not having to become a drop back team later in the game?  My answer is no.  If the Colts get behind early, this will hinder their development within the offense.  Their defense needs to show improvement in all areas, as I have a hard time getting the Vikings collapse out of my mind.   The Colts went from a 33-0 lead at the half to losing the game, 39-36 in overtime. 

With my concerns about their overall defense from scheme to talent, the longer the game goes, the less effective they will become.  With a rookie quarterback who is learning on the job, the Colts might become the classic 50-minute team—which means play it close for 50 minutes, then fall apart in the fourth quarter.   Does this mean they won’t cover early in games?   My sense is yes, and as a home dog of 3.5, wait a while as the market might move to four. 

Richardson is in the ideal offense for his skill, but it will take time, and the Colts with a new staff and low expectations have an abundance of time.