Hey, Browns fans, here’s a quick quiz: How many games did “injury-prone” running back Trent Richardson miss last year in his rookie season?
The answer? One, and it was the finale against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, when the Browns fate for the season had been known for weeks. If you want to look back to the preseason and argue that Richardson missed five games, that’s your right, but just know that you’re being disingenuous and that you’ve forfeited the right to ever complain about paying regular season prices for preseason tickets.
The Browns drafted Trent Richardson with the third overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. During his third and final season at Alabama in 2011, Richardson carried the ball 283 times and caught 29 passes for a total of 312 touches in just 13 games. That’s an average of 24 touches per game, many of which were against the stout defenses of the Southeastern Conference. That’s a lot of wear, even for a beast of a man like Richardson.
Last season with the Browns, Richardson continued to be a workhorse. In spite of the arthroscopic knee surgery on August 9 that kept him out of training camp and the preseason, as well as a lingering rib issue that forced him to play through pain during the second half of last year’s schedule, the rookie still averaged 21.2 touches in the 15 games he played. That’s not an insignificant amount of work, especially for a rookie getting accustomed to the week-to-week intensity of the NFL.
More recently, Richardson has suffered from a strained muscle in his lower right leg that led the Browns coaching staff to employ caution and keep him out of the last two weeks of organized team activities. Now many Browns fans, in an exhibit of the fatalism and paranoia that has come to mark supporters of the team (and Cleveland teams in general), have stuck the dreaded “injury-prone” label on the team’s young feature back. Some have even begun to question the wisdom of spending such a high draft pick on a running back.
This judgment is fundamentally unfair and reflects poorly on the attitude Clevelanders have developed about the Browns. Holding a running back out of non-contact practices in June is not a cause for alarm. In fact, in the NFL, where running backs take such abuse and often have such short shelf lives, it is much closer to an accepted practice than a warning sign. Fans should laud the Browns staff for holding Richardson out of what amounts to meaningless walkthroughs instead of attacking the player for a decision that was out of his hands. “We’re being conservative,” said new Browns coach Rob Chudzinski. “I’m not concerned. I know he’s healthy from all the things from this past season. This is just something we are working through and he’ll be fine.” The 140 character pundits on Twitter would do well to listen to Chudzinski and withhold judgment until we reach a meaningful point in the NFL calendar.
Richardson is also doing his part to dispel the rumors of his fragility. “Injury-prone is not going to be me,” he said last week. “What people say about being injury-prone, I think it’s just a mindset, and I know that’s not me.” Richardson also told the media that the strain occurred in practice, although he couldn’t remember when. He also downplayed the severity of the strain, reminding everyone that he hadn’t even undergone an MRI.
Some are worried that the strain, which can barely be called an injury at this point, will delay the second-year back’s learning of Chudzinski’s new offense. Richardson also dismissed these suggestions, saying, “I’m still learning as far as the intangibles I need to know. I know the basic stuff, and I’m still learning every day.”
In spite of the lack of severity of Richardson’s ailment, the Browns should not fail to think about ways they can make life easier for the bruising back. While the Browns offensive line is widely regarded as one of the top units in the league, their fullback situation leaves a lot to be desired. Owen Marecic isn’t the answer. Vonta Leach, a punishing blocker cut this week by the Ravens in a cost-saving move, would be a useful pickup. He would come at a cost, but that spending would surely be worth it if it meant more running room for Richardson. The Browns have expressed interest, although Leach has made it known that he would prefer to sign with the Houston Texans. It has also been reported that the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants have interest in the 31 year-old Leach. Signing the fullback, who has had three consecutive All-Pro seasons, would be another way for the Browns to protect their investment in Richardson, just as they are doing now by holding him out of OTAs.
Whether or not the Browns pick up Leach or another fullback, fans will have high expectations for Richardson, as they should. This strain should make no difference in those expectations. If Richardson is still being held out or limited once training camp begins at the end of July, then concerns may be justified. But that’s a long time from now.
For the time being, fans should listen to Richardson’s own words about the strain. “Ain’t no biggie,” he said. “Ain’t nothing to worry about.”