WESTFIELD, Ind. -- For fans, questions about the workload of 2021 NFL rushing leader Jonathan Taylor this season are tied mostly to fantasy implications and our overall obsession with statistics.
But for Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich, the questions about his star running back are more existential. In fact, they are at the core of a conversation about what kind of team the Colts hope to be in 2022.
“The goal is not to lead the league in rushing,” Reich said. “The goal is not to make [Taylor] the MVP of the league. The goal is to win championships. He knows that, and we all know that. That’s what we’re all about.”
Then, Reich got even more specific.
“You don’t see teams that have this ground-and-pound run game win championships,” he said. “You just don’t. I’m sure it’s happened with one or two teams, but our best formula is to be balanced. I’m not saying he won’t lead the league in touches, because you never know how things are going to play out.
“But I almost don’t want him to.”
If that doesn’t alter your expectations for what Taylor’s 2022 season might look like, nothing will.
These aren’t just arbitrary statements either. This is a topic the Colts have been mulling for quite some time, even while Taylor was on his way to leading the NFL with 1,811 rushing yards last season. And their conclusions make it clear that Taylor’s usage could drop -- possibly sharply -- this season.
A shift in philosophy
For Reich and the Colts, their increasingly run-heavy approach down the stretch of the 2021 season was unplanned and -- as Reich sees it -- unsustainable.
Take, for example, the Colts’ offensive approach in Weeks 11-16. They had a combined 186 rushes in those contests but 126 combined pass attempts from last season’s starting quarterback Carson Wentz.
That’s about as ground-and-pound as it gets. It’s the kind of offensive imbalance rarely seen in today’s pass-heavy NFL, and it’s one you should not necessarily expect to see from Indianapolis in 2022. Overall, the Colts passed on 52.6% of offensive plays last season, the fifth-lowest mark in the league and the lowest in Reich’s four seasons as the Colts’ coach.
The presence of starting quarterback Matt Ryan also looms large for 2022, as the Colts expect him to take greater command of the offense than Wentz did, and the playcalling is likely to reflect this.
Keeping Taylor fresh for a long career
Another factor significantly impacting Taylor’s anticipated workload is the Colts’ desire to preserve him long-term. The team is aware of the toll heavy carries can take on their All-Pro back, and it will proceed with this concern in mind.
“That’s on us as coaches,” offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said. “We’ve got to kind of handle that. Even though he’s having success in that game and we are feeding him, we have to be responsible enough to understand that there is a bigger picture beyond that one game -- that we’ve got a full season, we’ve got a full career for him. So, we’ve got to be disciplined.”
During the aforementioned five-game stretch last season, Taylor averaged 27.2 carries. Extrapolated over a 17-game season, which would amount to 462 carries -- far more than the NFL single-season record of 416. Taylor finished with a league-high 332 carries.
The history of how running backs respond to heavy workloads is mixed, but there are some recent examples that suggest the Colts may have a point. Of the four running backs (Dalvin Cook, Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, Le’Veon Bell) who surpassed 300 carries in a single season from 2016 to 2020, three experienced a statistical decline the following season.
As shown in the chart, Elliott (three times) and Cook saw a dip in yards per carry after their 300-carry seasons. Henry has had a pair of 300-carry campaigns. He actually improved after his first one in 2019, but his YPC dipped after his second one (2020) before a foot injury ended his 2021 season after eight games. Bell sat out the 2018 season after a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers following his 321 carries in 2017.
Dedicated to getting Nyheim Hines more involved
The final variable has nothing to do with Taylor at all. Instead, the presence of all-purpose back Nyheim Hines will also impact how often the Colts use Taylor.
Hines matched a career low with 96 touches last season after averaging 132 in his first three seasons. Now, the Colts are adamantly trying to increase that number because of his unique nature and explosiveness. Despite his reduced opportunities in 2021, Hines was more efficient, establishing career highs in rushing yards per attempt (4.9) and yards per catch (7.8).
“When we talk about how we spread the ball around, Nyheim is in that mix,” Reich said. “We’re not going to overdo it, but we’re definitely going into games asking, ‘How do we get him his touches?’ Because of the position he plays and because he plays behind [Taylor], you have to be intentional about it. Otherwise, the whole game can go by, and you’re like, ‘What happened? Why didn’t we get Nyheim the ball?’”
The Colts are bringing some creativity to this process too. They expect to increase the number of occasions when Taylor and Hines are in the same personnel group, deploying them at the same time and making defenses guess where the ball is going.
They also expect to use Hines as a pass-catcher, perhaps more than ever. Hines has averaged 4.2 targets and 3.2 receptions per game in his four-year career and has a pair of 63-catch seasons. He has performed most of his receiving duties out of the backfield in prior seasons, but Hines could play more of a traditional slot-receiver role at times this season. Hines has added more wide receiver drills to his plate during training camp and said he and Ryan have already developed some synergy.
“With how fast I am, quarterbacks have [often] thrown the ball behind me or underthrown me,” said Hines, a former All-American sprinter at North Carolina State. “Matt hasn’t done that. First day out, right on the money, and I’m like, ‘Sheesh, that doesn’t happen often.’”
If you’re wondering how Taylor feels about all this, that’s perhaps the best part: He doesn’t seem to mind at all.
“If I’m going into a game, and I need to go block that [middle] linebacker 15 times,” he said, “and they say, ‘We’ll win the game if you do that,’ then I’m all in. … You can have all the numbers in the world and still not win a championship.”
Good thing, because Taylor’s touches seem headed for a decline. The Colts, however, hope it leads to their collective ascent.