With no Jonathan Taylor resolution in sight, what's left of Colts' running game?

WESTFIELD, Ind. – At a time when the value of NFL running backs seems to be at a low point, it is notable just how different the Colts’ offense looks without All-Pro back Jonathan Taylor on the field.

While there are examples that bolster the idea that running backs are somewhat interchangeable, there are exceptions to that notion.

And Taylor might just be one.

“I think, specifically, it’s the home-run speed,” Colts assistant general manager Ed Dodds said when asked what makes Taylor special. “There’s a lot of guys that are good runners, but they’re not a threat to go 80 yards. That’s kind of what set him apart right away if you had to pick one thing, whether it was in the draft or even [during] his time in the league.”

Taylor returned to training camp on Monday after spending the previous week away from the team, undergoing offsite therapy on a right ankle injury that has kept him sidelined and on the physically unable to perform list since reporting to camp last month. Taylor remains at odds with the Colts over his lack of a contract extension and has requested a trade. There is interest, sources said, but whether a deal can be struck is unclear.

Meanwhile, with no resolution in sight, life must go on in the Colts’ backfield.

In Saturday’s preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills, the Colts rushed for an uninspiring 3.1 yards per attempt, this despite coaches coming away encouraged by the performance of the team’s offensive line. Rookie running back Evan Hull, who started the game, managed just 15 yards on seven rushes, though Deon Jackson produced 35 yards on six carries (5.8 yards per attempt).

But, overall, a big takeaway was the lack of explosiveness in the Colts’ running game. Indianapolis’ longest run was nine yards by Jackson in the first quarter. The longest run from the remaining backs was a 7-yard carry from Jake Funk. All told, the Colts produced no explosive plays in the running game (defined as 10 yards or longer) despite 27 combined carries from their running backs.

Contrast that production with Taylor’s track record.

In his career, Taylor has averaged an explosive run on roughly one of every seven rushing attempts. In total, 106 of his 756 career rushing attempts (14%) have gone for 10 yards or longer during Taylor’s three seasons, although that percentage dipped to 10.9 last season. Only Nick Chubb (122) and Dalvin Cook (112) have more explosive runs since Taylor entered the league in 2020.

While there was no panic on the Colts’ part over the outcome of a watered-down exhibition game, there’s also an acknowledgement that they’re going to need more production. (Taylor’s top backup, Zack Moss, broke his right forearm two weeks ago and will miss four to six weeks.)

“All in all, I think our run game was OK,” offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “We’d like it to be a bit better… Everybody is running base plays and trying to execute those really well, and Buffalo did some things schematically that put some pressure on us and created a little bit of stress. We’d like it to improve moving forward.”

One variable that can’t yet be measured is the impact rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson might have on the running game. The Colts largely avoided putting Richardson in danger during the Bills game, but that will likely change come the regular season. Now that Richardson has been named the starter, his proven running ability will be a huge element in the Colts offense and will likely add some juice to the running game.

One small preview came on what might have seemed like a routine play in the first quarter against Buffalo. The Colts called a read-option play for Richardson, who kept the ball after faking a handoff to Jackson. That left defensive end Greg Rousseau in a one-on-one matchup with Richardson, who effortlessly broke a tackle.

That left 191-pound cornerback Kaiir Elam to make an open-field stop against Richardson, who recently said he’s added muscle and weighs around 250 pounds. Richardson lowered his shoulder into Elam’s chest, running over the defensive back. Richardson’s momentum carried them both out of bounds after a 5-yard gain.

If and when Richardson breaks off one of his trademark long runs, it is certain to draw the attention of defensive coordinators and impact how teams defend the run against the Colts. That should have a positive effect.

Then again, imagine the choices defenses might be forced to make if both Richardson and Taylor were in the Colts’ backfield. Richardson’s size and strength coupled with Taylor’s breakaway speed would potentially be a handful.

But, for now, with Taylor and the Colts no closer to resolving their differences, the Colts must make do. Whether they have enough to do that remains to be seen.