Trent Richardson wasted little time stoking expectations.
Four days after joining the Indianapolis Colts last season, his first carry was a 1-yard touchdown run in the opening minutes of a stunning 27-7 win at San Francisco.
On the strength of that TD jaunt, in the context of a huge road victory against the defending NFC champion, Richardson gave the Colts — and their fans — every reason to believe the best was yet to come.
Except, of course, it didn’t.
Richardson’s debut performance, 35 yards on 13 carries, instead foreshadowed something else entirely — a season-long struggle that hobbled the Colts’ running game and ultimately cost him his starting job.
He remembers it well.
“It was really difficult,” said Richardson, acquired from Cleveland in a pricey trade that paid few dividends. After that Week 3 game in San Francisco, each ensuing outing seemed to be worse than the one before.
By season’s end, he was backing up his former backup, Donald Brown, and the term “bust” was on the tip of critics’ tongues.
But through it all, Richardson — the third overall pick of the 2012 draft — never lost faith in his ability to flourish in a new system he was learning on the fly.
Although that never happened, he is confident — by virtue of a full training camp and familiarity with the offense — of a dramatically different outcome in 2014.
“Times like this you get to be around your team. You get to build unity. You get to be a unit with each other,” the third-year running back said of his first Colts training camp. “You get your timing. I feel like my timing was off from everybody last year, with the offensive line, the quarterback, even with certain hand-offs or certain snaps.
“I feel like my timing was so off.”
Be it timing issues or other causes, Richardson’s production didn’t approach expectations.
Acquired at the cost of first-round draft pick, Richardson never rushed for more than 64 yards in a game and averaged only 2.9 yards per attempt. His longest run of the season was 22 yards. He finished with 458 yards and three touchdowns, numbers that paled in comparison to the 950 yards and 11 touchdowns he tallied his rookie year in Cleveland.
On their own, the figures were disappointing. But in light of the Colts’ needs, they were crushing.
Season-ending injuries to Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw, coupled with Richardson’s inability to gain traction, left the Colts’ rushing game in neutral, putting even more strain on second-year quarterback Andrew Luck.
The situation was so desperate that Richardson eventually lost his job to Brown, who barely played the first half of the season but wound up being the team’s top rusher.
Although coach Chuck Pagano doesn’t predict a breakout for Richardson in the purest sense of the word, he doesn’t expect a repeat of last year’s well-documented struggles.
“He’s a lot more comfortable,” Pagano said. “It was just basically survival for him at first and memorization. I think now he has a better understanding, scheme-wise, why we’re doing things, why we’re calling certain things, how we run plays.
“He’s got a better feel for the guys he’s playing with, the (offensive) line, the guy in front of him, the fullback, those type of things. So he’s obviously in a much better place than he’s ever been at this point.”
That’s encouraging news for the Colts, who are already depleted in the backfield.
Ballard suffered a season-ending foot injury last week, and Chris Rainey was waived Monday for an apparent off-field issue — circumstances that once again put an onus on Richardson, who is vying with Bradshaw for the bulk of the backfield work on a team projected to contend for the AFC championship.
“We’re all out here to do the same thing,” Richardson said. “We’re all out here to win that Lombardi (Trophy) at the end of the day. We’re all out here to make each other better. We don’t ever put ourselves into situations where ‘hope you get hurt’ or ‘hope this happens,’ ‘hope you fumble,’ nothing like that. We’re out here trying to do what we can to better each other.
“Staying with that, if it’s a (running back) by committee or however you want to put it, it is what is. We let the coaches decide that. We’re going to do everything we can to be that guy on third down, first down, second down, fourth down, whatever it is. We’re all out here trying to be that guy.”