Second of a Position-by-Position Series on the Colts' Roster
INDIANAPOLIS – His personal goal was clear. Entering the 2007 NFL season, Colts running back Joseph Addai wanted to prove – to others and to himself – he was a No. 1 feature back.
He already had rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season.
He already had won a Super Bowl.
But Addai, the Colts' first-round selection in the 2006 NFL Draft, hadn't been the main feature back – not often at Louisiana State University and never in the NFL, having shared carries with veteran back Dominic Rhodes as a rookie.
In 2007, he got his chance.
As far as Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy saw it, he took full advantage.
"He did, and he got more opunity to show he could carry the load," Dungy recently in an interview with Colts.com for this story on the team's running backs, the second of a position-by-position series that will run throughout this month.
"He just made that natural, normal improvement."
Addai, the No. 30 overall selection in the 2006 draft, started 15 games in 2007, rushing for 1,072 yards and 12 touchdowns on 261 carries, an average of 4.3 yards per attempt. He also caught 41 passes – third on the Colts – for 364 yards and three touchdowns, with his 15 touchdowns the fourth-highest total in the NFL this past season.
Addai, the AFC's ninth-leading rusher, also made the Pro Bowl for the first time.
And although Dungy said he certainly achieved his preseason goal, Addai said he wasn't ready to proclaim himself a finished version of what he hopes to be as a player.
"I'm around a lot of people who have been doing it for a long time consistently," Addai said at the Pro Bowl in early February when asked if he had proven himself as a go-to back.
"That's how you become a great player, when you do it over a number of years. I couldn't really answer that question now. You'll probably have to ask me like in Year Seven: 'OK, Joe, how do you feel? Do you feel like you've proven yourself?' I could probably answer it at that time."
But progress, Addai said, was made.
"I think I'm on the right track," he said. "The first year, I came in learning. The second year, I came in and didn't stop. The third year, I'm expecting to do the same thing.
"It's really just enjoying and being out there having fun."
Dungy said Addai made progress beyond statistics. In the NFL, Dungy said, most running backs are typically productive runners, possessing the quickness, speed and vision necessary.
Addai, Dungy said, entered the NFL with above-average ability to block, pick up blitzes and catch the ball out of the backfield, skills Dungy said he honed in his second season.
"I think everything about his game was better in terms of reading the blocking schemes or understanding things – his pass protection, his blitz pickup, catching the ball," Dungy said. "He got a little bit better at everything and just a little more comfortable."
As a rookie, Addai became the first player in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards without starting a regular-season game. He finished that season with 1,081 yards and seven touchdowns on 226 carries. This past season, Dungy said he made the improvement many NFL players make from their first to second seasons.
"He really did," Dungy said. "He had more big plays, more long runs, more natural things. He was just a lot more relaxed. It showed in his play. He had a great year."
Addai said during the Pro Bowl he felt the running backs as a group "could have put ourselves in a position to be better" late in the season. He averaged 100.5 yards per game in his first seven games of the season, and had four 100-yard games in that span. In the last eight games, Indianapolis averaged just over 75 yards a game rushing, with Addai rushing for just over 46 yards per game.
"His numbers were down a little at the end of the year," Dungy said. "I think he anticipated coming on like he did last year, but he had more carries and he had more playing time than he did the year before. He was fresher physically Year One than he was last year. That's something he'll learn to deal with."
Dungy said the transition from backup to full-time starter likely contributed to the second-half statistics. As a rookie, he backed up Rhodes for all 16 regular-season games before starting all four postseason games.
"He had a great year," Dungy said. "He was good at the end of the year, too. He recognized how he clicked it up in '06. That's what he was looking to do. He didn't. He just played steady football. He was looking to have that big jump in numbers. You have to remember he became a starter at the end of the year the first year, so he got more chances. It was just a different year for him.
"I didn't think he digressed or tailed off or anything at all. He just didn't get that charge he got from being a backup to being a starter."
Kenton Keith, the Colts' top backup running back this past season, rushed for 533 yards and three touchdowns on 121 carries – a 4.4-yard average – in his first NFL season after four seasons in the Canadian Football League with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. In his first NFL start this past season, he rushed for 121 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries in a 33-14 victory over Tampa Bay.
Clifton Dawson, an undrafted free agent from Harvard, spent training camp with the Colts. After he was waived by the Colts, he spent the first month of the season on the Cincinnati Bengals' roster. Dawson was re-signed by the Colts, and in 13 games as a reserve, he rushed for 64 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries.
"They're both first-year guys and they'll make great improvement, just like Joseph did," Dungy said. "Kenton did some very, very good things for us. He ran well. He'll be just like Joseph in that the pass protection, the blitz pickup, the route running and the catching will be the part that will grow in his game. He did a good job. If he makes that second-year improvement, he's going o be a very good back for us.
"Cliff got chance to run and got a chance to learn our system. He'll improve as well. Between those two guys, I think we have real, real quality backups."