Second of a Position-by-Position Series on the Colts' Roster
INDIANAPOLIS -- When it comes to the Colts' running backs, Jim Caldwell said it's easy to look at things the wrong way.
Caldwell, in his first season as the Colts' head coach, said many may view the production in the team's running game this past season as solely reflective of the running backs, that the reason the Colts finished next-to-last last in the NFL in rushing yards should be a discussion in which only the runners should be included.
Which is something Caldwell has in common with his predecessor.
Because throughout this past season Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy often said whatever problems there were in the running offense stemmed from a number of areas.
And Caldwell hardly could agree more.
"You can't always just pinpoint one position, one particular issue," Caldwell said recently during an interview for this story on the team's running backs, the second of a position-by-position series scheduled to run on Colts.com the rest of the month.
"Otherwise, it would be very easy to fix. Often times, there is a combination of things, that you're just not consistent enough across the board. That's the key.
"We have to get back to the point where we're very, very consistent in our running game."
The Colts, after ranking no worse than 19th in the NFL in rushing in eight of the last nine seasons, finished this past season 31st of 32 teams, rushing for an average of 79.6 yards per game.
Joseph Addai, after rushing for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons and making the Pro Bowl following the 2007 season, finished this past season with 544 yards and five touchdowns on 155 carries, a 3.5-yards-per-carry average. He started each of his 12 appearances.
"We certainly feel good about Joseph," Caldwell said. "He's a talented guy and he's been a productive guy. We just anticipate that 2009 won't be any different."
Addai's backup, Dominic Rhodes, rushed for 538 yards and six touchdowns on 152 carries. Rhodes, who spent 2001-06 with the Colts before spending a year with Oakland, re-signed with the Colts last offseason and provided solid depth and an energy level when Addai was out.
He became an unrestricted free agent in late February, but has yet to sign elsewhere.
Caldwell said a return was possible (of his return).
"Free agency is still obviously going on, so although he's not on the roster, it doesn't mean Dom's gone," Caldwell said. "There's always that possibility."
Throughout the latter weeks of last season, Colts President Bill Polian spoke highly of two other backs on the roster, rookies Chad Simpson and Lance Ball.
Simpson, who signed as a free agent shortly after the 2008 NFL Draft, started the season on the practice squad, then spent the final 11 regular-season games on the roster. He rushed for 45 yards on 15 carries. He finished the season with 15 kickoff returns for a 22.9-yard average.
"Chad Simpson certainly demonstrated that he has some skill and ability," Caldwell said. "He didn't get a chance to showcase it much, but he's a hard-working, tough guy. Those of us who have seen it in practice certainly know what he's capable of doing, so we're anxious to see him get an opunity if that opportunity should that arise."
Ball, who spent time on St. Louis' practice squad as well as that of the Colts last season, rushed for 83 yards on 13 carries in a 23-0 victory over Tennessee in the regular-season finale.
"We had an opportunity to see a little bit of him, obviously, in the Tennessee game," Caldwell said. "He's a very capable runner. He's smart, tough. We're also excited to see him come along and realize his potential as well.
"We think we have two good, young backs there in position to help us."
The final back on the roster is Clifton Dawson, a third-year veteran from Harvard who played in 11 games as a rookie. He was placed on injured reserve early last November.
Caldwell said whoever the back, the responsibility of the running game falls on more than just the player lining up behind the quarterbacks. Dungy used to talk often of the importance of the running game in the Colts' offense – that while it emphasized the pass with players such as nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning and three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Reggie Wayne, the ability to run enough to make that part of the offense a legitimate threat was key. The ability to run when necessary – in short-yardage situations and late in games – also was key, Dungy said.
The only other time in the last 10 seasons the Colts finished out of the Top 20 in rushing was 2002, when then-running back Edgerrin James was returning from a season-ending knee injury the previous season. The Colts that season finished 26th in the NFL in rushing. The offensive ranking was ninth, one of two times in the last decade the Colts have finished outside the Top 5 in the category.
The other time was this past season, and Caldwell said with an improved running game a priority, the improvement must come from more than one position.
"What does that take? I think it takes work in every single area, whether it's in the way in which we handle our fundamentals from a blocking standpoint, or whether it's a ball-carrying issue, or whether it's an audible issue," he said. "All of those things have to be considered, and that's what we're working hard on this offseason, getting ourselves in position so that we are as productive as we used to be in previous years in terms of the running game.
"Everybody kind of points at one individual, often times at one position. It's certainly not the case. There are a lot of folks who have to do things right in order for us to be successful in terms of the running game."