With Richardson entering the NFL’s concussion protocol during Sunday’s win over the Houston Texans, his aggressive style of play is now a compelling topic of conversation.
Richardson, who sustained a left knee contusion in a Week 1 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and missed the final few snaps of the game, admittedly plays with an abandon that puts him at risk for the kinds of hits no team wants its quarterback to absorb.
Physicality, he said recently, is “part of my game and part of my style. I like to hit people first and try to put them in a pickle so they have to make a decision .… I’m going to try to play a little bit smarter and understand that I can’t take big hits if I’m trying to play the whole game.”
On Sunday, Richardson took a hit from safety M.J. Stewart on a 15-yard touchdown run that caused Richardson to hit the back of his head on the turf. That leaves his status for next Sunday’s road game against the Baltimore Ravens in question.
It also raises a fundamental question: Is there a safe way for Richardson, who was the No. 4 pick in April, to play quarterback with his dynamic style?
The Colts seem to think so, even if the first two weeks of the season undermine that argument.
“Peyton [Manning] didn't get hurt his first year as a rookie at all. Played and practiced every game,” owner Jim Irsay said of the former Colts great. “But he didn't run the ball like Anthony does.
“But that's why we picked such a big, young, physical guy. They do take a pounding, but still, you got to have self-protection out there.”
Therein lies the problem, it seems. Richardson’s size could be creating a false sense of security. He’s listed at 6-foot-4, 244 pounds, which makes him the heaviest QB currently on a NFL roster. The average size is 6-2, 220. But Richardson's build isn’t enough to prevent the possibility of injury.
“He's just not used to the NFL ferocity, the hits in the NFL, and he's in his learning process,” receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said. “He's a bigger guy too, so he can take hits… But I think he'll be all right. I'm not really concerned about it. He's a big, tough kid.”
After the 31-21 loss to the Jaguars, Richardson received some sage advice from one of his peers. Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence pulled Richardson aside after the game and told him to be careful while walking the fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness.
“Just try to protect yourself,” Lawrence said. “The hits add up in this league, and they are a little different than in college."
Richardson has been contacted while running, throwing or being sacked 21 times, which was tied with three others for eighth-most entering Monday's games. He’s been contacted on 30.9% of his dropbacks, which is fourth-highest among qualifying quarterbacks.
“I'm excited to watch his career unfold," Lawrence said. "I think he's going to be a great player, and obviously we'll see him again later in the season, but that was my only message to him, really. Protect yourself. It's a long season.”
Of course, the situations in which Richardson finds himself at risk are not always of his own making. It is Colts coach Shane Steichen who is dialing up the plays that put Richardson in the open field where he can be targeted by defenders and lose the protections quarterbacks enjoy in the pocket. Both of Richardson’s early touchdown runs against the Texans were designed runs called by Steichen rather than conscious decisions by Richardson to scramble. Richardson has had nine designed runs for 59 yards.
“I think there is a fine line, but I think if you go look at it statistically, most quarterbacks, if they do get hurt -- if you look at all the numbers -- it’s within the pocket more than anything,” Steichen said before Richardson’s concussion. “Again, we have those conversations weekly about when to be smart.”
It’s hard to blame Steichen for tapping into the abilities of his offense’s best weapon. The Colts drafted Richardson with the intent of using him in this manner.
“It's just hard to defend him because he can throw it deep, he has all that short-range stuff and he can take it for 30 [yards] just with his legs,” Pittman said. “It’s really hard to stop that.”
One thing that has proved true so far: Injuries can do to Richardson what defenders cannot. But if Richardson alters his play too much, he’ll be something other than the player the Colts drafted him to be.
“It’s easier said than done,” Pittman said, “especially when you’ve got legs like him and you want to use them. But he’ll find a good medium here pretty soon. I’m very confident of that.”