INDIANAPOLIS – He remains in a class by himself.
That would be Joe Addai.
And 2006 remains an aberration in recent Indianapolis Colts’ history.
Might there be a repeat?
Chris Ballard and Frank Reich created a mini-stir in April when they traded up and invested their second draft pick – No. 41 overall – on Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor. Absolutely no one questioned Taylor’s credentials: 6,174 yards and 50 touchdowns in three seasons and 41 games. He rushed for at least 100 yards 32 times and cracked 200 yards 12 times.
A “unique talent’’ insisted Ballard.
However, as soon as Taylor was added to the roster, Marlon Mack’s future with the team was brought into question. He’s a spry 24 and is coming of his first 1,000-yard season – his 1,091 yards were the most since Edgerrin James’ 1,506 in 2005 – but also is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
It’s worth debating whether Taylor is considered Mack’s eventual replacement, but that’s for another day.
What has been made crystal clear is Mack and Taylor are going to be sharing the load in 2020.
“We know we want to run the football,’’ coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “We know a lot of good running teams in this league and in the past have had good one-two punches.
“It feels like it’s just a one-one punch though because we have two such exceptional backs.’’
The team insists Mack wasn’t upset with Taylor’s selection. Reich texted Mack with the news during the draft. Mack’s response: “Let’s go. Let’s win.’’
“Look, we just drafted another good back,’’ Ballard said at the time. “Marlon’s a special kid, a special teammate. He knows that Taylor’s going to make us better and he’s going to make Marlon better.’’
More to the point, the Colts are convinced a Mack-Taylor backfield is going to make the team better. Here’s where we remind everyone the running game ranked 7thin the NFL a year ago and the 2,130 yards were the most since 1988.
That brings us to 2006, the Super Bowl season. And Addai, the early draft pick.
The Colts were transitioning from James, whose seven seasons in Indy were the foundation for his Hall of Fame career, and had Dominic Rhodes as their returning veteran presence. Bill Polian invested the 30th overall pick in the draft on Addai, a versatile back out of LSU.
Rhodes wasn’t a slouch. He rushed for 1,104 yards as an undrafted rookie in 2001 after James suffered a season-ending knee injury, and proved to be a capable backup when James returned.
But Addai was deemed an ideal fit in the Peyton Manning-led offense. He brought speed, receiving skills and big-play potential.
Instead of thrusting their first-round pick into the starting lineup from day 1, Tony Dungy and coordinator Tom Moore took a unique tag-team approach. Rhodes started all 16 regular-season games. Addai came off the bench for all 16, then assumed the starter’s role in the playoffs that culminated in the Super Bowl XLI win over the Chicago Bears.
Rhodes rushed 187 times for 641 yards. Addai’s promise was evident early and often: 226 attempts, 1,081 yards, both team highs. He remains the only back in NFL history to rush for at least 1,000 yards without starting a game.
Despite Manning’s presence, it could be argued the Colts won their first world championship in more than three decades because of the Bob Sanders-led defensive revival and the withering running attack that featured the “one-one’’ of Addai and Rhodes.
In the playoff run, Addai and Rhodes combined for 600 yards on 138 carries, averages of 150 yards per game and 4.3 yards per attempt. In the Super Bowl, Rhodes rushed 21 times for 113 yards and one TD and Addai finished with 77 yards on 19 carries. Addai added 10 receptions, a Super Bowl record for a running back.
“One-one’’ worked then, and we’ll see if there’s a repeat performance.
Clearly, Taylor has bought into the concept. He has routinely deflected any notion the coaching staff will have a difficult time getting both backs enough touches.
“You don’t count the reps,’’ he said, “you make the reps count. So whenever you’re in, you’re on. Make sure you are 100 percent.’’
Position coach Tom Rathman doesn’t question Taylor’s talent. But he’s curious how quickly it will translate to the playing field.
“Are you gonna see it right away? I can’t say that, you know?’’ he said. But hopefully he comes out of the gates and – boom – he’s playing at the same level as all these other guys, and they all elevate their game.’’
Rathman, the long-time San Francisco 49ers standout back, isn’t certain how the team will rotate Mack and Taylor. He’s been part of running attacks that have featured one back, and relied on a by-committee approach.
“I can literally see it going any way . . . where Marlon’s one play, in comes Jonathan . . . boom. Alright, here comes Nyheim (Hines), where you’re rotating these guys in and out of the football game.’’
A downside to the rotational system is backs prefer to log X-number of carries to get into a rhythm.
With limited carries, Rathman agreed, “you don’t really get the groove and the feel of the game doing that. But at the same time, those are the things that you have to develop into.’’
That never was a problem in 2006. In part that could be attributed to the Colts being a veteran team in the midst of an incredible decade that saw collective success override individual accomplishments.
Also, Moore and position coach Gene Huey were adept at maximizing the Addai-Rhodes tandem. Addai had at least 14 carries in 12 of 20 games, including the postseason. Rhodes was given at least 14 attempts in 11 games. His 21 rushes against the Bears were a season-high.
The “one-one’’ approach achieved the anticipated results, but went against the grain for the Colts. When injuries haven’t impacted the position, they’ve often identified a feature back and leaned heaviest on him: Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, James, Frank Gore.
Even Mack. In his 26 regular-season games the last two years, he’s generated 1,999 yards on 442 attempts and hit the 100-yard mark seven times. He’s accounted for roughly 60 percent of the Colts’ rushes and rushing yards. The second-leading rusher the last two seasons: Jordan Wilkins with 643 yards on 117 attempts.
Barring injury – it’s still somewhat amazing Addai and Rhodes each was available for all 20 games in 2006 – the Colts are committed to a Mack-Taylor amalgamation.
“Jonathan is little bigger than Marlon, but they both have exceptional speed and they both have the ability to make you miss and they both have the ability to break arm tackles and run with power,’’ Sirianni said. “They have some different running styles, but again, they’re both complete backs.
“I think that’s a fantastic problem to have . . . to have two guys like that you can feed the football to. It’s only going to help our running game.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.