INDIANAPOLIS – If it’s a problem, it’s one of those nice problems you simply deal with.
Instead, let’s call it an issue.
How much of Jonathan Taylor is too much?
It’s an issue Frank Reich and his analytics staff – he considers George Li and John Park the best at what they do – dove headlong into during the offseason. They compiled the raw data regarding the workload of top-level running backs through the years. They dissected the numbers and tried to give them context.
When did a team lean too heavily on its feature back? What was that number? Was it 350 rushing attempts? Maybe 370? And let’s not forget that player’s total touches; receptions had to be factored in. At what point do you experience diminished returns and are left with a spent running back?
“We went through that whole exercise,’’ Reich said. “Looked at every back who’s had a lot of touches, how many touches did they have in their career? What was the flow of their career? That’s what we do.’’
The Colts considered that with all of their skill players: running backs, wideouts, tight ends.
But especially Taylor.
“With JT, does he fall into that same category as those guys?’’ Reich said. “What’s going to be our number?’’
Taylor is coming off the best season by a Colts’ running back, and remember this organization has four running backs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Edgerrin James, Marshall Faulk, Eric Dickerson and Lenny Moore.
Taylor led the NFL in rushing (a franchise-record 1,811 yards) and rushing attempts (332), as well as total yards from scrimmage (2,171). His 372 total touches ranked second to Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris (381).
When the Carson Wentz-led passing game faded over the final half of last season, the Colts climbed on Taylor’s back. Over the final nine games, he averaged 23.4 attempts and 129.1 yards per game. He handled 32 carries twice, 29 once and 27 in another game.
Heavy workloads aren’t foreign to Taylor, but they must be considered when gauging how much is too much. In three seasons at Wisconsin, he handled 320, 307 and 299 rushing attempts.
That’s 1,460 handoffs in five seasons and 73 games. He also contributed another 118 receptions during that stretch.
Reich admitted the team must strike a balance with Taylor and Matt Ryan’s passing game. Ideally, that pass-run balance would hover in the 55%-45% range.
“One hundred percent has to be a balance,’’ he said. “We all know the adage too much of a good thing can spoil . . . however the saying goes. But we all know the gist of that saying. You just don’t want to be out of balance.
“The question becomes: Well, how are you going to define balance? In my mind, I have a certain number of carries . . . and a certain number of touches, targets, what that means and what it doesn’t mean.’’
Reich also realizes there will be occasions when balance isn’t the required approach, or when the offensive staff must address things if one phase becomes too dominant.
“We all fall out of balance at one point. ‘Hey, we’re a little run heavy this week. OK, let’s get back on track,’’’ he said. “Or, ‘’Hey, we’re a little pass heavy. Let’s get back on track.
“That’s the game that you play.’’
As strange as it sounds, the overriding issue will be to ensure the offense doesn’t become too reliant on its best player and one of the premier players in the NFL.
From a raw numbers standpoint, it might be difficult for Taylor to equal 2021.
Initially, the Colts anticipate Ryan injecting more efficiency into the passing game. Secondly, Reich and his staff are cognizant of not overworking Taylor. Whenever he needs a break, the team can turn to Nyheim Hines or Deon Jackson. Also, Phillip Lindsay was added to the practice squad and could be available.
Taylor said there have been times he’s had to come out of a game if “you need a blow, especially if you had a long play or if you had multiple plays in a row and two or three might have got called back.
“That’s why we have the running back room we have. No matter who’s in there, the next guy’s going to get in there and he’s going to pop off a long run.’’
The bulk of the work, though, will be funneled to Taylor, which is how teams with this type of unique talent routinely structure their offense.
In Colts’ history, only five players have shouldered at least 300 rushing attempts in a season: James (five times), Dickerson (twice), Faulk (twice), Lydell Mitchell (once) and Taylor.
The last to do it in consecutive seasons: James, who eclipsed 300 attempts from 2003-05.
Ryan has watched his young running back throughout offseason work and training camp. He’s witnessed the vision, the sharp cuts, the acceleration, the work ethic.
Sunday at Houston, he gets to see the game-day version of Jonathan Taylor.
“Can’t wait. Can’t wait,’’ Ryan said. “He’s unbelievable in practice, but some guys have the unique ability . . . there’s just another gear. And when you watch film, you kind of see that.’’
What Reich and the Colts don’t want to see is another running back who’s worn down by a workload that’s too onerous.
One that comes to mind: Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott.
In his first four seasons, Elliott led the NFL in rushing twice (1,631 yards as a rookie in 2016 and 1,434 in ’18) and was the Cowboys’ unquestioned focal point. He averaged 20.9 attempts in 56 games (1,169 total), 96.5 yards per game and 4.6 per attempt.
Over the last two seasons, his averages had dipped to 15 attempts per game (481 in 32 games), 61.9 yards per game and 4.1 per attempt.
A few other examples that might have shown up during Reich’s offseason analysis:
- From 2010-2011, the Houston Texans went where Arian Foster took them. He had 4,264 yards on 956 attempts in 45 games, including a career-high 351 attempts in ’11. Over his next four – and final – seasons, Foster had 2,006 yards on 466 attempts in 26 games.
- Dallas’ DeMarco Murray punished the NFL with 392 attempts and 1,845 yards in 2014 – both were league highs – and never really approached that level of effectiveness over his final three seasons. He rushed 293 times for 1,287 yards in ’16, but managed just 702 yards on 193 carries in ’15 and 659 on 184 in ’17.
- Kansas City’s Larry Johnson was the best back in the NFL in 2005-06. He had a franchise-record 1,750 yards on 336 attempts in ’05, then led the league with 416 attempts while nudging his club mark to 1,789 the next season. He never had more than 193 attempts or 874 yards over his final five seasons.
- Derrick Henry was the NFL’s irresistible force in 2019-20, and for the first half of last season. The Tennessee Titans’ offensive cornerstone twice led the league in rushing – 1,540 yards in ‘19, 2,027 in ‘20 – as well as attempts. Including the playoffs, Henry handled 386 attempts in ’19 and 396 in ’20. Last season, he suffered a foot injury in week 8 against the Colts. Was that just a freak injury? Or inevitable because of his workload?
Taylor will allow his coaching staff to figure out how much is enough, and whether the offense is clicking at the proper balance.
It’s up to him to prepare himself for whatever comes.
“You definitely play week-to-week, but the No. 1 thing is what are you doing in the offseason?’’ he said. “You have to prepare your body for any amount of workload you’re going to get.
“It’s better to have and not need than to need and not have.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.