This post contains affiliate links. “As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.”
WESTFIELD, Ind. — For fans, questions about the workload for 2021 NFL running back Jonathan Taylor this season are mostly tied to fantasy implications and our overall obsession with statistics.
But for Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich, the questions about his star running back are more existential. In fact, they are at the heart of a conversation about what kind of team the Colts hope to be in 2022.
“The goal is not to lead the league in rushing,” Reich said. “The goal is not to make [Taylor] league MVP. The goal is to win championships. He knows it and we all know it. That’s what we’re all about.”
Then Reich became even more specific.
“You don’t see teams that have this ground-and-pound run game win championships,” he said. “You just don’t. I’m sure it’s happened to one or two teams, but our best formula is to be balanced. I’m not saying he won’t lead the league in touchdowns, because you never know how things are going to play out.
“But I hardly want him to.”
If that doesn’t change your expectations for what Taylor’s 2022 season might look like, nothing will.
It’s not just arbitrary statements either. This is a topic the Colts have pondered for a while, even while Taylor was on his way to leading the NFL with 1,811 rushing yards last season. And their conclusions make it clear that Taylor’s usage could drop — possibly sharply — this season.
A shift in philosophy
For Reich and the Colts, their increasingly run-heavy approach down the stretch of the 2021 season was unplanned and — as Reich sees it — unsustainable.
Take the Colts’ offensive approach in Weeks 11-16, for example. They had a combined 186 rushes in those contests, but 126 combined pass attempts from last season’s starting quarterback Carson Wentz.
That’s about as ground-and-pound as it gets. That’s the kind of offensive imbalance rarely seen in today’s pass-heavy NFL, and it’s one you shouldn’t necessarily expect to see from Indianapolis in 2022. Overall, the Colts passed on 52.6% of offensive plays last season, fifth -lowest mark in the league and the lowest in Reich’s four seasons as the Colts’ coach.
The presence of starting quarterback Matt Ryan also looms large for 2022, as the Colts expect him to take greater command of the offense than Wentz did, and the playcalling will likely reflect this.
Keeping Taylor healthy for a long career
Another factor that significantly affects Taylor’s expected workload is the Colts’ desire to retain him long-term. The team is aware that heavy carries can take a toll on their All-Pro backs and will proceed with that concern in mind.
“It’s up to us as coaches,” offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said. “We’ve got to make it. Even if he’s successful in that game and we’re feeding him, we’ve got to be responsible enough to understand that there’s a bigger picture beyond that one game — that we have a full season, we have a full career for him. So we have to be disciplined.”
During the aforementioned five-game stretch last season, Taylor averaged 27.2 carries. Extrapolated over a 17-game season, that would amount to 462 carries – far more than the NFL single-season record of 416. Taylor finished with a league-leading 332 carries.
The history of how running backs respond to heavy workloads is mixed, but there are some recent examples that suggest the Colts may have a point. Of the four running backs (Dalvin Cook, Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, Le’Veon Bell) who surpassed 300 carries in a single season from 2016 to 2020, three experienced a statistical decline the following season.
As shown in the chart, Elliott (three times) and Cook saw a dip in yards per game. carry after their 300-carry seasons. Henry has had a couple of 300-carry campaigns. He actually improved after his first in 2019, but his YPC dropped after his second (2020) before a foot injury ended his 2021 season after eight games. Bell sat out the 2018 season after a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers following his 321 games in 2017.
Dedicated to getting Nyheim Hines more involved
The final variable has nothing to do with Taylor at all. Instead, the presence of all-purpose back Nyheim Hines will also affect how often the Colts use Taylor.
Hines matched a career low with 96 touches last season after averaging 132 in his first three seasons. Now, the Colts are trying hard to increase that number because of his unique nature and explosiveness. Despite his reduced opportunities in 2021, Hines was more efficient and established career highs in rushing yards per game. attempts (4.9) and yards per capture (7,8).
“When we talk about how we spread the ball around, Nyheim is in that mix,” Reich said. “We don’t want to overdo it, but we definitely go into games asking, ‘How do we get him to touch?’ Because of the position he plays and because he plays at the back [Taylor], you must be aware of it. Otherwise, the whole game can go and you’re like, ‘What happened? Why didn’t we get Nyheim the ball?’”
The Colts also bring some creativity to this process. They expect to increase the number of occasions Taylor and Hines are in the same personnel group, deploy them at the same time and keep defenses guessing where the ball is going.
They also expect to use Hines as a pass-catcher, perhaps more than ever. Hines has averaged 4.2 targets and 3.2 receptions per game. game in his four-year career and has a pair of 63-catch seasons. He has performed most of his receiving duties out of the backfield in previous seasons, but Hines could play more of a traditional slot receiver role at times this season. Hines has added more wide receiver drills to his plate during training camp and said he and Ryan have already developed some synergy.
“With how fast I am, quarterbacks have [often] threw the ball behind me or submitted me,” said Hines, a former All-American sprinter at North Carolina State. “Matt hasn’t. First day out, right on the money, and I’m like, ‘Sheesh, that doesn’t happen very often.’
If you’re wondering how Taylor feels about all of this, perhaps the best part: He doesn’t seem to mind.
“If I’m going into a fight and I’m going to have to block it [middle] linebacker 15 times,” he said, “and they say, ‘We win the game if you do that,’ then I’m all in. … You can have all the numbers in the world and still not win a championship.”
Good, because Taylor’s touches seem to be trending down. However, the Colts hope it leads to their collective ascension.