After season-ending injuries to Montario Hardesty and Dion Lewis, it couldn’t be more obvious.
When the Browns cut the roster to 53 on Saturday, they kept Chris Ogbonnaya and Brandon Jackson as the only backup running backs. The grouping didn’t last long, as Bobby Rainey (5-foot-8, 212 pounds) and Dennis Johnson (5-7, 196) were claimed off waivers Sunday and Jackson was cut.
Neither Rainey nor Johnson has a regular-season NFL carry. Ogbonnaya will see much of his time at fullback — he’s the only one on the roster.
No wonder coach Rob Chudzinski was judicious with Richardson’s repetitions in training camp and the preseason. He knew he would need to rely on him when the season begins Sunday against Miami.
“We want Trent to be able to play as much as possible,” Chudzinski said Saturday.
Lewis had emerged as a viable change-of-pace option in coordinator Norv Turner’s offense until his fibula broke in the second preseason game.
Hardesty was set to be the first option if Richardson was out for an extended time, but he was never healthy during camp and was shelved for the year following knee surgery.
The large load on Richardson’s shoulders has gotten heavier.
“You always expect your role to get bigger every day when you’ve got guys done for the year,” Richardson said Monday. “You just got to step up and get in shape. Just take it upon yourself, put the team on your back, whatever it takes. Mental, physical, you’ve got to be ready for all situations.”
That includes third down and the two-minute drill. Richardson wasn’t used in either role in the preseason, or much during training camp, but that will change.
“Third down on Sunday, me and Obi will be out there,” he said. “We know what we’re doing on each down.”
Ogbonnaya is good at blitz pickup and as a receiver, so he’s a reliable third-down option. But he doesn’t scare a defense like Richardson does, and he could need a break after lining up as Richardson’s lead blocker.
“If you got your best player, and on third downs he’s always on the sideline, you’re probably not taking advantage of all your guys,” Turner said of Richardson during camp. “We can’t wear Trent out, but we have to be able to use him in some of those situations.”
Rainey and Johnson are too young and too new to the Browns to be thrust into a big role. The one that impresses early is more likely to get a few sporadic carries to spell Richardson and give the defense a different look. Both will be in the mix for kickoff returner.
“It’s an open job that we have here,” said Rainey, who was cut by the Ravens after a good preseason. “I plan on basically taking advantage of the opportunity offensively and on special teams.”
Turner has a history of using a smaller, quicker back effectively. Darren Sproles combined for 840 yards and seven touchdowns rushing and receiving for Turner in 2009.
Richardson gave his scouting report of the new guys.
“Both remind me of Dion,” he said. “Quick and shifty guys. Hopefully they’re ready to go Sunday.”
Even if they are, the burden of carrying the rushing offense will fall squarely on Richardson. Chudzinski plans to manage that.
“It’s a long season, it’s 16 games, there’s a lot of carries to be had, so it’s a matter of having a plan to keep a running back, in this case Trent, fresh and at his best,” Chudzinski said.
Richardson still bemoans the fact he was never at his best as a rookie in 2012.
Arthroscopic knee surgery cost him the preseason, then just as he found his footing he broke a couple of ribs in Week 6. He remained in the lineup but was never healthy again.
After missing time this May, June, July and early August with a muscle strain in his calf, Richardson has declared himself 100 percent. To make sure he reached the regular season that way, Chudzinski sat Richardson for the preseason opener and finale.
“I know this year I’m not looking towards no injury, no broken fingernails, nothing,” Richardson said. “I know my whole season is based on being healthy and playing 16 (games), hopefully playing later on in the season in the playoffs. That’s what we’re trying to get to.
“It’s been since ’Bama, it’s been a long time, feeling that quick and feeling this light. I feel real soft on my feet, real light on my feet and it’s a good thing, a real good thing. When I do make that explosive cut through the hole, hopefully nobody can see me, just flash through there.”
Richardson said he played at 236 or 237 pounds last year because the injuries halted his normal running routine. He’s at 225 and plans to stay there.
One thing that hasn’t changed is his mentality. He wants to be the best in the league and believes he has the talent. He won’t shy away from contact and will fight for every yard.
But the open-field cut he made against the Colts on Aug. 24, in which he left linebacker Erik Walden grasping at air, shows he’s not a one-trick pony when healthy.
“Last year I couldn’t juke like I wanted to,” Richardson said. “I went back and
watched some of my college tape and went back and watched one of my high school tapes.
I just evaluated how hard I used to run. I used to make one move and go, and I used to
plough defenses all the time. I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve got to get back to that.’”
Richardson rushed 267 times as a rookie for 950 yards, a 3.6 average and 11 touchdowns. Without a preseason and with limited practice reps, he never looked totally comfortable with the offensive line or trusted the holes would eventually open.
“Last year, I came in and went right into the fire. Now the timing is getting better each day,” Richardson said. “The offensive line is making better communication and everything is on point.
“These guys have made a bigger impact on me over the last few weeks than they did all last year. That’s being a team, a family. Our chemistry, we joke together, and we do a lot of stuff together off the field. We just keep our vibe going at all times.”
Turner has a history of giving his featured back 300-plus carries a year, and Richardson won’t be an exception. That’s one of the reasons Richardson believes the stars are aligned for a breakout season.
“I’m very confident. People said I had a good season last year, but I want to be that guy that has a great season,” he said.