A peek ahead at the Colts RB depth chart for 2006...
INDIANAPOLIS – When it comes to the running back situation, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said things hardly could be more unusual. The start of the free-agency period is days away.
And at running back, little surrounding the position for the Colts is certain because Edgerrin James may or not be back.
Which means they may be looking for a veteran running back in free agency.
Or they may not be.
And they may be looking for a running back in the draft.
Or they may not be.
“We’re kind of in a holding pattern,” Dungy said recently during an interview for a position-by-position series for Colts.com, a series that continues with this story on the team’s running backs.
The holding pattern, as the Colts and the rest of the NFL wait through a series of events delaying the start of free agency, is essentially this:
One plan if there is an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
One plan if there is not.
James, the Colts’ leading rusher six of the past seven seasons and a four-time Pro Bowl selection, is expected to become a free agent at the start of the new league year. That is expected to be Thursday at 12:01 a.m., the same time the free-agency period begins.
If there is no new CBA, Colts President Bill Polian said at the recent NFL Scouting Combine, the chances of resigning James are higher than if there is one.
“We do have to have a ‘With Edgerrin’ plan and a ‘Without’ Edgerrin plan,” Dungy said.
And that’s what makes things particularly unusual this off-season, Dungy said.
Because while Dungy is confident the Colts will be effective offensively and successful as a team with or without James, the prospect of potentially being without him casts uncertainty around not only the running-back position, but the entire offense.
“It’s the biggest question mark,” Dungy said. “No doubt about it. Having uncertainty at that position is unusual for us.
“It’s something we’ve never had at that spot before in my time here.”
During James’ career, productivity from the running back position has been anything but uncertain for the Colts.
James, whom the Colts made the No. 4 overall selection in the NFL Draft in 1999, has been a consistent, productive presence in the lineup in six of his seven seasons. In years in which James has started 13 or more games, the Colts have records of 13-3, 10-6, 10-6, 12-4, 12-4 and 14-2. In 2001, when he started just six games before a season-ending knee injury, the Colts finished 6-10, the only season in his career in which they have not made the playoffs.
He not only has been productive, he has been reliable. James, in seven seasons, has started 96 of a possible 112 games, with 10 of those games missed coming in one season, 2001. He has rushed for 9,226 yards and 64 touchdowns on 2,188 carries, a 4.2-yards-per-carry career average. In each of the past two seasons, seasons in which James made his third and fourth Pro Bowl appearances, he was in contention for the NFL rushing title until Indianapolis secured its playoff positioning.
He also has been one of the NFL’s top receivers and pass blockers at his position, catching 356 passes for 2,839 yards and 11 touchdowns. He is the Colts’ all-time leading rusher, and only Jim Brown and Eric Dickerson reached the 9,000-yard mark faster. James did it in 96 games while Dickerson did it in 82 games and Brown did it in 88.
He also has 49 100-yard games, a team record, and his three seasons with more than 2,000 total yards – 1999, 2000 and 2004 – are tied for fourth in NFL history behind Walter Payton, Dickerson and Marshall Faulk, each of whom had four such seasons.
Replacing James may be necessary, Dungy said recently, and if so, he said it is a transition the Colts can make successfully.
But it won’t be one anyone around the Colts wants to make, he said.
“It’s something you always say – that you have to groom people, that you have to be ready, that you have to make the next step whether they move on, or someone’s injured, or whatever happens,” Dungy said. “But you look at what your record has been when he’s been in the lineup and he’s been phenomenal. You realize if he’s not there what you have to replace.
“You have to replace a very reliable, tough, durable guy who has been such a high percentage of the offense over the last seven years.”
Aside from James, the Colts had three running backs on the roster last season – backup Dominic Rhodes, veteran James Mungro and Kory Chapman.
Rhodes, a 2001 free-agent signee, rushed for 1,104 yards on 233 carries as a rookie, and after missing 2002 with a knee injury, he rushed for 529 yards and five touchdowns on 130 carries in the past three seasons. He also has a career 23.6-yard average as a kick returner with two touchdowns. Last season, he averaged 20.9 yards on 41 kickoff returns.
Mungro, who rushed for 336 yards and eight touchdowns on 97 carries as a rookie in 2002, has rushed for 94 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries in three seasons since.
Chapman, who signed as a free agent two games into this season, played with the New England Patriots in 2004. He was active for three games this past season and does not have a carry in the NFL.
“Over an 11-game stint as a rookie, Dominic was able to do quite a bit in 2001,” Dungy said. “James Mungro has performed well for us when called upon, and we’ve liked what we’ve seen from Kory Chapman, but obviously, if you take Edgerrin James out of the mix you’re looking at a different position than what we’ve had.
“He’s been the starter every year since 1999, so if he’s not around, you’re looking at a dramatically different situation.”