Richardson’s disappointment was twofold. There was Sunday’s 23-10, season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins. And there was the fact he rushed for only 47 yards on 13 carries.
It was almost identical to the way his rookie season began: with a loss (17-16, to the Philadelphia Eagles) and with Richardson making minimal impact (with 39 yards on 19 carries).
What was different, however, was the mature manner in which he handled it. “It didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but that’s football,” Richardson told reporters afterward. “Out there, it’s man against man. We just have to step up and be a better man like that.”
His reaction is consistent with his entire approach to his second year in the league. It joins a long list of examples of how his rookie season was an education that went well beyond learning an offense or understanding how to properly execute plays.
It didn’t take long for Richardson to realize there were dramatic differences between the way he did things at the University of Alabama and the way he needed to do them with the Browns.
He discovered that there was a certain way that an NFL player practices. He found out that arriving on time to meetings isn’t optional. He learned that what he ate had a huge impact on how he performed.
“I take care of my body now,” Richardson says, identifying the most important of the many lessons he has learned. “Last year, I wasn’t doing it so much. Now, this year, I’m eating right, eating way better. That’s a big part of being a pro.”
He can see the changes, both in how he plays and how he moves. By taking dietary steps such as incorporating more chicken and fruit into his daily meals, while cutting down on bread and rice, Richardson has managed to drop about 14 pounds from his average 2012 playing weight of 236.
He notices that he’s lighter on his feet, that his pants aren’t “hugging” him as much as they did, that he isn’t “looking as chunky” in his face.
“It’s a big difference,” Richardson says. “I feel like I’m back in college shape – that I have my breakaway speed like I used to, that I can jump out and explode on people like I used to.”
He never felt like that as a rookie, partly because he was carrying too much weight for his 5-foot-9 frame and partly because he wasn’t healthy for the entire season. Richardson underwent arthroscopic knee surgery that kept him out of the preseason. Then, he sustained a rib injury that bothered him for the bulk of the regular season, and sidelined him for one game.
Richardson rushed for a team-high 950 yards and 11 touchdowns on 267 carries. That broke the team rookie record that Jim Brown set with 942 yards in 1957. In all, Richardson, who ranked second on the club with 51 pass receptions for 367 yards and a touchdown, shattered six rookie marks and tied a seventh.
His numbers were more than solid, but they didn’t amount to the sort of production that most league observers expected from the third overall pick of the draft. They also weren’t what Richardson expected of himself.
He was often frustrated last year because, with his physical issues, the medical staff didn’t allow him to do any running until a couple of days before each game. He never felt in top condition or fully ready to play at his best.
“I was hurting all the way up to game time,” Richardson recalls. “But your mindset for the game is, ‘I’m going to be a hundred percent. I don’t care what anybody says, I’m going to be a hundred percent.’
“I looked to my (three) kids for (inspiration). I would think, ‘Man, if I don’t go out here and get this first down, if I’m not playing, my kids won’t have the lifestyle I want them to have. They’re going to have the lifestyle I used to live.’
“And the way I used to live, when I was growing up, it was crazy. It was nine kids in the house, living in two, three bedrooms sometimes, and fighting over food. You couldn’t leave anything in the refrigerator. It was every man for himself. And Mom had to work two, three jobs.”
But Richardson recognizes now that using his children – seven-year-old Taliyah, five-year-old Elevera, and 10-month-old Trent, Jr. – to help push him through the tough times wasn’t always the best idea because it took away from his focus of working smarter rather than just working harder. He has since developed a better understanding of the details of his job.
Richardson now knows it isn’t good enough to constantly strive to make a big play on every carry or catch. That approach usually worked well in college, but it doesn’t always produce the same results in the NFL “where everybody is an All-American.”
Opponents need to be studied. Timing must be developed with the offensive line.
“You have to know how (the offensive linemen are) going to feed off you and how you’re going to feed off them,” Richardson says. “This year, I know I’ve got to set up my runs and make sure I get behind my pads and make sure I lean forward on every single one of my runs.
“Last year, it was kind of like, ‘OK, this is my first season, I’ll make sure I just run hard. I’ve just got to run hard.’ This year it’s more, ‘OK, I know what I’m doing. I’ve got to make sure I do the right things and be a professional and make sure I’m doing everything to extend my expectations and my level of play every down.’”
Others have noticed.
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski is highly impressed with the strides he has seen Richardson make just since the offseason.
“He’s learning the game and he’s learning to play at a high level and to play in the NFL and to do the things to be able to succeed,” Chudzinski says.
Adds offensive tackle
But no more than Richardson expects from himself.
Sunday’s performance notwithstanding, he fully expects to thrive in the new offense that Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have installed.
“It’s very exciting to me,” Richardson says. “It gets you a lot of space. It’s very balanced. Everybody thinks it’s just a pass offense, but it’s not.
“Coach (Turner) said I should have 60 catches and I should have over 300 carries. And, with that, I just told him, ‘I’m going to be in the best shape that you’ve ever seen a running back be in.’”
Thus, the application of the first lesson of Richardson’s rookie education.
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