Burwell: Richardson beats the odds with Rams

14 hours ago • By BRYAN BURWELL bburwell@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8185

The long-shot stories always are the best things about NFL training camps. Tell us a tale of a million-to-one dreamer. Fascinate us with an against-all-odds journey. Lure us in with a story that begins with an impossible mission and concludes with an improbable happy ending no one could have foreseen.

On Monday afternoon at Rams Park, Jeff Fisher provided us one of those wonderful moments. It isn’t often you hear about a seventh-round draft pick beating out a second-rounder for one of the most high-profile jobs on an NFL roster — starting tailback. It’s even more remarkable when absolutely no one is surprised by the news.

But that’s pretty much how it happened when the Rams’ coach announced with little fanfare after practice — and with the faint hint of a smirk that signaled just how predictable this particular story had become — that his starting tailback is Daryl Richardson.

“Daryl probably would take the first snap against Arizona,” Fisher told reporters.

The way Fisher said it, you could tell he was letting us all know how remarkably unremarkable his announcement was. He didn’t actually shrug his shoulders, but the message was there just the same.

Come on people, is anyone surprised by this?

Under normal circumstances, the fact that the coach was issuing this bit of news barely halfway through the exhibition schedule would qualify as startling news. This preseason was supposed to have developed into a month-long competition between Richardson and last year’s second-round draft pick, Isaiah Pead.

This was supposed to have been a fascinating duel between the two second-year players who would push each other as they battled to become the heir to Steven Jackson’s old starting job.

Only in the original script written in the Rams’ draft day war room a year ago, the idea was that Pead would inherit Jackson’s job and Richardson, the next-to-last player selected in the 2012 draft, would ease in as the change-of-pace sub.

But these are the moments when you realize just how democratic the NFL can be because the 252nd player selected in 2012 definitively beat out the guy with the more impressive college résumé, who was selected five rounds and 202 players earlier.

Fisher didn’t even bother to tell Richardson, and quite frankly I don’t think he had to, because everyone who has been watching both of these running backs perform since last year’s preseason already had seen enough evidence to reach the same conclusion.

Richardson was better than Pead in last year’s preseason. He was better than Pead during the regular season, too. And now midway through the 2013 preseason, nothing has happened to change Fisher’s opinion.

I don’t know if Richardson is going to eventually become a star in the Rams’ backfield.

But there’s no question that his flashes of explosive-play capability (11 of his 98 carries in 2012 went for 10 yards or more; four carries went for 32 yards or more), decisive running style and his greatly improved skill as a receiver out of the backfield make him the preferred primary weapon in the Rams’ rushing game plan.

What remains to be seen is whether he will be a bell-cow running back who will touch the ball 20 times a game, or simply one of many interchangeable weapons in this newly revamped, wide-open attack.

If Richardson knows what his role ultimately will be, he wasn’t telling Monday. He is a rather shy, soft-spoken 23-year-old who speaks in short sound bites that rarely illuminate. He talks in many ways the way he runs the football. In quick, decisive bursts.

When asked about the news that Fisher had named him the starter, Richardson smiled a bit, and said simply: “I’m not really surprised. This is what I worked for.”

To me, the bigger question never has been who was going to be the starting tailback. That always was Richardson in my mind.

The most intriguing thing that Fisher said Monday wasn’t that Richardson was starting. That was so much “Dog bites man” stuff. It’s what he said after unofficially handing Richardson the job that made my eyebrows arch just a bit.

“As far as who’s going to come in (after Richardson)?” the coach asked. “That remains to be seen. We still have some evaluating to do.”

It’s quite obvious that the organization likes what it’s seeing from undrafted rookie Benjamin Cunningham, who is the surprise of camp, and the club seems to have a very high regard for Vandy tailback Zac Stacy, a fifth-round pick who they traded up to get. Both are far more physical runners than Pead. So far, Cunningham seems to know his way around special teams fairly well as a punt protector and potential kick returner. And both have shown an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and a willingness to stick their noses in there on blitz pickups.

So the true intrigue now is what do the Rams do with Pead? How does he fit into the organization’s long-term or short-term plans?

He’s already scheduled to miss the first regular-season game because of a drug suspension, which didn’t exactly endear him to Fisher in the first place. It’s hard to ignore the fact that in limited playing time last season (10 carries) he did average 5.4 yards a carry. But this preseason he’s already fumbled once, couldn’t gain any meaningful yardage in two quarters of play behind the first-unit offensive line and showed himself to be an indecisive kick returner, too.

It’s difficult to tell what might happen in the short term, because if you see the way he’s being worked in practice, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer clearly has some imaginative ideas about what he can do with Richardson and Pead in his myriad of creative personnel groupings.

Pead also has shown a dramatic improvement as a pass protector, too, and it’s hard to imagine that the organization would pull the plug on him after only one season.

But there’s no question that this cutthroat business of the NFL is all about “What have you done for me lately?”

And right now, Pead has a lot of work to do to convince anyone who matters that he deserves a prominent role as a weapon on this offense or special teams.