There’s a lot to look at in the Rams’ preseason opener, and nowhere is that more the case than running back. The first peek at life without Steven Jackson takes place at FirstEnergy Stadium tonight against the Cleveland Browns.
“I think Daryl (Richardson) and Isaiah (Pead) are the front-runners obviously,” said Terrance Ganaway, one of those backfield candidates. “Obviously drafting Zac (Stacy), there’s a lot of emphasis on him being able to produce early on for us. But I think it can go any way. Coach Fisher always says the best guy, regardless of anything, will be the guy.”
As Jeff Fisher noted Tuesday, Richardson enters the preseason as the starter, “because he played significantly more last year than anybody.”
Not that it took much to earn that distinction. As rookies last season, Pead had 10 carries; Ganaway had none. Chase Reynolds was on the practice squad, while Stacy and Benjamin Cunningham are incoming rookies.
In comparison, Richardson looks like a grizzled vet with his 98 carries for 475 yards, the seventh highest rushing total among rookie running backs in the NFL last season.
Although Richardson is getting the first bite of the apple this preseason, the competition is just beginning, not ending.
“I view it as a close one,” Pead said. “We’re all even. We all want that spot. But we’re helping each other.”
Fisher agreed to an extent, saying, “We haven’t ruled anybody out.”
Along those lines, one of the more difficult tasks for Fisher over the course of the four preseason games is making sure every running back gets enough carries for a fair evaluation.
“You just have to sit down and give it some thought,” Fisher said. “Out of fairness to them, you want them all to have an opportunity to run behind the first line because that’s a fair evaluation, and run against good opponents. So, we’re gonna have to work that out the best we can.”
But game circumstances can derail the best-laid plans. For example, a couple of Rams turnovers may limit the team’s offensive opportunities in any particular game. The same holds true if the opposing offense has a big edge in time of possession.
After getting only those 10 carries (plus three receptions and 10 kickoff returns) in 2012, Pead is as hungry as anyone in the group to touch the football.
“Definitely,” said Pead, the Big East offensive player of the year in 2011 at Cincinnati. “I’m a football player. This is what we do. Unfortunately this is a business where you don’t play a lot sometimes in games. That’s what it is. But it’s a new year, new season, new opportunity, and I’m just trying to capitalize on every opportunity I get.”
Ganaway could make a similar claim. It wasn’t all Robert Griffin III during Baylor’s breakout 2011 college football season. Ganaway rushed for 1,547 yards and scored 22 touchdowns that season, setting or tying 12 school records in the process.
But after being claimed off waivers from the New York Jets last Sept. 2, Ganaway spent the entire 2012 season working with the scout team offense. That meant he was running the plays of the opposing team’s offense each week instead of running the Rams’ offense.
“Now, I get an opportunity to make myself look good, and make the coaches see what I bring to the table,” Ganaway said.
Easily the biggest back in the Rams’ backfield stable at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, Ganaway worked on his quickness and footwork over the offseason.
“Our running back coach, Coach (Ben) Sirmans is always emphasizing quick feet,” Ganaway said. “To be a great back, you don’t have to be a 4.3 guy, you don’t have to be a big bruiser. You’ve just got to be quick in the hole. You watch around the league, and that’s true.”
Richardson has worked on his pass-catching and pass protection, among other things. Almost every day before practice, he can be found catching balls out of the JUGs machine.
“The pass pro’s going pretty good,” Richardson noted. “You’ve just got to learn, and gotta know what’s coming.”
Pead, who is suspended for the regular season opener for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, has worked as much on the mental aspect of the game as the physical part.
“Stop making rookie mistakes and grow up and be a factor to this team,” Pead said. “I took a lot of mistakes that I made from last year and replayed them in my head. Learned from them. Talked to an older person, whether it be a coach or player or someone that doesn’t have anything to do with football.”
For rookies Cunningham and Stacy, tonight marks their first exposure to an NFL game, albeit the preseason variety. It’s unclear if Stacy, the fifth-round pick from Vanderbilt, will see action. He missed part of Monday’s practice and didn’t practice Tuesday. According to league sources, he was being rested for general soreness.
Which adds just another wrinkle to the Rams’ most intriguing position battle.
“We’ve got to step up,” Ganaway said. “This is a game about making plays, and being a guy that helps the team win. I think all of our running backs can do that.”