Colts Coaches Explain Anthony Richardson’s Preparation for Year 2

When shoulder surgery sidelined him after four weeks, the quarterback got right to work so he could still gain as much experience as possible during his rookie season.
Richardson’s rookie season was cut short after four games.
Richardson’s rookie season was cut short after four games. / Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports
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The Indianapolis Colts’ coaches all come back to the same moment. Anthony Richardson, ball in his hands, three starts into his NFL career, and having just started a comeback from a 23-point deficit against a playoff-bound Los Angeles Rams team. The rookie was front-and-center after a listless first half by the home team, a start he’d somehow compartmentalized, and, after capping a four-play, 74-yard drive to cut the Rams’ lead to 23–6, Indy needed him to put on a cape.

The team’s 21-year-old Superman of an athlete obliged.

“We draw up a pass play, and we spend all week trying to give these schematic advantages to the players,” Indianapolis offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter explains. “So we draw up his pass play, it just doesn’t work. It’s totally covered. The ball gets snapped and we, on the sideline, are just kind of like, ‘S---, we got nothing here for him.’ And he made it all happen.

“He freaking dipped, dived, ducked, dodged all over the place and somehow found Zack Moss over there to the side.”

“That two-point play was just an incredible athletic play,” affirms Colts head coach Shane Steichen. “But even in that game, for a rookie, to lead that comeback? I know we lost in overtime, but to be down 23 and come back and tie it up at 23 was pretty darn impressive. He made some big-time throws.”

The play looked like a simple scramble play. Digging into it, though, illuminates the reality—and hope—it represented. At the snap, Aaron Donald blew up the protection and was in the backfield. Sensing that, Richardson quickly and aggressively stepped up in the pocket, allowing Donald to overrun him, then slid left past L.A.’s two other interior rushers, Jonah Williams and Bobby Brown III toward the left sideline.

Rams linebacker Ernest Jones IV then closed on the quarterback, leaving Moss open in the flat. Richardson deftly drew Jones in, then flipped an exaggerated shuffle-pass-looking forward lateral to the tailback, who was waiting for it by the pylon.

It sparked the team. As Steichen said, the Colts forced overtime. Even if they did wind up losing that afternoon at home, that certain type of hope came alive that afternoon.

A week later, it was all over, with Richardson’s shoulder blown out and the rookie set for surgery.

The 6'4", 244-pound monster is back now, with just four professional starts and a shoulder reconstruction under his belt. His rookie year, of course, was anything but conventional. It’s possible all of us, Richardson included, will look back on it and say how it played out was a blessing in disguise. Or it could be a harbinger of less-favorable things to come.

Either way, if things go haywire it won’t be for lack of trying. The Colts have been creative. Richardson has kept his head down. In The MMQB Lead for the third week in May, we’re going to show you their blueprint.

It’s a quieter week around here. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything left to talk about. And we’ll get to a bunch of that in the Takeaways this week, and give you …

• A look at how the Cardinals vetted Marvin Harrison Jr. and firmed up their decision to take him fourth.

• Insight into the psyche of Malik Nabers, seen as high-maintenance by some, and just plain competitive by others.

• How the Patriots got their scouting chief hire right, but still may have gotten the process to land there wrong.

And a whole lot more.

But we’re starting in Indy, with Richardson, rebooted and ready to roll into Year 2.

Richardson came into the league a great mystery, and he remains that today.

Having only started 13 games over three years at Florida before declaring for the 2023 draft, there was little question that, of the high-end quarterbacking prospects in his class, he was the one NFL teams had the most to learn about. After his abbreviated rookie campaign—he started 11 fewer games than C.J. Stroud, 12 fewer than Bryce Young and five fewer than Will Levis—that’s still the case for 31 of those teams, and the rest of us.

But just because his last game action came in early October, and he wasn’t cleared fully until a couple of weeks ago, doesn’t mean he hasn’t made progress, even if it looks a little different, like his peers have. And to explain how it’s come, it can be instructive to look back at where he was when he got hurt.

Because of the sorts of offenses he’d run before his draft day, with a foundation that looked pretty different from what you’d normally see in the NFL, the Colts last year chose to meet him halfway schematically. Steichen, Cooter and quarterbacks coach Cam Turner spent last spring diving into different college systems built for athletic signal-callers, to mine for ideas, even at one point falling down a YouTube rabbit hole studying a certain high school that showed real innovation in weaponizing the quarterback run game.

The idea was the same as the one Steichen and Cooter put in motion for Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia in 2021, where they’d retrofitted elements of Steichen’s system, to great success, with heavy influence from the Oklahoma run game that Hurts had led with the ’19 Sooners.

“I mean, gosh, we were in and out of so many tapes,” Cooter says. “You do all the college scouting that we do now, and we had coaches doing examples from all sorts of teams. We definitely watched some Air Force last year, that was something we were diving into. They were playing a whole different brand of football—you can find an idea or two in there. You find a way, like, ‘I think we could do something like this,  if we just tweaked it.’ And, ‘Hey, this would fit; we’ll get Jonathan Taylor here, we’re going to put Anthony in the gun, what if we did this?’ Those were some of the conversations that we had.

“And honestly, Shane’s so creative in the way that he thinks about that stuff, that he really pushes us to stay with him, creatively.”

Through that first month of the season, it resulted in a few things for the Colts.

First, it helped to make the team more competitive from the start. Indy became a bear to combat for opponents, with its scheme a moving target and its quarterback an athletic nightmare for defenders. The Colts went 2–2 in Richardson’s four starts. In the opener, they carried a lead on the defending division champion Jacksonville Jaguars into the fourth quarter. They beat the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans. They, again, forced OT with that furious comeback against the Rams.

Second, Richardson was flashing progress that had little to do with how Steichen and Cooter were scheming things up. Indy saw something in the Rams’ defense that pushed the coaches to go heavy on a four-verticals concept (four receivers pushing upfield to stress the coverage), and within that concept, the quarterback was finding the open guy consistently, different guys on different snaps, based on where the coverage was.

One particular second-and-20, on such a play, the Rams sent six rushers at Richardson, seemingly to steal back the time it’d take for the offensive call to develop. Rather than panic, Richardson stood in and took a shot from Donald, making a deep throw down the right sideline to Alec Pierce, with the three-time Defensive Player of the Year hanging off him. “It was all arm,” Steichen says, “and he ripped it 40 yards down the sideline.”

But maybe more telling, in the same game, was a 30-yard bullet down the seam to rookie Josh Downs that came before the comeback, with the Colts down 20–0, on a drive that ended with Matt Gay missing a 47-yard field goal.

“He was looking left and he didn’t like the out to the boundary, and they were clouding the field side, they were carrying with the nickel down the middle, and he ripped back and threw it right down the pipe to Downs,” Steichen continues. “And that was kind of just like, Holy smokes. … I was looking into the boundary myself, and all of a sudden he reset and that thing came screaming down the pipe, like, Jeez Louise.”

Yes, these throws were impressive physically. But more than that, the Colts’ coaches were fired up about how Richardson was processing mentally.

In time, the hope would be that the 21-year-old’s ability to play the position that way will help to manage the third thing that was noticeable in Richardson’s four starts. Which was that, in leaning on him in the run game, the issue Richardson had staying on the field at Florida cropped back up. In two of his four starts, Richardson had double-digit carries. In the other two, he didn’t even make it to halftime before leaving the game injured.

Richardson stayed very involved even after his chance to get game reps came to an abrupt end. / Morgan Tencza-USA TODAY Sports

On Oct. 9, the Colts put Richardson on injured reserve, hoping he’d be able to come back without surgery. Ten days later, the team announced that hope had died, and that the quarterback would go under the knife to repair a grade 3 AC joint sprain in his throwing shoulder. On Oct. 25, Richardson was in California, where renowned orthopedic surgeon Neal ElAttrache performed the surgery.

By the time Richardson returned to Indy, Steichen, Cooter and Turner had mapped out a plan to try to build on the progress he’d made in playing through the season’s first month, with the acknowledgment that, obviously, nothing could quite replace the game reps he was missing.

“We really put our heads together to try to come up with a good plan to give him the best shot to succeed the next year,” Cooter says. “And it was, I would say, a process where we tried to put a good plan together, where we had to always stay willing to upgrade and update that plan as rehab things popped up, which they do with any sort of injury. But it was important to give Anthony the best shot to continue learning as the year went on, so that he could have a great shot to succeed this year. We tried to do that.”

Cooter then pauses and adds, “We’ll find out, I suppose, if it worked.”

The Colts gave Richardson the mornings to focus with trainers and the strength staff on his shoulder rehab, emphasizing to him that came first—and for everyone to take all the time they needed to ensure he was doing what he needed to get healthy. After that, he’d join his teammates. Some days, it was earlier. Some days, it was later, at the discretion of the guys charged with overseeing the rehab process.

From there, Richardson would jump right in on meetings with the quarterbacks, with Gardner Minshew II installed as the team’s starter. Since the focus, in deference to what was best for the 2023 Colts, was on getting Minshew ready, much of the dialogue in the room was between the veteran and the coaches. But Richardson would take notes on a digital pad—he’s too young for the old spiral notebook—for later in the day.

“He takes incredible notes,” Steichen says. “There are some guys that just kind of sit there. He’s always taking notes, which is huge for a young guy. Because when you write it down, you have a better chance of remembering it.”

After that, Richardson would go to the practice field, where he’d stand behind Minshew and the offense and take in a very different view of what he’d seen earlier in the year, with the coaches intentionally walking through the script with him, as it played out in front of them.

“When we’d get to some of the walkthrough things, some of the schematic things of the team periods, the 7-on-7s, you’re able to watch those things from a certain vantage point, 15-to-20 yards back as a quarterback,” Cooter says. “You’re not getting the rep, but you’re able to watch the play develop. You’re able to see the thing happen. … That 30,000-foot view, you’re not right there in the mix, and, gosh, maybe you missed a throw high and you didn’t quite see that the safety down there and that’s why the guy was covered more than you thought.

“But you sit back there, 20 yards away, you’re not ripping that throw and you’re able to see that. And now, you’ve learned something.”

“I thought Jim Bob and Cam did a hell of a job with him during practice, just following along the script, and, ‘Shoot, what’re you thinking here, just standing in the back?’” Steichen adds. “Like, ‘Hey, we got this play, and look at this look—where are your eyes?’”

Later in the day, Richardson would then have the chance to go back to the coaches with his notes. It happened on a daily basis, in the natural course of the day, with Cooter and Turner. It also happened over the hour that Steichen carved out every Thursday for one-on-one time with the young quarterback.

The back-and-forth was constant, as Richardson got to watch Minshew, who’s been vocal about his aspirations to coach one day, run a more evolved version of the offense that the rookie had led in September and October. The physical reps were missed, to be sure. But the Colts and their quarterback were doing all they could to maximize the mental reps he was getting, as Richardson’s notes, and experiences, mounted.

That carried over to game day, where Richardson wore an earpiece so he could hear everything happening on the coaches’ headsets, with that exercise bringing the same benefit that the different view of practice had.

And in that setting, everyone got a different view of Richardson, too, with the way he cheered for, and deferred to, his teammates. Cooter now tells the story of how he’d have the Microsoft Surface out with Minshew to one side of him, and Richardson the other, on the bench, going through a play. A receiver would approach, and Richardson would try to give up his seat, because, well, the receiver might’ve needed to sit more than he did.

He’s very aware of his surroundings, I’d be like. ‘Shoot, no, Anthony, sit down, we’re learning here, we’re going through this thing,’” Cooter says. “He’s just really bright-eyed. You turn on a TV copy of the game, they’re showing Anthony and he’s high-fiving Pitt [Michael Pittman Jr.] when he comes back. That ain’t for the cameras, that ain’t for TV. That’s who Anthony Richardson is.”

All of which gave everyone a nice foundation going into the offseason.

Richardson’s exit meetings with the coaches in January, after the Colts narrowly missed the AFC playoffs, were to be very focused on getting well, all the way around. He was told to prioritize getting his shoulder fully healed. He was encouraged to take a bit of a mental break, as guys usually are between the grind of rookie year and the start of a second NFL season. But it wasn’t long before Richardson turned the conversation back.

“There is real value in getting away,” Cooter says. “Anthony was so into what he needed to be into with the meetings and the practices and the games, that it was valuable for him to sort of get away and recharge mentally at the end of the season and focus on his health. And before too long, without us prodding, Anthony, he starts asking us what he can do. What can he look at? What can he do to get better? He’s ready to talk about this pass concept. What tape should I watch? Who should I look at? What other quarterback should I watch?

The coaches resisted the urge to give him too much direction.

They genuinely wanted him to take a minute for himself. So while they gave him access to any and all the resources he needed to hone his craft, they allowed him the space to put together a plan for himself for February and March. And when Richardson came back a month ago for the team’s offseason program, it was pretty clear he’d made strides.

Most of it, according to Cooter, has been tied to the fundamental work that he was able to pick back up as he got healthier. The OC equated it to pitchers and catchers returning for spring training, where you could see what an athlete emphasized while he was away.

“To hear him talk through some of the footwork things, all the fundamentals and details of the quarterback position, to hear what he had been working on with the guys that he works out with, and how he was doing that in conjunction with getting back healthy, it didn’t sound like a rookie quarterback who just showed up from the draft,” Cooter says. “Anthony was extremely professional with how he was discussing those things with Cam Turner and some of the other guys around the building.

“It was evident we didn’t have a rookie on our hands anymore. That was for sure.”

That, in turn, has enabled Richardson and the Colts to take the next step.

Just as last year the staff built the offensive scheme to highlight his strengths, take things off his plate, and get him playing fast, now the idea is to put things back on his plate to help him play the type of football that’ll be more sustainable over time. Which goes right back to that tricky element in having a guy like Richardson as your quarterback.

The fact is, Richardson’s otherworldly athleticism will always be a part of his game. It’d be malpractice for any coach not to take advantage of what he brings to the table in that department. But given his injury history, and the physical nature of the NFL, in doing that, said coach is also walking a tightrope in getting enough out of those gifts while also trying to give him the best chance just to be out there every week—something that didn’t happen his rookie year.

In evolving Richardson as a passer, and giving him more command at the line, the hope is that he’ll start to play a game where he personally can minimize the amount of damage he’s taking through the normal course of a game, just by getting the ball out of his hands and to his playmakers, and by getting himself, and the offense, out of bad looks. And then, of course, there’s the other way he can protect himself.

“It’s just being smart on when to get down,” says Steichen. “There’s a happy medium. There’s a time and a place, where it’s fourth down and you gotta have it and the game’s on the line, where you gotta go get it. But if it’s first-and-10—we had this conversation today—and you scramble, and you can make it second-and-4 and take a big hit, or make it second-and-6 and get down, hey, let’s make it second-and-6.”

And so in a week’s time, Richardson will get the shot to start to put a lot of this to work, with the Colts kicking off organized team activities, which is really the unofficial start of football practice for the 2024 season. They’ll work on his command. They’ll hone the amount of control he gets at the line. They’ll even simulate those get-down situations.

Most of all, though, it’ll be good just to have him out there.

I brought the idea up to Steichen on Thursday that maybe, just maybe, down the line, the Colts and Richardson will look back and see that 2023 gave him the best of both worlds.

On one hand, he got to compete for and win the starting job, and then operate as starter for the first month of the season, the same way his draft classmate Stroud, the Offensive Rookie of the Year, did. On the other, he got three months to sit and learn behind an experienced vet, the same way another breakout star of 2023, Jordan Love, did.

The Colts’ coach didn’t totally reject the notion.

“You never want to see it,” he said, to begin. “You never want to see your guy get hurt. But you try to look at the positive in it. You have some time to sit back and look at things from a different perspective. Obviously, the best way you learn is by playing, so missing that time is tough. But you gotta look at the flip side of it, of What can I get out of it now that I am hurt? What am I putting into it? How am I going to get better by not being on the field?

“That’s by being in the meeting rooms and taking care of his shoulder and being a pro.”

Richardson can now say he’s checked all those boxes.

Everyone already knew, of course, how he checks the rest of them. Donald and the Rams saw it in October, the same way all of us on the outside did. And with so much work done over the past seven months, being able to start to piece together what all the progress made on that end might mean when added to the physical traits has given the coaches in Indy a shot to let their minds drift a little to what could be with Richardson.

“I mean, to look in the auditorium and look on the practice field and Anthony Richardson’s out there, looking good, having a good offseason, and there’s Jonathan Taylor, shoot, we got him going,” says Cooter. “Those guys were on the field together for two plays last year—it wasn’t much. So we’re looking to get more explosive as an offense, and these guys being able to put together a full season is really, really exciting for us as a coaching staff.

“Very fun to think about some of the things that we can do with all the guys on our team.”

Cooter and Steichen were there for Year 2 of Hurts in Philly. Cooter was there for Year 2 with Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville. So they know the steps that should be coming for Richardson, with the seemingly limitless potential he’s got. They’re confident about all of it coming to fruition, too, because of the steps Richardson’s already taken.

They got to see those in real time.

The rest of us will get to see the result soon enough.

Published |Modified
Albert Breer