Will Ahmad Bradshaw Energize the Indianapolis Colts' Offense?

Ahmad Bradshaw is going to be music to the Indianapolis Colts' ears.

Even though the most modern Apple laptops don’t have disc drives, and hardly anyone makes boomboxes or Walkman-style CD players anymore, I still own about 90 CD’s at minimum. Of course, I’ve imported most of this music to my computer and I often play it from my phone, but there’s something about a CD that captures a certain kind of nostalgia from my youth. This was a time I spent summers listening to scratchy Nirvana discs purchased from second-hand CD shops whose owners, for some reason, also sold a ton of incense.

I can still smell patchouli every time I hear “Scentless Apprentice”.

Those times formed my musical taste, instilling in me a love for, among others, Mötley Crüe. Their song, “Kickstart My Heart” always got me revved up to do things. Crüe might be outdated in the music scene these days, but that’s exactly what we thought of running back Ahmad Bradshaw in the National Football League before the Indianapolis Colts signed him on Wednesday. Is this an indictment of Frank Gore as the team’s lead back? What role will he play?

Can the 29-year old Bradshaw, coming off of recovery from broken leg, help kickstart the Colts’ rushing attack?

Dr. Feelgood

The electric Ahmad Bradshaw from our memory has a lot going against him in his return to the NFL, just under one year after a compound fracture of his fibula and ankle shattered his hopes of helping the Colts to the Super Bowl in 2014. But could he still have some juice left in his legs? The Colts seem to think so, and maybe we should too. That’s why we’ll take a look at Bradshaw’s production history in the NFL by using numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Bradshaw’s NFL production via the Rushing NEP and Reception NEP metrics. Is he worth the Colts’ gamble?

Year Rush NEP Per-Play Rec NEP Per-Play Total NEP
2007 6.65 0.29 0.13 0.03 6.78
2008 5.67 0.08 2.73 0.45 8.40
2009 4.95 0.03 7.00 0.23 11.95
2010 -18.93 -0.07 14.70 0.25 -4.24
2011 -0.74 0.00 14.79 0.34 14.04
2012 6.43 0.03 12.35 0.40 18.78
2013 4.84 0.12 1.73 0.22 6.57
2014 -4.67 -0.05 32.85 0.70 28.18

We can see from the data above that Bradshaw has never been a particularly proficient rusher in the league, but he has been exceptional as a pass-catching back. In fact, from 2010 to 2014 (excepting only his injury-shortened 2013), Bradshaw ranked in the top-25 among running backs with at least 20 carries. Last year, he added the fourth-most Reception NEP to his team among all running backs.

Seemingly, also, he’s gotten better with age. In his age-25 season in 2011, Bradshaw ranked 29th in Total NEP among running backs. In his age-26 season in 2012, he ranked 14th in this metric. In his age-28 season in 2014, he was 11th. A large part of this is his growing specialization away from rushing with the ball to catching it; rushing is inherently less efficient than receiving, and therefore Rushing NEP is often negative.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the notion that he has become better over the years, like a fine wine or a kickin’ hair metal album. But will Bradshaw stand the test of time after yet another major injury? Can he hold up for the Colts again?

Easy as Cherry Pie

In favor of Bradshaw’s comeback is the fact that he took about a year off from football in recovering his broken leg, giving it plenty of time to recover.

How bad was his injury, though?

The difference between a displaced and non-displaced fracture is significant:

“For a… non-displaced injury, imagine bending and straightening a drinking straw. The straw now carries a crease – the "fracture," so to speak – but maintains the same overall shape. Conversely, breaking a toothpick better represents a displaced injury. Not only does the break deform the toothpick, it does so permanently.”

Non-displaced fractures tend to take a few weeks for tissues to reconnect and the leg to heal.

Bradshaw’s injury -- despite being of the non-displaced variety -- resulted in him being in a walking boot, even during the offseason free agency period in March. It’s possible there were some complications -- and Bradshaw’s lengthy leg and foot injury history may have played a role -- but it is unlikely that any permanent damage exists.

Of potentially more concern is his advancing age for a speedier running back as it relates to the injury. There unfortunately aren’t many precedents for a running back’s performance between his age 28 and age 29 seasons when getting injured with a serious leg injury, but with other quicks-and-catch players like Jamaal Charles -- who went from first in running back Total NEP in 2010 to 20th in 2012 -- there is some precedent that says Bradshaw should have some impact and juice left in him, despite the injury.

If the Colts can get him into space, he can reduce the impact hits that a normal back would face running between the tackles and dictate one-on-one match-ups with defensive backs easier.

Home Sweet Home

The final question we have: how does Bradshaw fit into the Colts’ designs? We know that he’s primarily a speed and receiving back, but is there room for that player in the backfield? The table below shows the Colts’ running back production by Reception NEP and yardage since 2012, along with a projection so far from 2015. Is there a role for Bradshaw to fill, still?

Year Team Tgt Primary Rec RB Rec NEP Per-Play Rec Yards
2012 51 Vick Ballard 12.15 0.45 152
2013 121 Trent Richardson 20.23 0.39 265
2014 125 Ahmad Bradshaw 32.85 0.70 300
2015 70* Frank Gore 2.08* 0.05 147

Without Bradshaw taking over and really getting attention in the receiving game, the Colts’ running backs would have their lowest receiving season since Andrew Luck was drafted. On this pace, Gore would be their lead back in the air, and will have had less receiving yardage than Vick Ballard did in 2012. That’s horribly ineffective, and was clearly what the Colts were hoping to address.

There is a clear spot for Bradshaw to fill as the receiving back in this offense, and everything indicates that he could still be very effective in a specialized role. He is familiar with the Colts’ offense and has thrived there before. I know I will be one of many holding up a lighter and cheering for his 2015 reunion world tour.