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Anthony Richardson’s Development Plan Is Ahead of Schedule

The Indianapolis Colts’ rookie passer looked far better than the raw project some billed him as in the draft. That’s exactly what the team expected.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Let’s say, for a minute, that I can see the future. But only very specific futures: the futures of all young quarterback prospects. Anthony Richardson, C.J. Stroud, Bryce Young, Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, Shedeur Sanders, etc.—I’ve got ’em all figured out.

Think about how good of a general manager I would be with just that superpower. I take over an NFL franchise, and I draft a quarterback in the seventh round, a Brock Purdy—he ends up great for his entire rookie contract, and I load my roster with veteran stars. We compete.

And then I trade him for huge value, take another seventh-rounder, and do it all again. I never spend huge money on a quarterback, nor do I trade tons of picks for an early first-rounder that busts. Think about how competitive my team will be, year over year, with the quarterback position always secure and always coming in tens of millions of dollars below market value.

I cannot do this. If I could, I would not be blogging and podding about quarterbacks, often very incorrectly. Nobody in the NFL can, either.

But some NFL decision-makers have a version of this superpower. A much lesser version, to be fair. But what they can do is develop quarterbacks. When they have a young quarterback in place, rolling the dice of their future on his success, they can create the best possible environment for him to grow. Because NFL quarterback prospects don’t have one future—they have many futures. The team they land on, the offensive line they play behind, the receivers they throw to, the coaching they get, and oh, about 93 other factors send them, step-by-step, toward one of those futures. The world of quarterback divination may be a fictional one, but the world of quarterback development is very real, and it’s where the Indianapolis Colts find themselves right now with rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson.

In August, I went to Colts training camp and spoke with two of the coaches working directly with Richardson as he takes his initial baby steps in the NFL: offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and quarterbacks coach Cam Turner. We talked about Richardson’s mobility, playing experience, footwork, and target distribution. A few weeks later, Richardson started in his first NFL game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and looked all right. More than all right—he looked pretty good. He completed 24 of 37 passes for 223 yards and a touchdown, with one interception, while adding 40 yards and another score on the ground. I want to go through some of that game, through my eyes, as well as through the comments of Cooter and Turner.

The first thing that’s interesting about Richardson’s film against the Jaguars is the target distribution. Here’s his passing chart from Next Gen Stats:

Obviously, there’s a heavy skew to the right. But there are also a healthy number of passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and not a single throw more than 20 yards downfield.

That’s a surprising thing to see on Richardson’s film given his tendencies at Florida. As Dan Pizzuta of Sharp Football Analysis showed before the NFL draft, Richardson was in the first percentile (i.e., the worst percentile) in both accuracy and completion rate among college quarterbacks when throwing within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Because he struggled there, Florida rarely asked him to throw there—I charted Richardson as throwing 10-plus yards downfield more often than he threw within 10 yards, which is a very irregular distribution of targets.

Yet here the Colts are, working the quick game with Richardson—and working it well. Richardson had a success rate of 71 percent on throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, which was the best number of any quarterback in Week 1.

Now, the quick game is not really thrilling to watch. But that’s actually good news here. Watch this cutup of some of Richardson’s underneath throws, and in particular, watch his feet. See how controlled he is in the pocket and how the timing of his feet matches up with the receivers as they break.

One-step drop, ball out. One-step drop, hitch, ball out. Three-step drop, climb the pocket, ball out. Five-step drop, hitch, ball out. So often, rookie quarterbacks are unable to keep their offense on schedule and in rhythm because they lack even a baseline level of timing in their feet and head. Richardson had no such struggles.

Cooter’s big focus with Richardson this year is on his footwork—figuring out exactly how Richardson likes his timing, and marrying the build of the offense to that timing. “Every quarterback’s timing within the drops within their footwork is a little bit different, right?” Cooter told me. “They’re all a little bit different size, a little bit different stride length, a little bit different foot quickness. So each of those guys has to find that exact rhythm and timing and footwork, or sometimes it’s number of steps in the dropback where he hits that back step, he’s ready for the first read, and the ball’s coming out.”

It’s one thing to have that timing when things are clean; it’s another to speed it up when things get tricky. I particularly loved this throw from Richardson, who got an unexpected free rusher barreling down the B-gap his way. Watch how he quickly gets reconnected to the ground and throws a fast, accurate ball to rookie receiver Josh Downs, allowing Downs to run after the catch.

This is another thing Cooter touched on, specifically when I asked him about the vertical nature of Florida’s offense and how it might map onto Richardson’s transition to the pros. “As much as we build the thing around the quarterback, we’re also building it around those other 10 guys, and what route strengths certain guys have, what protection strengths different sides of the line have,” he said. “You know, all of us would love to call the touchdown play every play. But for long-term success, it tends to be more of a mix.”

Downs is an example of one of the 10 guys—a third-round pass catcher to go with the Colts’ first-round signal-caller. Downs needs his assists in development the same way Richardson does, and here, he gets it on the short, quick-breaking routes that he runs so well from the slot.

I was particularly interested in asking Turner about developing a mobile quarterback. Before he became the quarterbacks coach in Indianapolis, Turner was on the Cardinals coaching staff—first under Steve Wilks, then for four years under Kliff Kingsbury. Turner rose from offensive assistant to assistant quarterbacks coach to quarterbacks coach to co–passing game coordinator, watching a mobile quarterback phenom in Kyler Murray develop all the while. I wanted to know what unique challenges the development of a mobile quarterback presents in an NFL that’s seeing quarterbacks scramble at historic rates.

“[The biggest difference is] the speed of the game and reading who he’s supposed to be reading,” Turner says. “And gauging what he can get away with.”

Richardson’s interception was a “gauging what he can get away with” interception. It was also, not for nothing, a two-receivers-running-the-same-route interception, so the blame can be shouldered by more than just the passer here.

The concept is a common one. Put a receiver in the flat to tie the cornerback down (that’s running back Jake Funk’s job), throw the corner route to tight end Mo Alie-Cox (not wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., who apparently thinks it should be his) over top of that sinking cornerback.

In college, that sinking CB is easily tricked by the RB in the flat in front of him. He steps downhill hard, and even if he figures out his error, he does not have the athleticism to flip his hips, sink underneath the corner route, and jump for an interception.

Here’s the thing about NFL cornerbacks—they’re a little better than college ones.

Still, the throwing window is there—but unlike in our quick-game cutup above, Richardson is a little late to the throw here. Watch him reset to his left in the pocket and pitter-patter his feet before releasing the football. That’s what gives Tyson Campbell enough time to get back under the route and intercept the pass.

I thought one of Richardson’s sacks was also a “gauging what he can get away with” play. When we talk about feet and tempo in the pocket with Richardson, it is impossible to ignore the plays in college in which Richardson would land in the back of the pocket and just bounce from there. A player as big and as fast as Richardson can get away with not managing space perfectly. When a pass rusher got near him, he’d often escape using either strength or speed.

In the NFL, pockets don’t stay that clean for that long, and pass rushes are far better coordinated. Watch this rush from the Jaguars defensive line: One rusher stays at the peak of the pocket, operating as a spy, discouraging Richardson from trying to escape upfield and ready to corral him should he break outside.

Star edge rusher Josh Allen takes a super wide path around the back of the pocket, vanishing outside Richardson’s field of view. When Richardson does indeed break the pocket, he’s not moving at full speed, and he has no idea that Allen has looped all the way back around to leap on him from behind.

It’s a good rookie sack for Richardson—a teachable moment. When you escape out of the side of the pocket, you have to know how many pass rushers there are, and if any are behind you. Otherwise, you risk not just a sack, but a surprise hit and a subsequent fumble.

The best teacher for this lesson—and many others for Richardson—is reps. That’s another thing that Cooter and Turner both feel strongly about, and the entire Colts organization is presumably in lockstep, as they’ve started their rookie quarterback in Week 1 with a commitment to ride his ups and downs. “[Reps are really important] at every position out here, but the quarterback’s kind of top of the board,” Cooter said.

Richardson really does need reps. A one-year starter at Florida, Richardson threw 393 passes in college—that’s just 75 more than Trey Lance threw over his career at North Dakota State. That lack of experience leads to plays like the interception and the sack, as tempo is not yet ingrained, alarm bells haven’t been conditioned to go off, internal clocks screaming of imminent danger. It means Richardson might be more easily tricked by coverages he hasn’t seen, or overwhelmed by big moments he hasn’t endured yet.

But it also means that there aren’t as many bad habits to unteach. “There is a lot of good to have the ability to mold a quarterback that maybe hasn’t played a ton in the past, as much as some other guys who might have developed a certain habit or two that Anthony has not,” Cooter said. Turner continued: “You can kind of teach him the coverages from our perspective, what we’re looking at and how to read stuff. There’s not as much comparison.”

Something that a reps-based lesson plan inherently invites? Mistakes. Learning by doing is just a short way of saying learning by doing it wrong. “If you look at the history of rookie quarterbacks in this league,” Cooter said, “you usually take some lumps along the way, maybe make a decision or two you wish you had back.” But that’s what has impressed Turner and Cooter the most; it’s the reason that they felt comfortable starting Richardson in Week 1. He responds well to his mistakes. From the spring all the way into training camp, Richardson would make a mistake and correct it, make a mistake and correct it. “Builds and builds and builds,” Turner said, a little bit of awe in his voice.

So Week 1 was a fun debut for Richardson. He ran around and made some cool plays. The offense had some sick designs. But it’s not Week 1 that’s the big deal—it’s Week 2. It’s what Richardson looks like after a week of review, correction, and implementation. For just one play, can he move his feet a little quicker, get the ball out half a second sooner? On just one scramble, can he feel the rusher behind him? Now that the bright lights are on, can he continue to improve on his mistakes and learn from his reps?

I think so. Development is not always linear, of course. There will be weeks in which he takes a step back because that’s just the nature of the league he plays in. But one thing I know for sure: Richardson was not the project he was billed as by many when he came out of Florida, and he certainly wasn’t some raw passer with his head underwater in his first start. The offense worked smoothly. He was steady and unpanicked.

He looked like the guy I would see in my visions of the future, if I could divine who would become good starting quarterbacks in the league: not there yet, but strong in his first steps.