Niyo: Recovering Theo Riddick is Lions’ man of mystery

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — They gave us a glimpse, but that was all.

And that’s part of the reason everyone’s watching Theo Riddick now, waiting and wondering. Ameer Abdullah, the Lions’ No. 1 running back, has returned to action, after missing almost all of last season with a foot injury. But his tag-team partner in the backfield still is spinning his wheels, if you will, watching — and waiting for the green light — as he works his way back from offseason surgery.

Riddick on Wednesday once again declined to divulge any details about the wrist injuries that cut short his season last fall — injuries that helped derail the Lions’ playoff push in the process. And he played coy when asked if he expected to be ready for the start of training camp in late July.

“Guess you’ll see,” he laughed.

Therein lies the real mystery for the Lions, wrapped up neatly for now in a protective brace on Riddick’s right forearm.

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“Well,” Riddick nodded, “I think you saw that Game 1 last year.”

And I think he’s right about that. Because that 39-35 victory at Indianapolis in the 2016 opener was the only time we saw both Abdullah and Riddick used in tandem for a full game last season. The two dynamic backs combined for 108 rushing yards on 19 carries that day and added another 120 receiving yards on 10 catches. Between them, they combined for three touchdowns, and it was Riddick’s nifty, 20-yard catch-and-run that jump-started the winning drive.

“It was great, fun to watch, and if we can bring that to the table, week in and week out, I think we’ll be a very good team,” Riddick said. “I mean, watching every game, watching the personnel and the teams that were in the playoffs, you know, I think we’re right there.”

Of course, neither Riddick nor Abdullah was there by the time the Lions limped into the playoffs last winter. And it showed as Matthew Stafford & Co. struggled to put points on the board. Abdullah was lost for the season in Week 2 — “Felt like I let a lot of people down because I wasn't out there,” he said — and Riddick joined him for good in early December.

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They’ve heard all the talk since, about the Lions — a team that ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing — bypassing running backs in the draft and only recently adding a veteran (Matt Asiata) to the mix. And they’ve heard all the questions about durability and reliability.

“But that’s just noise,” Riddick said, shrugging. “I’m not here to argue about another person’s opinion.

“We just want to go out there and play, man. Me and Ameer, the one thing we have in common is we don’t like to talk about it. We’re some ‘do-ers,’ you know? … A lot of people — a lot of teams — know what we’re capable of, and we just want to be able to show that.”

‘Can’t be held back’

Riddick, who just turned 26, showed a little more during Wednesday’s OTA practice than he had previously this spring. He’s still wearing that brace on his right wrist, but he was busy going through an individual workout with a member of the Lions’ training staff on the side of the practice field. He was running, cutting, even cradling a football with his left hand for some ball-security drills.

Asked later if he was pacing himself, he laughed.

“There’s no pace,” he said. “If you love the game, you can’t be held back.”

He didn’t hold back, either, when asked for his reaction to the Lions’ offseason moves fortifying the offensive line, spending big money in free agency to add right tackle Rick Wagner and Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang.

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“You smile,” Riddick said, grinning for emphasis. “It’s that simple: You smile.”

For now, he says his task is simple, too, focusing on the playbook as he takes mental reps where others are getting physical ones.

There’s some new terminology to memorize and revamped blocking schemes. And Riddick, for his part, says he has learned plenty about patience over the last year, on and off the field.

‘We’ll be ready’

Riddick, beginning the first year of a three-year, $12.75 million contract extension, already had established himself as one of the league’s best receiving backs, setting a franchise record with 80 catches two years ago and leading the league in yards per route run in 2014 and ’ 15, according to Pro Football Focus. But outside of his senior year at Notre Dame in 2012, he’d never really served as a team’s primary ball-carrier until he was pressed into that duty by Abdullah’s injury last fall.

“That was the first time for me, honestly, and I started to find a groove a little bit towards the end,” said Riddick, who averaged 4.7 yards per carry over his last five full games. “And that helped me. Because I needed that in terms of being able to be a patient runner. You see things and you just want to run through it, but you learn you’ve got to set things up.”

As for how this coming season sets up, Riddick won’t say much, other than to promise, “No worries.”

“I’m right where I need to be, and that’s all anyone needs to know,” he said. “We’ll be ready. And when the season starts, we’ll let our play speak for itself.

“We just can’t wait till September.”