Ever since Ryan Torain leapt back from invisibility and overpowered the St. Louis Rams on Oct. 2, Redskins fans have been wondering if Washington coach Mike Shanahan is going to implement a three-headed running back scheme.
After all, such arrangements worked wonderfully for the burgundy and gold during their past two Super Bowl championship seasons.
In 1991, Earnest Byner was the do-it-all back, rookie Ricky Ervins was the squat change of pace runner and burly Gerald Riggs was the man in short yardage and goal line situations.
Four years earlier, fading veteran George Rogers was the main weapon with swift Kelvin Bryant as more of a pass-catching threat and undersized Keith Griffin filling in as needed. Each led the Redskins in at least two games before Timmy Smith suddenly came to the forefront in postseason and became a Super Bowl hero.
Those are sweet memories, but don’t expect Shanahan to try to repeat that history. His offense produced six different 1,000-yard runners during his 14 years in Denver as the Broncos led the NFL in rushing, but Shanahan’s Super Bowl winners relied heavily on a lone standout back, Terrell Davis.
During those 1997 and 1998 seasons, Davis scored 36 of the Broncos’ 44 rushing touchdowns. He carried 369 times for 1,750 yards in 1997 with aging quarterback John Elway the next leading rusher and 392 times for 2,008 yards in 1998 with Derek Loville No. 2 with 53 carries for 161 yards.
That’s about as far from balance as possible.
And don’t think that just because Tim Hightower has started the first four games and Washington is 3-1 that the cold-blooded Shanahan feels an obligation to keep starting him, especially since the former Arizona Cardinal has an ailing shoulder.
Consider that Shanahan drafted Torain in Denver, brought him here last year and enjoyed his success (4.5 yards per carry) in 2010 only to make him a non-person for the first three games of 2011.
Hightower is averaging just 3.5 yards a carry, not even half the 7.1 that Torain churned out at St. Louis. If Hightower wasn’t Washington’s best pass-catching back and best pass blocker, he would probably be assuming Torain’s cheerleader role until the latter was injured or slacked off considerably.
Rookie Roy Helu, whose cutback style seems a great fit for Shanahan’s zone-blocking system, is averaging 5.3 per carry and figures to remain the changeup back when the starter needs a breather.
While 21 of the 32 NFL teams had two backs rush for at least 300 yards in 2010, Shanahan can note that Carolina, the only team with a trio of 300-yard runners, was a league-worst 2-14. And the coach will never forget that the only year he had such balanced production in Denver was 2008 when a late-season collapse got him fired from a job some assumed was going to be his until he retired.
The Redskins were the NFL’s third-worst rushing offense last year as Torain, the battered Clinton Portis and rookie free agent Keiland Williams all started at least three games. In contrast, with Hightower starting every game so far this year, Washington is eighth in rushing.
With Hightower slumping and a little banged-up and Torain healthy and on fire, Shanahan said that he won’t decide on his starter until Sunday. Rubbish.
“We have three backs that I really believe in,” Shanahan said. “Ryan had a heck of a game (against the Rams). Any time a guy is averaging seven yards a carry, you’re sure going to give him an opportunity to show us what he can do.”
In other words, the job Torain’s to take and run with it (pun intended).
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.rch.