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Can Roy Helu Be A Workhorse?

by Grant Paulsen
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(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Grant Paulsen Grant Paulsen
Grant Paulsen is the Redskins beat reporter for 106.7 The Fan and...
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Roy Helu has rushed for 100 yards in each of the Redskins’ last three games. Helu is the first Redskins’ rookie tailback to ever accomplish the feat, and the first Washington runner of any kind to do it since Clinton Portis in 2008.

Helu has now carried the ball 73 times in the Redskins’ last three games. Only Baltimore’s Ray Rice has garnered more rushing attempts (76) than Helu during that stretch.

There’s some debate — among fans and in the media — about whether or not Helu can maintain this pace as an NFL running back over the duration of a season. Is he a feature-back or is he the type of shifty, change-of-pace option destined to spend his time splitting carries?

The truth is, it’s too early to tell whether or not Helu is going to be an all-down back for many years to come. Three strong showings — his 108, 100 and 126 yard performances against three playoff teams from last season — don’t mean that he’s a safe bet to be the focal point of the Redskins’ offense in 2012 or beyond. But his standout performances are encouraging.

But for those people saying that Helu isn’t capable of continuing to carry the ball 20-plus times every week for an entire season, they should probably look around the league. It’s not 1996. Not many tailbacks do that any more.

Do you know how many running backs are averaging 20 carries a game this season? Two. Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew (the NFL’s leading rusher) and Houston’s Arian Foster. A year ago only six backs ran the ball 20 times a game and in 2009 only four rushers had work-loads that large.

The league has changed. There aren’t that many big-bodied, rumbling, work-horse backs carrying the rock 30 times.

So can Helu continue to run the ball 24 times a game, which is the carry-total he’s averaged over the last three weeks since taking over as Washington’s top tailback? No. But that has less to do with Helu and more to do with the way football is played these days. Nobody averages 24 attempts a game for an entire season.

If you extrapolate Helu’s 24 carry average over a 16-game season, the Nebraska product would be compiling 389 rushes. The Redskins’ franchise record, set by John Riggins in 1983, is 375 rushes. The last Redskins running back to post even a 350-carry season was Stephen Davis in 2011, who’s 356 attempts in 2001 are second-most in franchise history.

But Davis, who out-weighed Helu by 15 pounds, was a high-volume running back and Marty Schottenheimer never met a running play he didn’t like. Kyle Shanahan is the antithesis of Schottenheimer as an offensive-mind.

The Redskins finished 31st out of 32 teams in rushing attempts last season and only five teams have run the ball less than the Redskins so far this season. Shanahan, and his father, would like to be able to run the ball more often and more effectively, something Washington will likely do in the future as the team’s personnel improves. By the younger Shanahan is a pass-first, play-caller in a pass-first league.

Helu isn’t going to have to carry the ball 20 to 25 times a game all season. So why worry about if he can sustain this pace? He can’t. No running back would. But his stellar showings are evidence that he can be a dynamic player and if he continues to prove worthy of his extensive role in the Redskins’ offense, he may prove that he’s capable of be a guy you can build an offense around.

For now, though, Washington should just continue to let him play. Feed him the football, get him involved in the screen game, and continue to allow him to improve in pass-protection. Allowing him to do those things now will make him better, and the Redskins’ offense better, next season.

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