During his 14 seasons in Denver, Mike Shanahan’s teams led the NFL in rushing while producing six different 1,000-yard backs. Not coincidentally, the Broncos won two Super Bowls, reached three AFC Championship Games, made the playoffs seven times and endured just two losing seasons during that span.
Shanahan brought his famed zone blocking scheme and running backs coach Bobby Turner with him to Washington in 2010, but the magic must have disappeared during the move East.
After finishing third-to-last in rushing during Shanahan’s Washington debut, the Redskins only improved to 25th this season. No burgundy and gold back has run for 1,000 yards even with two years combined in the case of the recently-released Ryan Torain. And of course, Washington’s 11-21 record is easily the worst tw-year stretch of Shanahan’s career.
Not that there weren’t major positives with Washington’s running game in 2011. Rookies Roy Helu – a fourth-round draft pick from Nebraska – and Evan Royster – a sixth-rounder from Penn State – combined for five, count ‘em five, 100-yard days during the Redskins’ final six games.
For the year, Helu averaged 4.2 yards per carry while Chantilly native Royster – who spent the first 10 weeks on the practice squad – averaged 5.9. Dallas’ DeMarco Murray was the only rookie back who ran for more yards than Helu’s 640 and only Murray and Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green produced more yards from scrimmage than Helu’s 1,019.
With Alexandria native Tim Hightower – who had two strong games in five starts before tearing his left ACL in Week 7 – expected to re-sign, the Redskins should head into next season with three promising backs 26 and under. Fullback Darrel Young, coming off a respectable first season as a starter, will be 25.
“They both did a terrific job … taking advantage of opportunities,” Shanahan said of Helu and Royster. “Two young guys that got a lot of experience. That’ll help us for the future. … DY’s a heck of a football player. Making the transition from linebacker to fullback sometimes is very tough, but he’s stepped up and played at a very good level. He’s very sharp, very conscientious, very passionate: everything you look for in a guy.”
The revamped offensive line lost left guard Kory Lichtensteiger to a torn ACL in Week 6, played without right tackle Jammal Brown for four of the final eight games because of hip and groin injuries, and was minus left tackle Trent Williams for two games with a sprained ankle and the final four because of an NFL suspension.
And yet, a unit that often included rookie free agent Willie Smith at left tackle, seventh-rounder Maurice Hurt at left guard and street free agent Tyler Polumbus at right tackle, performed better than Shanahan could have hoped down the stretch.
“In the first four games, we were in the top 10 (in) rushing,” Shanahan said. “Any time you lose a bunch of players (Lichtensteiger, Williams, Hightower and tight end Chris Cooley all went down in Weeks 6 and 7), it’s going to take a while to get it going again. Guys get opportunities to show us what they can do. They’re patchwork, but they play in the NFL and they’re here for a reason and we expect you to produce. These guys have gained some valuable experience. Along the way, we’ve gotten better collectively.”
And the backs are the one position group on offense that Shanahan won’t have to tinker with during the offseason, assuming that Hightower’s knee heals properly.
So even though they struggled badly in the ground for six mid-season games, the Redskins have to head into 2012 feeling good about their running attack.
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.