During Mike Shanahan’s 14 seasons in Denver, the Broncos led the NFL in rushing, averaging 2,066 yards on the ground. They finished in the top five in rushing nine times and featured six backs who ran for at least 1,000 yards in a season.
The Broncos won two Super Bowls and reached three AFC Championship Games while making the playoffs seven times under Shanahan. Denver never reached postseason in a year in which they finished out of the top five on the ground.
Certainly, the NFL has become much more of a passing league even since Shanahan was dismissed in Denver after the 2008 season. The New York Giants won the Super Bowl last year despite finishing last in the league in rushing while the AFC champion New England Patriots ranked 21st. Only Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew (343) and Atlanta’s Michael Turner (301) carried the ball 300 times last year. Compare that to the 369 carries that Terrell Davis averaged in Denver during Shanahan’s 1996-98 glory years.
However, the fact that the coach’s tried-and-true ground-based formula hasn’t worked in Washington still has had plenty to do with his 11-21 record through two seasons, a worse mark than often-lampooned recent Redskins predecessors Steve Spurrier and Jim Zorn.
Washington was 30th in 2010 with 1,461 rushing yards when Ryan Torain replaced injured fellow former Bronco Clinton Portis for good as the No. 1 back in November. Last season, the Redskins only rose to 25th in rushing with 1,614 yards as the since-released Tim Hightower and Torain carried the load early and rookies Roy Helu and Evan Royster did so down the stretch.
With Hightower’s surprising release last Friday, Shanahan is going with Helu (five career starts), Royster (two) and sixth-round draft choice Alfred Morris (zero) as his backs who are expected to relieve some of the burden from the shoulders of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.
While RGIII is a superb runner, the Redskins don’t want him taking off with the ball that often, but they’ve paired with him the least experienced group of backs in the league.
Helu, a fourth-rounder out of Nebraska, is fast enough to have averaged 111.3 yards in consecutive post-Thanksgiving starts against Seattle, the New York Jets and New England, but he’s also so fragile that he missed the final two games of 2011 with a toe injury and two more this preseason with tender Achilles’ tendons.
Royster, Penn State’s career rushing leader and currently first on Washington’s depth chart, isn’t as speedy as Helu nor is he as good in pass protection or as a receiver, but he still averaged 122.5 yards in those final two games of 2011 against Minnesota and Philadelphia. He sat out the Indianapolis preseason game 11 days ago with a sore knee and left the Tampa Bay contest four days later with a neck injury.
Morris had a huge day against the Colts with 107 yards on 14 carries but unlike his rivals, as a Florida Atlantic product, he’s not used to big-time competition.
While there are teams that succeed these days with the running back by committee approach, five of the top eight rushers of 2011 played on teams that qualified for postseason. It’s also no coincidence that Washington’s top rushers – Torain in 2010 and Helu in 2011 – have averaged just 158 carries as the Redskins won just 5.5 games per year.
The Redskins have upgraded at quarterback and probably at receiver – where free agent signees Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan are expected to start. But if Shanahan doesn’t settle on a No. 1 back, or worse discovers that he really doesn’t have one, Griffin and the improved passing game figure to only get so far.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin