Reporting David Elfin
He’s not as flashy on the field as fellow Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III. He’s not as witty off the field as the quarterback. But make no mistake, running back Alfred Morris is also having a season for the ages for Washington as the Redskins are making their first playoff push since he was red-shirting as a Florida Atlantic freshman back in 2007.
With three games left against the mediocre run defenses of Cleveland, Philadelphia and Dallas, the afterthought (sixth-round draft choice) from an afterthought school is fourth in the NFL in rushing with 1,228 yards. At his current pace, Morris will fall just four yards shy of the Redskins’ franchise record of 1,516 set by Clinton Portis in 2005.
Among all the superb backs in Washington history, only Larry Brown (101.3 yards per game in 1972 when he was voted the league’s MVP), Stephen Davis (100.4 in 1999) and Portis (94.8 in 2005) have averaged more yards per game in a season than Morris’ current 94.5. And only Davis (4.8 per carry) came close to the rookie’s 4.9 per carry). Those three seasons, 1972, 1999 and 2005, happen to be the only ones in which the Redskins have won playoff games during the past 70 years with the exception of the 1982-92 glory days under coach Joe Gibbs.
“He’s a very powerful, tough, downhill runner who could have played for Coach [Vince} Lombardi and Coach [George Allen],” Brown said of Morris while referencing his Hall of Fame coaches who preceded Gibbs in Washington.
While coach Mike Shanahan named No. 2 overall draft pick Griffin the starter on May 6 before the veterans even started offseason practices, Morris came to training camp on July 27 fourth on the depth chart behind Tim Hightower, Roy Helu and Evan Royster, each of whom had his moments while splitting the starting job in 2011.
“I didn’t think I’d touch the field until maybe the fifth or sixth game,” said Morris, who wasn’t sure he’d even make the active roster.
But Hightower’s surgically-repaired knee wasn’t fully healed, Helu hurt a foot and Royster was sidelined briefly. Morris got the nod for the preseason opener and has just kept going while Hightower was cut, Helu went on injured reserve and Royster became a bit player.
And yet, Morris is content to play Lou Gehrig to RGIII’s Babe Ruth.
“I don’t like the limelight,” said Morris, who was still driving his 1991 Mazda until he decided to rest the Floridian vehicle for the winter.
Which is why it was so shocking after Sunday’s 31-28 victory over AFC North leader Baltimore to see Morris wearing a highlighter-green T-shirt that read, “You Could Go Blind From My Pure Awesomeness.”
“I got it because it matched my shoes,” he explained. “I don’t think I’m that awesome.”
Morris’ teammates and coaches would beg to differ.
“Everyone’s talking about RGIII,” said receiver Santana Moss, a 12-year veteran. “We all know he’s the show around here, but without that guy in that backfield [with him], I don’t think he could do it by his self.”
The Redskins, and their fans, are holding their collective breath that Griffin won’t miss a game with the mild sprained right knee he suffered in the waning minutes of regulation against the Ravens.
But as terrific as the NFL’s leading passer has been during Washington’s tear, Morris has also been at his best the past three games after a lackluster game against the Eagles. The 5-foot-10, 219-pound Pensacola, Fla. native averaged 119.8 yards per game and 5.2 per carry against the archrival Cowboys, defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants and the formidable Ravens. So much for Morris hitting the proverbial rookie wall that so many NFL newcomers confront when they play more games than they did in a college season.
“You take a lot of punishment as a running back,” said Shanahan, whose system has helped Morris become his seventh different 1,000-yard runner during his 17 seasons coaching Denver and Washington. “[When] you’re carrying that ball anywhere from 15-30 times a game [Morris is averaging 19.5], it’s pretty tough on the body. But he can do it. He’s strong. He’s very physical. He’s a special back and he keeps getting better.”
While the obvious comparison is to Terrell Davis, who debuted with 1,117 yards for Shanahan’s 1995 Broncos and followed with 1,538, 1,750 and 2,008 before injuries ruined his career, Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said that Morris reminds him of another Hall of Fame candidate, ex-Pittsburgh bruiser Jerome Bettis.
“As far as their strength and being a load to bring down,” Tuck said. “[Morris] falls forward and gets three yards just from his head of steam.“
Or as Griffin put it, “[Alfred] plays every play like it’s his last. Whether it’s walk-through or full practice, he’s gone full speed every time.”
That’s certainly not like the mercurial Portis, who lived for games but abhorred practice. And unlike Griffin, who seems otherworldly at times, Morris is very much down-to-earth. He wasn’t perfect the past two weeks, fumbling at the New York 9-yard line to cost the Redskins near-certain points in a 17-16 escape and then setting up a Ravens touchdown with a turnover at the Washington 27 in a game that went to overtime.
Morris rebounded to run three times for the final first down against the Giants that allowed RGIII to kneel for the victory and carried on both of Washington’s plays in overtime against Baltimore before kicker Kai Forbath booted the game-winning field goal.
Thirteen years ago when the Redskins last won the NFC East, their slogan was “Believe In Stephen [Davis].” If they complete a remarkable comeback from a 3-6 start and overtake the Giants to finish atop the division for the first time since, RGIII will surely be the focal point. But Morris certainly won’t just be in the chorus.
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