In any other season, rookie running back Alfred Morris would be the toast of Washington after topping the marks of Larry Brown, John Riggins, Terry Allen, Stephen Davis and Clinton Portis to set the Redskins’ season rushing record.
But this, of course, is the year of RGIII in the nation’s capital so Morris has been as overshadowed as Jon Bon Jovi was during his duet with Bruce Springsteen during last month’s Concert for Sandy Relief.
Nothing against Bon Jovi, but he’s not the Boss. And Morris hasn’t been the focal point of the Redskins’ remarkable rise from three seasons in the NFC basement to the top of the division in just seven weeks.
The very nature of the quarterback position lends itself to centrality. Thirty seven of the 57 league MVPs have been quarterbacks. Running backs have been so honored 17 times. Quarterbacks have been the MVP in 25 of the 46 Super Bowls. Seven running backs have been so honored.
RGIII is going to the Pro Bowl, and rightly so, after breaking the NFL record for passer rating and rushing yards by a rookie quarterback. Morris should be going to Hawaii, too, but was mistakenly only chosen as an alternate behind Adrian Peterson (a gimme selection), Marshawn Lynch (no argument) and Frank Gore (gimme a break).
However, in the winner-take-all showdown with archrival Dallas three nights ago in Landover, Griffin had his worst day as a pro passer, completing just nine of 18 throws for 100 yards and no touchdowns. He did average 10.5 yards on six carries while scoring a touchdown, but the star of the 28-18 triumph over the guys with stars on their helmets was undoubtedly Morris.
Heading into that game, Morris was averaging a superb 94.2 yards per game, 4.7 per carry and had scored 10 touchdowns. But against the Cowboys, with the Redskins’ season over with a defeat, Morris was a machine. He put his recent slow starts behind him and pounded out at least 45 yards in each quarter en route to an even 200 on 33 carries while scoring three touchdowns. All three figures were career-highs.
“That was incredible,” raved Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, the best player on an underrated offensive line that helped the Redskins lead the league in rushing and break the franchise season record that had been held by the 1983 NFC champions. “We couldn’t have did it without him. I guarantee you that.”
Only three backs during the Redskins’ 81 regular seasons had ever gained more yards in a game. But that’s small potatoes compared to this astounding fact: the only rookies who have ever run for more yards in a season that Morris’ 1,613 were Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson and Griffin’s fellow Heisman Trophy winner, George Rogers.
Tight end Chris Cooley, whose nine seasons in Washington make him the senior Redskin, said Morris became a star against Dallas. After all, stars come through when it matters the most as Portis did down the stretch to propel Washington to the playoffs in 2005 and as Riggins did during the 1982 postseason which he capped by scoring the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl and being voted the game’s MVP.
However, the understated Morris doesn’t buy that he’s in the same class as the charismatic RGIII, the wacky Riggins or the goofy Portis.
“I’ll never be a star,” maintained Morris, who famously drives a 1991 Mazda. “Other people may think I’m a star, but I’m just Alfred. I’ve been the same since way back when and I’m not gonna change. I couldn’t change even if I tried.”
Some of Morris’ humility comes from his Florida roots, which are decidedly Pensacola, not South Beach. Some of it comes from playing at fruitless Florida Atlantic, which went 1-10 during his senior season. And some of it comes from not being picked until 172 other players had heard their names announced during April’s draft.
Among the backs who went before the 5-foot-10, 218-pound Morris: Bradie Ewing, Lamar Miller and Isaiah Pead, who are more Manny, Moe and Jack than Brown, Sayers and Sanders.
“We took him in the sixth round so we aren’t that smart either,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan noted.
Seattle, which has won five straight to Washington’s seven and finished a game better at 11-5, will be a tough playoff opponent. However, the Seahawks’ formidable defense was better against the pass (sixth) than the run (10th).
That’s welcome news out for Morris and Griffin, who grew up rooting for the Broncos as they finally ended years of almosts to win consecutive Super Bowls after Shanahan added a sixth-round running back named Terrell Davis to first-round quarterback John Elway.
“Whenever you have a running back like Alfred, you’ve gotta keep riding him,” Griffin said. “He makes runs that are blocked for three yards, seven-yard gains. I don’t fret about the passing yards …. I want to win games. If it’s the running back that gets 200 yards and I’m celebrating with him, making it easy for me, I’m all for that.”
And so are Shanahan, the rest of the players, and Redskins Nation.
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