Now that we know that Baltimore and San Francisco will be meeting in Super Bowl XLVII in 13 days, I want to look back at how the Redskins produced their best season in years, one that was so unexpected after they were 3-6 coming out of their Week 10 bye.
So how did 10-6 NFC East champion Washington totally reverse course after finishing last in the division at 5-11 in 2011? Coach Mike Shanahan and his coordinators, Kyle Shanahan (offense), Jim Haslett (defense) and Danny Smith (special teams) stayed the same. So did eight of the defensive starters (it would have been 10 if outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and end Adam Carriker hadn’t both gone down in Week 2).
The defense’s rise against the run (from 18th to fifth) was outweighed by its crash against the pass (from 12th to 30th). The special teams were much better kicking field goals but weren’t much different otherwise.
Even with the sensational Robert Griffin III – the highest-rated rookie passer ever — replacing veteran turnover machine Rex Grossman at quarterback, the Redskins’ pass offense slipped from 14th to 20th.
While Washington had eight new offensive regulars, clearly the biggest change and the one that fueled its surprising leap to the top of the NFC East for the first time since 1999 was the running game.
In 2011, the Redskins were 25th in rushing. In 2012, they led the league with 2,709 yards, a total that broke the franchise record that had been held by the 1983 NFC champions led by Hall of Fame back John Riggins. Rookie Alfred Morris ran for 1,613 yards, the third-most ever by an NFL newcomer and just one shy of the team’s entire output the previous season. Griffin added 815 yards, the most ever by a rookie quarterback.
While Griffin’s success was anticipated to an extent since he had won the Heisman Trophy as a dual pass-run threat in 2011 at Baylor and was named Washington’s starter before the veterans even took the field in mid-May, Morris’ stardom was as unexpected as the Wizards winning four of their last six games after a 4-28 start.
The sixth-round draft choice from lousy Florida Atlantic came to camp just hoping to make the roster. However, when veterans Tim Hightower (who would be cut), Roy Helu (who would spend the season on injured reserve) and Evan Royster were banged-up at the start of training camp, the 5-foot-10, 218-pound Morris became the Redskins’ biggest offensive surprise since Timmy Smith ran for 204 yards in their Super Bowl XXII victory over Denver (and offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan) 25 years ago.
The Shanahans wisely reworked their offense to incorporate some of the zone-read plays that had helped make Griffin so special in college. As Griffin operated behind Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams and the rest of the surprisingly effective offensive line, opposing defenses had to guess whether he was going to hand off to the hard-charging Morris, burst past them with his world-class speed or throw on the move.
The dynamic Griffin-Morris duo powered the Redskins to three straight post-bye victories before backup quarterback Kirk Cousins and return man Richard Crawford, both fellow rookies, saved the day against Baltimore. Cousins sparkled in relief of the injured Griffin the following Sunday at Cleveland, but that’s where this tale turns. Morris averaged just 3.2 yards that afternoon as the Browns focused on stopping him and gambled, incorrectly, that Cousins couldn’t beat them. That performance had been foreshadowed in Week 5. Morris powered for 109 yards on 16 carries against NFC South champion Atlanta before Griffin exited with a concussion but managed just six yards on three attempts the rest of the way.
Griffin returned for the final two games. His right knee still wasn’t right, but his mere presence helped Morris, who dominated the winner-take-all showdown with archrival Dallas in the finale, rushing for 200 yards and three touchdowns.
Morris opened the wild game against Seattle with 49 yards on seven carries, but after Griffin began hobbling on a re-injured knee, he managed just 31 yards on his remaining nine attempts (3.4 per carry). The Redskins, who had jumped to a 14-0 lead, lost 28-14.
In short, when Griffin was absent or not himself this season, Morris and the running game ground to a halt. With Griffin’s status for next season in some doubt after knee surgery on Jan. 9, the Shanahans had better figure out how to make their rejuvenated rushing attack thrive without RGIII at the controls or the Redskins could come tumbling right back down in 2013.
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