After their ugly 3-13 season in 2013, the Redskins need to re-tool their defense and overhaul their special teams. Their offense needs much less work, although new coach Jay Gruden likely has big plans for it since he has spent his career playing and coaching on that side of the ball.
However, the former Cincinnati coordinator probably won’t have much to question when it comes to his running backs, at least the starters.
Alfred Morris wasn’t quite as sensational as he had been in 2012 when he soared from unknown sixth-round draft choice to a franchise record 1,613 yards while averaging 4.8 per carry. But the hard-charging halfback, who rarely gets taken down by the initial defender to hit him, still wound up with 1,275 yards and 4.6 per carry, still easily the best first two seasons by a Washington runner.
In fact, only eight NFL backs have gained more yards during their first two than Morris including Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson and Earl Campbell and Canton cinches Adrian Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson. One of the other four is Clinton Portis, who’s second on Washington’s career rushing list and was superb during his first two seasons with Denver.
And yet, Morris was held under 65 yards and 4.0 per carry in five games in 2013, including four of the final six. It was no coincidence that three of those subpar late-season contests came when often-unappreciated fullback Darrel Young was sidelined with an injured hamstring. The one-time rookie free agent linebacker developed into an important piece of former coach Mike Shanahan’s offense, which new coordinator/ex-tight ends coach Sean McVay surely understands.
Morris and Young were certainly major reasons why the Redskins were fifth in rushing and third in yards per-carry in 2013, a year after finishing first and second in those categories, respectively, during the 2012 NFC East championship season.
After missing almost all of 2012 with a toe injury, 2011 rookie starter Roy Helu became the third-down back in 2013. Despite his fine speed, Helu didn’t gain more than 28 yards on any of his 93 touches, in part because, unlike the less swift Morris, he rarely breaks a tackle.
The other three backs on Washington’s roster combined for just three touches in 2013, all by Evan Royster. The record-breaking runner from Penn State put together consecutive 100-yard games while starting the final two games as a rookie in 2011. However, even with Helu sidelined, Royster saw little action behind Morris in 2012 and was nearly invisible in 2013 before finishing the year on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain.
Fifth-round draft choice Chris Thompson made the team after a punt return touchdown in the preseason but didn’t play on offense before going on I.R. in Week 11 with a shoulder injury that required surgery. Seventh-rounder Jawan Jamison, who’s an inch shorter than Thompson at 5-foot-7, didn’t play in the final three games after being promoted from the practice squad.
All six backs are under contract for 2014 and with so many other headaches, don’t look for Gruden or general manager Bruce Allen to spend many resources on enhancing the talent at the position. The bigger question is deciding whether to stick with Shanahan’s zone-blocking based system and then picking someone to coach the backs, perhaps former Redskins No. 1 back/running backs coach Earnest Byner.
“They’ve done some good things here offensively … so they have a system in place that’s very good,” Gruden said the day he was hired. “They’re an outside zone blocking team that can do inside zone. I like the power plays. I like the gap blocking plays. I don’t think any offense in the NFL anymore is just, ‘We are this.’ I think we have to adhere to what we have offensively, talent-wise. We can do the read option. We can do naked bootlegs. We can run outside zone. … I think the whole idea to be a successful offense is to be diverse and be good at a lot of different things and not just one.”
Whatever Gruden and McVay decide to do, as long as Morris and Young remain healthy, the Redskins‘ running game should as well.
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.