It was mid-November and with his offense sputtering Redskins coach Mike Shanahan was asked about the ineffectiveness of the running game, something that had always been a staple of his Denver Broncos teams, and the coach vowed that improvements would soon come.
“We will get that running game back,” Shanahan said. “I promise you. We’ve been doing it over 20 years, and that’s our trademark.”
Production in the running game did return thanks to a pair of young backs.
The next week, Shanahan turned to rookie Roy Helu as his starter, and the Nebraska product, whom Washington drafted in the fourth round, responded by gaining 108 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries — the Redskins’ top rushing output since Week 4.
Helu rushed for 100 yards in each of his next two starts, and in the final two games of the season, fellow rookie Evan Royster — selected in the sixth round out of Penn State — produced back-to-back 100-yard rushing games of his own.
The Redskins enter an offseason that likely will see upgrades at multiple positions, and running back still could be included. But Shanahan expressed encouragement by the progress that his young rushing tandem made over the course of the season.
When the season began, Helu was used as a change-of-pace back as Tim Hightower started. Even when Hightower went down with a season-ending injury, Helu remained a backup to the struggling Ryan Torain. Then on Nov. 27th, Helu took over as starter and did well as an every-down back.
Meanwhile, Royster opened the season on the practice squad and then received his promotion days before the Seattle game. After seeing spot duty in his first two games, Royster saw his workload increase in Week 14 against New England, and he carried the ball six times for 44 yards. Two weeks later, with Helu hobbled by knee and toe injuries, Royster started and rushed for 132 yards on 19 carries.
Last week, Royster again started, and despite suffering a rib injury and having to receive an IV during the game, he returned shortly after and finished with 113 yards on 20 carries and also had five catches for 52 yards.
It remains to be seen if either will serve as the feature back next season. But Shanahan came away from the season believing that both have bright futures with the team thanks to the experience they gained during the 2011 campaign.
“I thought they both did a terrific job this year taking advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves,” Shanahan said. “Both Helu and Royster got some experience, obviously Helu a little bit sooner than Royster. Taking a look at Royster against Philly, here’s a guy that comes in and gets over 100 yards and carries the ball extremely well against a defense that’s been giving up about three-and-a-half yards a carry the last couple of games. He came in and played exceptionally well and was tired and hurt and fought through it. Two young guys that got a lot of experience. That’ll help us for the future.”