For a record price that most NFL executives would gladly pay in retrospect, the Washington Redskins’ drafting of quarterback Robert Griffin III has rehabilitated the rash-spending reputation of owner Daniel Snyder, revitalized a long-suffering fan base and reversed the fortunes of Coach Mike Shanahan, whose teams stumbled to an 11-21 record his first two seasons in Washington.
But the more surprising payback came far deeper in April’s college draft, when the Redskins plucked an unheralded running back from a small Sun Belt program in the sixth round and signed him to a rookie deal worth roughly $390,000. There was little to commend Florida Atlantic’s Alfred Morris, characterized in NFL.com’s draft prospectus as “a serviceable runner” who, at 5 feet 9 and 219 pounds, was deemed “not big enough to be imposing at the next level.”
Today, the Redskins are one victory from clinching their first NFC East title in 13 years. Morris, 24, is a chief reason why, spearheading the NFL’s most potent rushing attack (162.3 yards per game).
The most prolific rookie running back in Redskins history, Morris (1,413 yards) is currently the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher, behind Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch and Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles. And with the division title at stake Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, he’ll break Clinton Portis’s single-season Redskins rushing record with another 104 yards — a feat that’s clearly within reach, given that Morris churned out 113 yards and a touchdown in Washington’s 38-31 victory over Dallas on Thanksgiving Day.
For all his on-field heroics, Morris takes pains not to be the center of attention.
He doesn’t seek out TV cameras or entertain the media with mid-week costume changes, as Portis famously did. His car, a 1991 Mazda 626 that has logged more than 125,000 miles, is as no-nonsense as his running style. And though unfailingly polite, Morris has grown uncomfortable in the spotlight’s glare as his accolades mount, apologizing for his brevity with reporters this week as he anxiously eyed the clock in the locker room, explaining that he didn’t want to be late for the running backs meeting.
“I only have five minutes,” Morris said before accepting congratulations for his selection as a Pro Bowl alternate.
“I guess that’s an accomplishment, being a rookie,” he conceded, “but that was never a goal for me. The only thing I was thinking about was one win at a time.”
It’s that combination of professionalism and humility that goes a long way toward explaining Morris’s standout rookie season, tight end Chris Cooley believes.
“He has the best work ethic of anyone I’ve ever been around,” Cooley said. “We can have a walk-through practice, and Alfred has his cleats taped up and is going full speed. He’s almost running into the linemen’s backs in walk-through practice because he’s full speed. He wants so much to do everything right.”
Just four months ago, Morris was simply grateful to be picked in the late stages of the draft, 173rd overall. “My first individual goal was to make the team,” he recalled. “After that, it was to just climb the depth chart. And I was able to do that faster than expected in the preseason.”
Morris knew that from the coaching staff’s standpoint, the third preseason game would be the most important. That’s when he went from afterthought to front-runner in the four-way race to be starting tailback, vaulting ahead of injury-hampered Tim Hightower, Roy Helu and Evan Royster by rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown in the Redskins’ 30-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen, but whenever they gave me the opportunity, I made the most of it,” Morris said. “I’m thankful to be here. I don’t take this for granted.”
As the Redskins’ regular season unfolded, among his biggest admirers was the team’s former all-purpose back, Brian Mitchell. He was struck by Morris’s instincts, determination and old-school technique — running straight up-and-down, for the most part, until the moment before he got hit, when he lowered his shoulder and jutted out an elbow to fend off would-be tacklers.
“He’s stronger than hell!” said Mitchell, who believes Morris deserved Pro Bowl honors outright. “Just because you hit him doesn’t mean he’s going down.”
And the consistent way Morris runs, “putting his foot in the ground,” as Mitchell said, and plowing ahead rather than skittering one direction and then the other, makes him a dream to block for, according to teammates.
“He makes it easy because his cuts are ridiculous,” said fullback Darrel Young. “Just one cut, and he’s up field, whereas some guys might take little choppy steps and then go.”
That’s by design, Morris said.
“I kind of caught on earlier in my career that it gets the linemen riled up, the way I run, and becomes contagious in a sense,” he said. “It pumps up those around you, and makes ’em want to play harder. So I thought, ‘Let’s keep doing it!’ ”
Morris is hardly the first largely overlooked tailback to flourish in Shanahan’s offense. He joins a long list that includes four former Denver Broncos: Terrell Davis (a sixth-round pick in 1995 who turned into a three-time Pro Bowl selection), Olandis Gary (a fourth-round pick in 1999), Mike Anderson (a sixth-rounder in 2000) and Portis (second round in 2002).
Notes former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, now an NFL analyst with Fox Sports: “It’s well documented the success Mike Shanahan has had, taking low-round draft choices at the running back position. He looks for that guy who has the discipline to run the zone-blocking scheme. Mike has done it on so many occasions, knowing just the set of skills he needs to make that work.”
Under Shanahan’s tutelage, Morris has honed those skills, waiting patiently for the offensive line to block a section of the field and create a hole before he motors through.
The result is a play-caller’s dream.
“He never puts you in a bad down-and-distance,” Billick said. “You’re not going to be in a lot of second-and-12s or second-and-13s. He always seems to get positive yards, he’s so strong and so powerful. But he has also got enough wiggle to make opponents miss. So he can run you over or he can make you miss.”
Cooley calls them “hidden yards” that have proven as valuable to the Redskins offense as Morris’s 10 rushing touchdowns.
“So many times this year there have been two- to three-yard gains — or no-yard gains — that he’s getting five, six, seven yards on,” Cooley said. “That goes unseen because it’s just a five-yard gain. But in terms of offense, to turn what would have been second and 10 to second and six is a drastic difference. Alfred has been able to get so many hidden yards for us, it’s a huge asset for this offense.”