Roy Helu remains a bright spot in Redskins’ dismal season

Thomas Boswell
Columnist December 11, 2011

A hard, clean dose of Roy Helu, cutting back off tackle, sticking his black-and-blue bruised forehead into a maze of swirling linebackers, and finishing a tough run for five yards on a cold December field in a lost season: That’s probably something the Redskins can use right about now.

Helu’s only a rookie, listed at just 6 feet tall and 216 pounds, just a fourth-round draft pick, only a third-stringer to start the season. But, as a 4-9 year and a 34-27 loss to New England on Sunday weigh them down, the Redskins actually look to the 23-year-old from Nebraska to give them something to brace against, to lean on and imagine as part of a better future.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

No doubt you, and the Redskins themselves, will watch Helu on TV replays as he stiff-arms Patriot tacklers or makes them miss, staggers and stumbles for extra yards or bursts through a hole for 15 yards in a blink. But Helu probably won’t, because he probably can’t.

“I don’t think Helu even has a television. He didn’t get a computer until very late, if he even has Internet access,” said linebacker London Fletcher, chuckling approvingly. “It seems like he never leaves the facility [Redskins Park]. That’s rare for a young man. I appreciate the way he takes care of his body first and stays on top of his job before anything else.

“Sometimes you feel like saying: ‘Get away, man. Go home,’ ” Fletcher said. “But the vet doesn’t actually say it. “We are relying on him a lot.”

The Redskins, especially the younger ones who are still deciding who they are as pro athletes and as aspiring adults, won’t be hurt one bit by taking a long look at Helu, the unheralded one. It wouldn’t kill Trent Williams and Fred Davis to peek while they serve their three-time-loser suspensions.

And Helu isn’t just worth perusal because he’s now the first Redskins rookie to rush for 100 yards in three straight games — that’s 126 yards against the Patriots on top of 100 and 108 in his previous two games. Though he’s only started four NFL games, he already has five stellar days when his yards from scrimmage — rushing and receiving — were 112, 146, 162, 142 and now 132 yards.

That’s announcing your entrance. Except Helu would never do such a thing. He’s the last to dress, the least likely to talk about himself. There’s a big, old, well-worn brown book tossed in his game bag. Might be a Bible.

“This game was really vice versa — like a gift from the offensive line,” Helu said. “We were missing people. Jammal Brown went down before the game. But the holes they opened were huge. I missed a lot of them.”

Actually, Helu did miss some holes, including a big one on the goal line. Blocking in pass protection has reduced him to prayer, though he’s gotten much better. Except for one spectacular 28-yard touchdown run in Seattle when he hurdled a tackler, then scored without breaking stride, he’s showed speed but hasn’t translated it into long runs. Yet he’s averaging an elite 4.7 yards without any single run longer than that 28-yarder.

“He’s pretty solid already,” eight-year veteran tackle Sean Locklear said. “He keeps getting better reading blocks. He can get you 15, 20, 30 yards. Is he going to take one 80 yards? That’s still to be determined.”

Every featured back Coach Mike Shanahan has fallen in love with has had that end-to-end big-play potential. “It’s still early,” Shanahan said. “He’s been getting the load [73 carries in three games] because of the way he’s played. Today I thought he really stepped up.”

For the last 20 years, the Redskins have a miserable record of drafting Pro Bowl caliber players at skill positions. Helu hasn’t shown that yet. What he does best, as everyone from quarterback Rex Grossman to lineman Will Montgomery says, is “stick his foot in the ground.”

That’s NFL talk for having the guts, as you run the Shanahan stretch play, to plant your foot full force, then cut back into the flow of 5,000 pounds of human beings, all running the same direction that you were, until you thought you saw daylight and slashed back into the heart of them where any mayhem or misfortune — or NFL glory — might find you.

“Maybe what he’s best at, is turning minus-two into plus-two,” Montgomery said. “That saves an offense from bad down-and-distance situations and really helps you build long drives.”

Helu said, “I have to get better at accelerating on contact.” No, son, this is the NFL; you start going down “on contact,” not “accelerating.” But Helu doesn’t think so. “When you’re hit, you start talking shorter strides, but [much] faster,” he said. Well, that might help explain his 4.7 yards per carry when Tim Hightower and Ryan Torain are at 3.8 and 3.5.

The rest of this season is about finding out which Redskins can make a difference, not just hold down a position, in the future. Helu’s durability, pass-blocking, ball security and ability to break the occasional long run are all being tested. On one hand, it’s obvious he’s far more talented than any running back the Patriots have. But that’s faint praise.

“Roy’s a great athlete with a lot of speed. He runs one gap at a time. He knows when to cut it back and when to stretch it,” Grossman said. “He goes north and south very quickly. And he finishes well.

“Every time I looked downfield, he was making guys miss, stiff-arming them. That opens up the play-action” passes, added Grossman, who completed 19 of 32 passes for 252 yards and two touchdowns as the Redskins shredded the genuinely porous Patriots defense for 463 yards. The Redskins became the eighth team to gain between 427 and 504 yards against New England. Only one has gained less than 334. No, the Patriots are not a bend-don’t-break defense; they’re just a bad one that’ll snap in January.

By then, the Redskins will be at rest. And Helu can stop a life that, for the moment, consists almost entirely of preparing himself for three hours once a week. “I try to stick [with] protein, then carbo-load before games,” Helu said. “Take naps, stay off my feet. I always stay late after practice and get extra treatment. Then I do more core [strengthening] work.”

What about that Redskins rookie record? “Pretty cool,” Helu said, and nothing more.

“He’s going to be better than [just] good,” Fletcher said. “This offense is perfect for him. Next year, there will be cuts he makes that he isn’t making now, just on experience. When Coach Shanahan drafted him he compared him to [Pro Bowler] Terrell Davis. Now you can start to see the reason.”

Now, just don’t let Helu buy that TV and start watching himself.

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