By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008
As he dialed the home phone number of Shaun Alexander, running backs coach Stump Mitchell believed the Washington Redskins were on the right path. And after briefly chatting Monday with the three-time Pro Bowl selection, Mitchell was convinced Alexander would be a good fit with Washington.
"Shaun is a guy who has accomplished a lot in his career, but he's not an egotistical guy," said Mitchell, Alexander's position coach with the Seattle Seahawks. "I explained the situation to him, told him that he might not have a job with us for long, and he said it would be his job to make us want to keep him longer. That's the type of person you want on your football team."
With productive backup running back Ladell Betts possibly sidelined a month because of a sprained left knee, the Redskins on Tuesday signed Alexander -- a former NFL MVP -- to fill a reserve role behind top running back Clinton Portis. Return specialist Rock Cartwright also could have an increased role on offense as the Redskins (4-2), coming off a 19-17 loss to previously winless St. Louis, adjust without Betts.
Slowed by injuries after his career-best 2005 season, in which he scored a then-record 27 rushing touchdowns, Alexander was out of the league the first six weeks of this season, relaxing with his family at their home in Seattle. But Alexander, 31, yesterday pronounced himself physically sound for the first time since his record-setting run in leading the Seahawks to Super Bowl XL, telling reporters the Redskins provided him with an opportunity to revive his career.
Portis is the focus of the rushing attack, and Alexander said he is among his biggest supporters, but that even Portis could use a little help. Alexander plans to contribute immediately Sunday against Cleveland at FedEx Field in his first experience as a backup since early in the 2001 season, his second, and he said he would take a wait-and-see approach about his future with the team.
"I always knew I was going to play" again, Alexander said. "I just had to wait my time."
Alexander -- who has 9,429 yards rushing and 112 total touchdowns in his career -- just completed a stretch of inactivity among the longest of his eight-year career. After the Seahawks released him in April, Alexander had tryouts with the Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints, but he did not receive a contract offer before signing a one-year deal with Washington for the veteran minimum.
Despite Alexander's impressive credentials, teams questioned whether he still possessed the skills to be effective because of the significant downturn the previous two seasons. In the 2005 season, Alexander averaged 5.1 yards per carry while leading the league in rushing with 1,880 yards and scoring 28 touchdowns (he had one touchdown reception).
His success that season, however, apparently took a toll. Alexander sat out six games in the 2006 season because of a broken bone in his foot and three games last season because of a knee injury. He also continued to play in the 2007 season despite a broken wrist.
Alexander figured teams passed on him "all waiting to see if I'm going to be hungry," he said. "And healthy enough to play."
Mitchell and Alexander shared a strong bond when they worked together in Seattle, and Coach Jim Zorn, formerly the Seahawks' quarterbacks coach, also had a good relationship with Alexander. So when Mitchell called, Alexander quickly accepted the Redskins' offer. "I'm healthy," he said. "I finally got to heal all the way up, and train and work out and get in shape with no bumps and bruises."
Alexander's lack of activity could help him now because "he hasn't been hit since last season," Mitchell said. Alexander is familiar with the terminology Washington uses in the passing game, much of which Zorn brought with him from Seattle, and as for learning the nuances of Washington's rushing attack, a blend of former coach Joe Gibbs's scheme and Zorn's approach, "he won't have a problem with that because he knows how to carry the ball," Mitchell said. "I know Shaun's still got some football left in him, and I'm happy about that."
Alexander, left tackle Chris Samuels and defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin were team captains at the University of Alabama during the 1999 season. Samuels understands how things work in the NFL, so he was not surprised Alexander was unemployed until the Redskins contacted him. "A lot of people labeled his career as washed up, but he's definitely not washed up," Samuels said. "I've talked to him, he's been working out hard, and he's excited and he's hungry.
"With Clinton back there, and then with the change-up Shaun brings, that's going to be great for us. I'm expecting big things."
Portis has been outstanding. He leads the league in rushing with 643 yards, attempts per game at 22.7 and averages 4.7 yards per carry, but Portis said he could learn a few things from Alexander.
"I always wondered, I want to know, 'How you get 28 touchdowns?' " Portis said. "Who better to ask than Shaun? He did it."
Since he joined the Redskins, Zorn has praised Portis and Betts for the "violent" way in which they run and block in pass protection. Even when there are no openings, Zorn said, Portis and Betts fight for yards. Even when Alexander was at his best in Seattle, "if it wasn't there he wasn't going to push it," Zorn said, so Zorn hopes the Redskins' way of doing things "will grow on" Alexander.
Betts has a 4.1-yard rush average, "and Ladell was getting anywhere between 15 to 25 plays" a game, Mitchell said. "Shaun won't get near that amount of plays because Rock's going to get some snaps as well, so he'll be ready to do whatever we call upon him to do."
Alexander does not envision any problems, he said.
"People that have talent, and have done some good things for their teams, always respect other guys that have done it," Alexander said. "I've had nothing but respect for Clinton, I think that he's an amazing player, and he's given me the same love. I think any time you get two guys who just play hard, and like to win, it always works out."
Staff writer Jason La Canfora contributed to this report.