By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 12:09 AM
Like virtually all his peers in the coaching profession, Mike Shanahan believes in repetition. He wants his players to go through the same motions over and over. Similarly, he makes certain that his mantra has the same cadence and intended message each time he steps behind a microphone.
"We'll always be committed to the running game," he said again Wednesday, "believe me."
But his promise has struggled to make the leap from the news conference podium to the football field this season. In fact, the Washington Redskins are in the midst of one of their worst running seasons in franchise history. Averaging barely 90 yards a game, they're on pace to post their worst rushing season since 1994 and the second worst in the past 40 years.
The outlook for the rest of the season appears bleak. Clinton Portis underwent surgery Tuesday and is finished for the year. The second-string running back, Ryan Torain, hasn't played in a month because of a lingering hamstring problem.
Shanahan said he's not certain who will start this Sunday against the New York Giants: Torain, rookie Keiland Williams or second-year running back James Davis. The latter two combined for only 16 yards in the team's 17-13 loss to Minnesota last Sunday, a game in which the Redskins had only 13 carries.
Still, Shanahan explained Wednesday that injuries and in-game circumstances have forced Washington to turn to the air more this season, even as players and coaches say the offense is predicated on the running attack.
"It's an emphasis here. Always will be," Shanahan said. "If you take a look at my history, I think it speaks for itself."
But with five games remaining in the season, a closer look at Shanahan's own history reveals just how woefully behind the Washington rushing game appears to be.
The Redskins are on pace to total 1,452 rushing yards this season. Their average of 90.7 yards per game is worse than all but six other NFL teams. In his 14 years in Denver, Shanahan's Broncos teams never came to close to posting so few rushing yards. For that period, no NFL squad was more successful running the ball than Shanahan's teams. His worst rushing team in Denver was actually his last one, in 2008; it ran for 1,862 yards on the season, an average of 116.4 per game. He was fired following the season.
This year's Redskins team is averaging 22.5 carries per game. Shanahan's Denver teams averaged 30.6 carries per game.
Already this year, the Redskins have posted two of the team's 10 worst single-game rushing performances in the past 50 years, according to Stats, Inc.
The Redskins' worst game on the ground this season came in Week 2 against Houston, when their backs had just 18 yards on 17 carries. They weren't much better last Sunday against Minnesota, finishing the afternoon with 29 yards on 13 carries. Only one time in Shanahan's career in Denver did the Broncos run for fewer than 29 yards.
Shanahan said a lot needs to be considered when explaining the running game's level of success. Injuries have plagued the backfield and offensive line, the team has fallen behind in many games and it has been forced to throw the ball in the second half. Against the Vikings, Washington had only 54 offensive snaps.
"You've got to take a look at the game at hand and you've got to take a look at the score, you've got to take a look at who's healthy, who's not," Shanahan said. "There's a lot of factors involved."
While the line has faced its own struggles, perhaps no position has been ravaged like the team's running backs.
On Wednesday, the team saw its 12th running back pass through the locker room doors - rookie Shawnbrey McNeal, who was signed to the practice squad. Without Portis, all four of the running backs currently on the active roster - Torain, Williams, Davis and Andre Brown - have spent part of the 2010 season on the practice squad of an NFL team.
Eleven times in Denver, Shanahan's teams featured a 1,000-yard rusher. In his first season in Washington, he'll be fortunate to have even one 500-yard rusher. Torain leads all Redskins with 391 yards on 91 carries, but he didn't practice Wednesday and Shanahan said he didn't know if Torain's hamstring would be ready for the Giants' game.
"It's been a while. You could almost grow a new hamstring in a few weeks," Shanahan joked.
Williams, an undrafted rookie, drew the start against the Vikings but had just three carries and was used primarily as a third-down back in the second half, giving way to Davis.
"I knew that we wanted to get him in the game a lot," Williams said after the game. "Any time you have a guy of his caliber, he definitely needs to be on the field."
Though Davis played the bulk of the second half in the Minnesota loss, Shanahan wouldn't commit Wednesday to either running back for the Giants game.
"Both of them are trying to prove to us who's the best player," he said.
The Giants are giving up only 100.2 rushing yards per game, ninth best in the league, so whichever back gets the call will have his work cut out for him.
Despite the dreadful numbers through 11 games, the Redskins still say they're committed to the run. They have only a few more games to show it.