We’ve all heard those predictions that Samaje Perine would become the starting Redskins running back from the moment he was drafted in the fourth round last spring. Perine had a sterling career at Oklahoma, where he became the Sooners’ all-time leading rusher and ran for more than 1,000 yards three seasons in a row. Incumbent starter Rob Kelley, on the other hand, was a little-noticed guy out of Tulane, whose fine rookie year lost momentum in December. One had an NFL pedigree. The other was nicknamed Fat Rob.
So the fantasy-football obsessed targeted Perine as a potential value, and it wasn’t just them. Even mainstream reporters predicted Perine would become the starter before his first practice, and Hall of Famers talked him up before his first preseason game.
“This cat, he is thick,” Terrell Davis said on Adam Schefter’s podcast. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen him; he is built like no other. I mean, he is a throwback. He’s kind of a fullback in the way he’s built, but he is thick, and he runs with an attitude.”
Still, Kelley remained atop the depth chart during offseason workouts and training camp practices. Then Perine had a forgettable preseason debut against the Ravens — fumbling the ball, dropping a pass, not running effectively — and those predictions began to change.
This affected fantasy football projections, too. “The hype slowed and then nearly cratered,” wrote my pal Ben Standig, who monitors fantasy football rankings far more than I do. Just look at these graphs of the two backs’ average draft positions since July 1, via Fantasy Football Calculator. (The scales used are slightly different, but the trend is what’s interesting.)
And let’s be honest: fantasy football players care about the identity of the Washington starting running back a lot more than anyone else does, or should. I’m going to quote Roto World here, not because Roto World is the world’s most accurate source of Redskins personnel news, but because it sort of shows how the fantasy-obsessed have attempted to find a fixed truth in this uncertain universe.
“Kelley is miles ahead in this battle,” that site wrote on Aug. 11.
“Rob Kelley is locked in as the starter,” that site wrote on Aug. 12.
“Perine could eventually unseat Kelley, but it sounds like sophomore Kelley is going to have more rope than expected as starter,” that site wrote on Aug. 15.
Then Kelley struggled in the second preseason game, while Perine starred — albeit playing with backups and against backups — and the conversation changed again. At least, it did if you listen to Chris Cooley.
“This running back job has got to be open,” the Redskins analyst said during the team’s radio broadcast on Saturday night, just after one of Perine’s longer runs. “And I know that there wasn’t a lot blocked for Rob Kelley tonight, but there’s no way that Perine isn’t in the running here to take this job. I know [Coach Jay Gruden] loves Rob Kelley, but that cut Perine makes right there to cross over, that’s a special cut.”
“The guy has it, the it factor,” Doc Walker added. “You can’t coach it. He’s got it.”
About 48 hours later, Cooley weighed in again, and was even more definite.
“I don’t feel like it should be a competition at all,” he said on his ESPN 980 program. “I feel like Samaje Perine’s the better back. But that’s just me. There are things that I could not be aware of and I could be missing. And Rob could be more adept at picking up the pass plays, the blitzes, he could be a good check-down player, but Samaje Perine’s a better back. That’s just simple. And in all fairness, it’s not a slight to Rob Kelley. Samaje Perine has natural abilities that Rob or Matt Jones or Mack Brown don’t have. … [The starter] might not be Samaje Perine until Week 4, Week 5 because Samaje Perine might not be ready. But it is going to be [Perine eventually]. I’ll tell you right now, it is going to be.”
And a few days after that, Cooley had watched the game film and was now even more definite.
“What a game he had. What a game he had,” Cooley said on his program Thursday morning. “I mean, talk about a guy that has instincts to run the football.”
Cooley said Perine showed speed and power, an ability to get outside, a willingness to plunge downhill, a trust in the timing of plays, an ability to move forward while cutting, pass-catching hands, and a knack for getting three or four yards even when nothing was available.
“He’s not hesitant, he’s not pausing, he’s not thinking too much,” Cooley said, describing a play in which Perine moved upfield at the same time as he cut. “That is not coachable. Not coachable. Those are innate skills that he possesses that make him a better back for this offense. And if you want to run that downhill stuff, you better get someone that’s going to hit it. … He has more of a well-rounded package to be an elite runner in this league. He should be your starting running back right now. … I don’t think it’s complicated. I think this is a no-brainer with Samaje Perine.”
Cooley said there might be motivational concerns with anointing Perine too early, with telling him he’s already won the job before the summer ends. But “if he’s not the starter, I’ll be blown away,” Cooley said. “Blown away.”
“By Week 1,” Cooley said. “I don’t care if he’s the starter until it’s Week 1, but he’s the starter in Week 1.”
Now look, this is just Chris Cooley. You’re under no obligation to believe him. You’re free to fact-check his record of making confident predictions that sometimes do not come true. And you should listen to our beat writers, who have cautioned that many factors go into being a starting running back other than running, and how much Gruden still likes Kelley. Just don’t think the fantasy-football crowd won’t notice all this.
I asked Gruden about the backs on Wednesday, and he pointed out that Kelley “has gotten bamboozled by two or three guys sometimes” before he could get going. I also asked if it’s silly to get overly excited about Perine based on a few carries against Green Bay’s backups; “I mean, you guys can get excited or down or whatever you guys want to do,” Gruden joked. “I mean, obviously it’s doom and gloom if we lose and we’re going to go undefeated if we win. So I think we’re all very excited about the prospect of [Perine] being a running back here. But I’m still excited about Rob. He just hasn’t had many good looks.”
Even Kelley has been effusive, saying of Perine, “once he gets going, he’s a problem.”
“I mean, when somebody do good, you’ve got to give them your props,” Kelley said on Thursday. “I don’t know, I feel like a lot of people look for somebody to do something bad. But it ain’t always about that. If somebody’s doing something good, you’ve got to make sure you let them know, encourage them to keep on doing that.”
“I feel like in the running back room, everybody has the ability to be a starter in this league,” Kelley also said. “I’m just not being biased; going out every day and working with those guys, you see that people have that ability to be starters in this league. I feel like — the rest of the league might not feel like it — but I feel like we have a loaded backfield, and I feel like we have some guys that can go somewhere else and be The Guy.”
And so, the most important question: If Rob Kelley needed to pick a Washington running back for his fantasy football team, whom would he pick?
He thought about it for a moment. Then he named Chris Thompson.
More on the Redskins: