All eyes will remain trained on Robert Griffin III as he enters his second NFL season, but the opposing defensive coordinators on the Redskins’ schedule will also devote a fair amount of film study to running back Alfred Morris, looking for ways to contain him.
Morris last season burst onto the scene, going from sixth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic to Washington’s starting back, to the NFL’s second-leading rusher. Morris amassed a franchise single-season record 1,613 rushing yards and scored 13 touchdowns.
Morris has several questions looming overhead as he prepares for an encore performance:
— What kind of production can be expected of him in his second season? How much of his success last season came as a result of teams keying so much on Griffin in the zone-read option attack? And how long will Morris be able to hold up if he is given another 300-carry workload as he was last season?
Redskins coach Mike Shanahan believes that Morris is capable of similar success in his second season. Morris does as well, believing that focusing on improved consistency in his tracks and making more crisp cuts will help make him a more effective back.
Shanahan believes that as long as Morris remains in shape and stays focused, he will continue to play at a high level. Morris admitted Thursday that he gained 10 pounds over the offseason while keeping up a hectic schedule, trying to grant as many requests for his presence at speaking engagements and fundraisers. He has lost five of those pounds, and Shanahan said he isn’t concerned about Morris reporting to training camp is less than top form because he already sees strong performances out of the back during these offseason practices.
“I think you’ve got to stay in great football shape,” Shanahan said when asked about the key to continued success for Morris. “Anytime you have the success that Alfred had as a rookie, you’re invited to speak and have a lot of banquets to go to, fundraisers to go to.
Sometimes guys lose perspective for what got them there. You don’t have to worry about that with Alfred. He’s in great shape. He does the little things the right way. He still goes out of his way to do as many charitable things that he can possibly do, because that’s the way he’s made. He takes care of business first and that’s a great part of his character. A lot of times guys when guys have that type of success, especially early, they lose perspective for what it is all about. He hasn’t at all. He looks even better in this camp than he did a year ago. He is a lot more comfortable in the system, his responsibilities. You can see that he is practicing at a very high level.”
The topic of whether or not Morris could succeed without Griffin was debated often last season, and has continued during the offseason. One group argues that the zone-read plays, and the attention that Griffin commands, defenses continually overlooked Morris, and that led to his success, and that had it not been for Griffin and those schemes, Morris wouldn’t have put up the kind of numbers that he did. Another camp believes that Morris’ effectiveness helped ensure Washington ran a balanced attack, and that the back would’ve succeeded even if his quarterback were less of a dual threat.
Asked for his take on the debate, Griffin said “I think that’s real selfish of anyone to say. You don’t take anything away from Alfred’s talent. What he was able to do was not entirely on him. But, you can say the offensive line, you can say me, you can say the receivers blocking, but that doesn’t take away from the player that he is because it doesn’t matter how big the hole is, there are still guys out there ready to hit him and he’s bouncing off them. So I wouldn’t say that, myself. I wouldn’t say that.”
Regardless, it’s believed (and Griffin’s father, for one, would like to see this) that the Redskins could (and maybe should) scale back the running they have their quarterback do as he comes off of his second torn ACL. Shanahan hasn’t committed to that, but the coach believes that even if Washington did significantly decrease Griffin’s carries, Morris can still thrive as a feature back.
“First of all, when you put an offense together – if it’s for Alfred or whoever your tailback is – there is a lot of things to complement your running game, with quarterback keeps, play-action passes, it could be the zone-read option,” Shanahan said. “Alfred is going to gain yards, no matter what type of offense we run, and we’ll adjust accordingly depending on what defenses are doing. But he’s got a unique talent. He can make people miss and very few people can make people miss consistently, at least the first person before he gets tackled. He has the type of power, leg drive you look for in a running back and, knock on wood, he has been able to stay away from injury, with those kind of shots. I think it’s the low center of gravity and how he runs. Hopefully he can keep on doing that.”
Morris did prove that he could execute in games where Griffin had a lesser number of carries.
Against Atlanta, where Griffin had one carry and was knocked out of the game with a concussion, Morris carried the ball 18 times for 115 yards. Against the New York Giants, when Griffin had five carries for 72 yards, Morris had 22 carries for 124 yards. With Griffin sidelined against Cleveland, Morris racked up 27 carries for 87 yards and two touchdowns (yards were harder to come by, but he remained effective). The following week, Morris had 22 carries for 91 yards and a touchdown in a win over Philadelphia where Griffin had only two carries. And then against the Cowboys, the Redskins fed Morris the ball 33 times for 200 yards and three touchdowns. Griffin did have six carries for 63 yards in that game.
But, then there’s the question of how long Morris can hold up under a heavy load.
Morris’ workload will hinge largely upon the success of his fellow backs. The Redskins would like to lighten his load. That’s why they drafted Chris Thompson and Jawan Jamison in hopes that they can compete with Evan Royster, Roy Helu Jr. (if healthy) and Keiland Williams to be that change-of-pace back in their offense.
The Redskins leaned on Morris so heavily last season because they had few options with Royster inconsistent and Helu injured. If Morris’s supporting cast remains limited this season, his heavy dose of carries likely will continue as long as he remains effective.
(Back in Denver, Terrell Davis averaged 335 carries a season over four seasons before knee injuries derailed his career. Clinton Portis carried the ball 273 and 290 times, respectively, under Shanahan).
But Shanahan said for now, the subject of Morris’s carries isn’t a chief concern.
“What we try to do is get as much depth as we can, because it’s really hard to tell during the season what type of games you’re playing or what type of depth you do have,” Shanahan said. “The more good players you have, the more ability you have to rest guys or somebody goes down, someone emerges just like last year Alfred did last year. People talked about, at least for a few years, it’s a running back by committee, how bad is that? ‘Wouldn’t you like to have one guy?’ Then you have one guy, and it’s ‘Oh my God, you should have more running backs.’ That’s just the nature of the beast. I think what you’d like to do is have guys that have the ability to be a third-down back or a first, second and third-down back. And we’ll evaluate that as time goes on.”
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