RICHMOND — Not everything on the Washington Redskins was broken. New Coach Jay Gruden inherited a rushing offense in good condition and kept it. Having running back Alfred Morris on the roster made the decision easy.
After thriving in Washington’s highly successful zone-read system, Morris is confident entering his third season. Being comfortable in his role helps.
For the past four seasons, the stretch-zone play has been a staple. On stretch plays, offensive linemen block an area rather than a specific player. They move toward the sideline in an effort to create running lanes for backs, who either run outside or cut back based on the defense. Morris often made the right call.
In NFL history, only eight players rushed for more yards in their first two seasons than the 2,888 Morris produced. He also scored 20 touchdowns and had an efficient 4.7-yard average. Gruden noticed.
Driven by ego, many first-time head coaches would have scrapped what former coach Mike Shanahan created. But Gruden isn’t committed to only one way of doing things. Do you know what you call that? A strength.
Offensive coordinator Sean McVay, a holdover from the previous regime, wasn’t surprised.
“That’s what makes Jay a great coach,” McVay said. “He’s going to adjust. He’s going to fit his scheme, really tailor it, to fit his players’ abilities. Running the football is one of the things we’ve been able to do a nice job of. In that scheme, Alfred is as good as you can ask for.”
An outstanding cut-back runner, Morris is ideally suited for stretch plays. He follows blockers well, surveys the defense quickly and runs decisively.
At a time when the running game has been de-emphasized in the pass-heavy league, the Redskins have continued to rely on theirs. They topped the NFL in rushing in 2012 and finished fifth last season. It’ll be interesting to see how the Redskins roll under Gruden.
During Gruden’s three seasons directing the Cincinnati Bengals’ offense, some team observers were critical of him for passing too much. Gruden will be the Redskins’ play-caller.
Morris has heard speculation about Gruden’s plans. Perhaps he won’t be as important in the offense this season. Wisely, Morris is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Yeah, a lot of people have been making comments about coach passing a lot,” Morris said. “But from what we’re doing in practice, it seems like there’s no difference.
“I’m not worried about it. If my carries do go down that’s fine. I’ll just have to make the most of the carries I do get. . . . I can adjust quickly. I’m pretty easy going.”
He’s also all grown up. Morris already has experienced the extremes of professional sports. In his rookie season, Washington won the NFC East. A season ago, the Redskins were a 3-13 mess.
To his credit, Morris stayed out of the drama. He showed almost as much skill at sidestepping off-the-field issues as he did eluding would-be tacklers.
Early in training camp this year, Morris has emerged as a team leader. Between plays, younger backs have sought his counsel about everything from how to take the proper angles on zone-read plays to the proper way to pass protect. Fullback Darrel Young enjoys observing the interaction.
“He’s doing for those guys what older guys did for us,” Young said. “Listening to him speak, answering questions from you guys [journalists], it really is so different now.”
Here’s what hasn’t changed: Morris’s commitment to his teammates. Despite rushing for almost 1,300 yards last season, Morris was disappointed he wasn’t as productive as in his rookie year, when he set a franchise record with more than 1,600 yards.
Morris isn’t focused on individual accomplishments. By having a better season, Morris figures, he could have helped the Redskins more. Morris means what he says, Young said.
“When you’ve got a guy who rushes for that many yards and makes the Pro Bowl, and his whole mind-set is that he let the team down, it tells you a lot,” Young said. “You know he’s going to do everything he can to be great.”
Morris is working on it. He hasn’t been a threat in the passing game — the former sixth-round pick has 20 career receptions — but he wants that to change. Gruden and McVay will give him opportunities throughout training camp and the preseason, “and he’s already catching the ball better,” McVay said. “That’s something that he’s going to continue to work on.
“He’s as conscientious a player as I’ve been around. And any player in this league can look at himself critically and ask, ‘What can I do better?’ He’s that type of guy.”
They say that sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make. For the Redskins, that applies to keeping their running game intact.