All you need to know about rookie running back Alfred Morris is that secretive Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan has had little to say about him. And after watching Morris’s impressive work, there’s definitely a whole lot to discuss.
From the start of training camp, Morris wowed coaches and teammates with a running style that’s equal parts powerful and elusive. In the preseason, he was the Redskins’ most productive offensive player. Granted, Morris has shined during a mostly meaningless time on the NFL calendar. But what Morris does best should continue to work well now that the games matter. And in any case, his “look-at-me” performance would inspire most coaches to at least direct a little praise toward a low-round draft pick who already has beaten the odds by making the team’s opening-day roster.
Not Shanahan. He’s almost as good at concealing information as he is winning games when partnered with top-notch quarterbacks. Shanahan rarely tips his hand regarding his true opinion of players — especially newcomers about whom he’s truly excited.
“Well, I like him,” Shanahan said of Morris. “If I didn’t like him, he wouldn’t be on our football team.”
Knowing Shanahan, “like” probably doesn’t begin to describe it. After two years searching for a workhorse running back, Shanahan may have finally found one. There’s something about this hard-charging sixth-rounder that should stir excitement among Redskins fans. Shanahan’s low-key approach regarding Morris’s eye-opening start is straight from the playbook he used with another once-obscure sixth-rounder: Terrell Davis.
Morris hasn’t played in a regular season game. It would be downright silly to draw too many comparisons to him and Davis, a former league MVP and Super Bowl MVP whose career was cut short by a knee injury, but there are similarities. What’s certain, though, is that Shanahan has discovered another talented running back from the depths of the draft.
It’s fair to ask, “Is it really possible for the Redskins to tell much about Morris from exhibition games?” The answer: They’ve surely seen a lot of reliable clues.
While injured second-year backsRoy Helu and Evan Royster watched from the sideline in the preseason, Morris had a team-high 195 yards rushing (with a five-yard average). Each time Shanahan and his son Kyle, the Redskins’ offensive coordinator, gave Morris an opportunity, “he just kept raising eyebrows,” veteran wide receiver Santana Moss said. “It was like, ‘Man, where did this hungry young guy come from?’ Coaches couldn’t take him out the game.”
At 5 feet 10 and 218 pounds, Morris is in great football shape, as Shanahan would say. That’s what everyone initially noticed after Morris, drafted out of Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton, reported to Redskins Park for the first time. His ability to produce while carrying a football was next on the list. Morris is “perfect for this type of offense,” veteran inside linebacker London Fletcher said. “One cut . . . then get down the field.”
Some players accumulate big preseason stats against third- and fourth-string competition. Granted, some of those guys are only delaying careers as personal trainers. A lot of backs have fared well under those circumstances.
Morris, however, faced NFL first-teamers on defense (he started two games). He actually competed against some of the league’s best. Facing the Chicago Bears in Week 2 of the preseason, Morris gained 21 yards on the Redskins’ first play from scrimmage. It was a simple run toward left tackle that Morris made the most of by dragging would-be tacklers for several extra yards. That’s what you call a strong sign.
Even Shanahan had to acknowledge as much.
“Very few times will he ever lose yardage,” Shanahan said, “because he’s always running downhill [straight ahead].” Shanahan paused and then added, “Also, you either have an innate ability to make people miss or you don’t. He has it.”
To put it kindly, the Redskins’ offensive line isn’t considered to be one of the league’s better units. If the Redskins really aren’t concerned about pass protection, as coaches would have you believe, then that’s a mistake. But the line had good moments in the running game last season (Helu rushed for at least 100 yards in three consecutive games, and Royster had back-to-back weeks of more than 110). Morris should benefit from help up front.
Royster was atop the team’s first depth chart released Monday. Helu was listed second and Morris third. The chart, as it relates to the running backs, is meaningless.
Royster is elusive but lacks Morris’s power. Helu is faster than Morris but hasn’t displayed enough of an ability to make tacklers miss. Morris gives the Redskins a combination they haven’t had in a back under Shanahan. Royster may start against the Saints (Shanahan hasn’t named a starter), and Helu figures to play. Morris also should be heavily in the mix. Early.
With so much pressure on rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Redskins must provide Griffin with as much help as possible. Shanahan needs to determine how good Morris could eventually become. And he needs to find out quickly.
Fortunately for the Redskins, Shanahan has traveled this road with the Denver Broncos.
Davis was one of the most productive backs in postseason history while helping the Broncos win consecutive Super Bowl titles. Sixth-rounder Mike Anderson (also a Shanahan pick in Denver) rushed for 15 touchdowns and almost 1,500 yards as a rookie. Morris is eager to add another chapter to Shanahan’s how-to book for finding productive backs in unlikely places.
“He gets these diamond-in-the-rough types,” Morris said. “People say, ‘Hey, you could be one of them.’ But me just getting drafted was a blessing.
“I came from a 1-11 team last year. I did come from nowhere. How many people know where FAU is? So I definitely feel I represent those low-round draft picks, those undrafted guys, who nobody expects to do anything.”
Thing is, expectations change. Particularly after secrets get out.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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