RICHMOND — The interview was interrupted by Washington Redskins fans who couldn’t get enough of running back Alfred Morris in training camp last week. And just when our conversation finally got rolling, after Morris had posed for pictures and signed every hat, jersey and helmet put in front of him, a second wave of supporters appeared.
“It’s crazy,” Morris said while shaking hands and receiving another round of attaboys. “This time last year, even a lot of [team employees] didn’t know my name. I guess I gave the fans a reason to like me.”
More like 1,600 of ’em.
The late-round draft pick rocketed to stardom almost as fast as he hits the hole on rushes. In a season, Morris went from being a long shot to make the opening 53-man roster out of camp to setting the Redskins’ single-season rushing record with 1,613 yards. Don’t be surprised if his second act is even better.
Morris possesses intangibles — smarts, vision, patience, determination — that separate the NFL’s best backs from the average ones. It’s true he benefited from playing alongside quarterback Robert Griffin III in Washington’s option-based offense. Racking up yards is easier when you’re not the defense’s primary concern.
But for anyone who think Morris’s big numbers mostly were a product of Griffin’s ability and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling, there’s something you need to know: You’re wrong. Morris deserves the majority of credit for his success.
Without Morris’s contribution, the Redskins wouldn’t have had the NFL’s most balanced offense last season. Listening to Coach Mike Shanahan praise Morris, you get the sense the second-year player won’t be a one-hit wonder.
From the start of last year’s training camp, Morris impressed veterans with his hard-charging running style. Before the first preseason game, I asked Shanahan whether he thought it was too early to draw comparisons between Morris and former Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis, whom Shanahan also drafted in the sixth round. “It’s not a similar situation — it’s exactly the same,” Shanahan said at the time. “When you’ve been in the National Football League a while, there are some things you just know the moment you see it. The first time I saw [Morris run in practice], I said, ‘Whoa. This guy gives us something we haven’t had.’ It was obvious.”
Statistically, Morris had a better rookie season than Davis — an NFL most valuable player and two-time Super Bowl champion whose career was cut short by injuries — in helping the Redskins win their first NFC East title in 13 years. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean Morris will have a better career than Davis, but “there’s no question in my mind that he’s going to be one of the best backs” again this season, Shanahan said recently. “He’s going to be a guy [who] just keeps getting better. . . . Now, can he surpass what he did last year? I can’t answer that. But I would be surprised if he doesn’t have an excellent year.”
Others around the league agree. En route to finishing second in the NFL in rushing, Morris earned a reputation for being a runner who gets the most out of every play. A longtime NFC defensive coach who has studied film of the Redskins doubts backups Roy Helu or Evan Royster would be as successful starting as Morris, who “breaks a lot of tackles . . . and is just a way different runner than the other guys.”
A starter from Week 1, Morris was effective throughout the season — he averaged at least 4.5 yards per rush in 12 of 16 games — and sensational during the Redskins’ sprint to the division title. In the team’s seven-game winning streak to end the regular season, Morris averaged 117.1 yards rushing and scored eight of his 13 touchdowns. He capped the regular season with a 200-yard, three-touchdown performance as Washington defeated arch-rival Dallas to clinch the title.
Morris broke the Redskins’ previous mark of 1,516 yards set by Clinton Portis in 2005. No rookie runner in franchise history has scored more touchdowns than Morris. However, don’t attempt to get him going about his record-setting season. He’s not into numbers — unless you’re talking about “wins and losses,” he said. “I mean, it sounds cliche, but it’s the truth. Even after games, [team officials] go, ‘Do you want to see the stat sheet?’ I’m like, ‘No.’ Did we win or did we lose?”
Improving as a receiver is Morris’s next step in helping the Redskins. With only 11 receptions for 77 yards, he was a nonfactor in the passing game. Whenever the Redskins worked at Redskins Park in the offseason, Morris was either running routes, catching passes or both. He is excited about the trust he’s building “with the quarterbacks and coaches just to let them know, ‘Hey, I can catch.’ . . . Hopefully, it will translate on game day.”
Both Morris and the Redskins would be better off if he stays in the game. NFL history tells us that runners who embrace contact as much as Morris wear down more quickly than those who avoid it. Although he isn’t wired to take shortcuts, there’s nothing wrong with self-preservation. He needs to play it safer at times.
“Sometimes fighting for those extra yards, you get that hit and then you’ve got [an injury that] . . . will actually keep you off the field,” Morris said. “It’s kind of hard for me to say, ‘I don’t want to fight for that extra yard.’ Adjusting to that is going to be a little tough.”
But he can do it. After accomplishing more than most NFL observers figured he would, Morris should be even better and smarter this season. That’s a combination that would be another attention-grabber.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.