Alfred Morris delivered one of the all-time greatest seasons for an NFL rookie running back in 2012.
Redskins fans enjoyed watching Morris rush for more than 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. But now the question turns to this upcoming season.
In sports the narrative often suggests that a sophomore slump follows a tremendous rookie season. In the NFL, the numbers prove different.
Last year Morris finished with the second most rushing yards in the league, only behind a historic season from Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
Morris’ 1,613 yards would have placed him first in the NFL in the 2011 season. In 2010, Morris would have ranked second, a mere three yards shy of Arian Foster’s 1,616 yards.
Again, outside of fond memories and successful plays, Morris’ 2012 stats mean little now. Looking forward is what’s important, especially for a Redskins team that won the NFC East title last year and wants to build on that success in 2013.
A brief look at some of the NFL’s best rushers reveals one truth: nothing derails a season, or career, faster than injuries. There is simply no way to account for injuries in statistical projections.
Looking at 2012 Morris in a historic perspective, he finished with the third best rookie season ever, trailing only Eric Dickerson in 1983 and George Rogers in 1981.
As a rookie out of Southern Methodist, Dickerson was incredible. He rushed for over 1,800 yards and scored 18 touchdowns. Rogers, who played college ball at South Carolina, did not reach the same heights as Dickerson but still ran for 1,674 yards and 13 touchdowns as a rookie for the New Orleans Saints.
Morris clearly ranks in good company. Dickerson is considered one of the best running backs of all time and is a member of the NFL Hall of Fame. Rogers won the Heisman Trophy at South Carolina.
Using history to predict the level of success for Morris in 2013, Redskins fans should hope for a sophomore season like Dickerson, not Rogers.
Rogers only played seven NFL seasons, and in his second year with the Saints, he only played in six games. Running for 535 yards, Rogers second year in the pros was the beginning of many injury-plagued seasons that cut short his career.
Washington fans certainly remember some fond years from Rogers, particularly in 1986 when he ran for more than 1,200 yards and lead the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns for the Skins. Even with a few great seasons, Rogers ended up retired at the young age of 29.
On the other hand: Eric Dickerson. In his second professional season, Dickerson was brilliant. In 1984, Dickerson became just the second running back ever to rush for more than 2,000 yards, joining O.J. Simpson in that illustrious club.
In 16 games for the Los Angeles Rams, Dickerson amassed 2,105 yards, a 5.6 yards-per-carry average and 14 touchdowns. Though it happened almost 30 years ago, Dickerson’s sophomore season still stands as the NFL’s single season rushing record.
Suggesting that Morris will break a nearly 30-year old record is preposterous, but based on his numbers as a rookie, there is no reason to think the second year runner out of Florida Atlantic will slow down either.
A look at some more recent running backs also reveals the myth of the sophomore slump.
As a rookie in 1990, Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith rushed for slightly under 1,000 yards. In his second season, that number jumped to 1,563 yards.
In 1996 as a rookie for the then Houston Oilers, Eddie George ran for 1,368 yards, In 1997, George improved his rushing totals to 1,399 yards.
Perhaps the best comparison for Morris would be Terrell Davis. Davis was electric for the Denver Broncos, the perfect compliment to legendary quarterback John Elway, and arguably the player that finally catapulted Elway from Super Bowl loser to Super Bowl winner.
As a rookie out of the University of Georgia in 1995, Davis ran for more than 1,100 yards in 14 games. In 1996, Davis crossed the 1,500 yard mark and scored 13 touchdowns.
Both Davis and Morris were sixth round draft picks; unheralded running backs that starred for coach Mike Shanahan. Davis made the one-cut, downhill running style famous in Denver, and Morris certainly followed that same formula last season.
Shanahan’s zone blocking system - successful last year for the Redskins and historically effective during his years in Denver - suits running backs with power and a burst of speed. Davis absolutely had the right combination before injuries limited his career, only after two Super Bowl wins and a 2,000 yard season.
Morris looks like he has a similar combination.
Able to shed blockers, but with enough shiftiness to make tacklers miss in the open field, Morris has the power needed to run through the middle of the defensive line and enough speed to get to the corner.
Shanahan knows what he likes in running backs, and he knows how to efficiently run the ball. The coach knew what he was looking for at running back for the Skins, and he drafted Morris to fill that role.
Playing with an elite talent like Robert Griffin III helps Morris find rushing lanes, particularly in the read option when defensive players have to account for Griffin’s world class speed.
But Morris’ skill can stand on its own.
With 335 carries last season, Morris proved he can handle the pounding required by a star running back. This season, it appears the Redskins may want to lessen the toll Morris takes.
The team drafted two running backs this year, both quicker runners in Chris Thompson and Jawan Jamison. One player could emerge as a third down back, but that remains to be seen.
For the Redskins, Alfred Morris will continue to be the primary ball carrier.
And if history is any guide, his second season should be near as good, or perhaps better, than his rookie year.