Redskins reporters Rich Tandler and Tarik El-Bashir are looking at what went right and what went wrong during the Redskins 2012 season. Go here to see the other posts in the series.
Today, Rich looks at something that went right, the rushing game.
When Mike Shanahan’s Broncos were winning Super Bowls in the 1990’s and making regular playoff appearances in the early 2000’s, their hallmark was a strong rushing game. In Shanahan’s 14 seasons in Denver the Broncos were in the top five in the NFL in rushing nine times and were never worse than 12th.
But when he came to Washington in 2010, Shanahan’s rushing attacks was, well, grounded. They were 30th in the NFL in rushing his first year and 25th in 2011.
There were plenty of reasons for the poor rushing performances. Injuries and ineffectiveness caused a lot of shuffling along the offensive line. Six different running backs started games over the two seasons and none was a proper fit in to run behind the zone-blocking scheme. And quarterbacks Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman, and John Beck did little to scare defenses either with their arms or with their legs so defenses could focus on taking away the run.
Things were different in 2012. It wasn’t a great infusion of talent along the line that improved the performance there; it was the same players staying healthy. After starting eight different combinations of players along the offensive line in 2011 the line had just one starter change in one game last year.
The infusion of talent came in the backfield. Sixth-round pick Alfred Morris turned out to have a knack for being able to plant his foot and make a timely cut into the crease the in the defense to pick up yardage. Morris also contributed when he didn’t get the ball; he could execute play fakes and he meshed perfectly with Robert Griffin III in the read option game.
In the business world they would call this a synergistic relationship. The possibility that Griffin would run helped open up running room for Morris and the threat of Morris’ running helped Griffin.
Morris set a team record with 1613 yards rushing. That total was second in the NFL behind only Adrian Peterson and the third-most ever for a rookie.
Griffin’s 815 rushing yards were the most ever by a rookie quarterback and he was 20th among all rushers in the NFL.
The improvement in the rushing game help increase the Redskins’ scoring from 18.0 points per game (26th in the NFL) to 27.2 ppg (4th).
The problem with setting team and league records as a rookie is that you often have nowhere to go but down. That could be the issue facing the Redskins, Morris, and Griffin next year.
Griffin already has a huge obstacle in his way; he will be rehabbing from reconstructive knee surgery. It is hard to imagine him carrying the ball 120 times like he did last year or gaining 800 yards. Depending on how much he plays, Griffin could well end up rushing for half as many yards in 2013 as he did in 2012, maybe less.
History says that Morris is unlikely to have as much success in 2013. From 2000-2011, backs have rushed for 1600 or more yards in a season 23 times. Only three times have running backs been able to gain over 1600 yards in consecutive seasons—LaDainian Tomlinson 2002-03, Shaun Alexander 2005-05, and Tiki Barber 2005-05. So the chances of Morris repeating in the 100-yards-per-game club are slim.
But that doesn’t mean that his performance will fall of the face of the earth, either, assuming he stays healthy. Twelve 1600-yard performers played in 13 or more games the following season and they all gained at least 1000 yards. The ten who played all 16 games gained an average of 1441 yards.
Health is the key here, as it usually is when you are talking about repeat performances. In 2011, the Redskins had extraordinarily bad luck in the injury front with all of the offensive line issues and running backs Tim Hightower and Roy Helu Jr. missing time.
They were very healthy in 2012. If the Redskins can have some reasonable degree of luck in the injury department next season they should be able to move the ball on the ground pretty well.