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What To Expect From Alfred Morris’ Second Act

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Expect another strong campaign from Alfred Morris in his second season, but don't expect the same gaudy numbers from his rookie year. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images.
Expect another strong campaign from Alfred Morris in his second season, but don't expect the same gaudy numbers from his rookie year. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images.

Once upon a time, in a not-so-far off land not so long ago, a rookie sixth-round pick won the starting running back position and went on to set the single-season rushing record in the 80-plus year history of his football team. Did I lose you? Was the stereotypical fairytale opening too strange to believe? Was it too far removed from the possible? A year ago, “yes” would have been your uniform response. Then, Washington Redskins RB Alfred Morris did all that and proved, once again, that truth is very often stranger than fiction and that the possible is limited only by the imagination.

While Robert Griffin III was grabbing all the preseason press last season, Morris was quietly earning a roster spot and moving up the depth chart. Unlike the calculated, precision pick RGIII was, Morris, his fellow rookie backfield mate, was a dart hurled at a dartboard late — the 173rd overall pick to be exact — in the 2012 NFL Draft. After nagging preseason injuries derailed incumbent starter Roy Helu’s season and 2011 starter Tim Hightower failed to return after an ACL injury, a major opportunity presented itself. Morris, an unheralded prospect from football-sleepy Florida Atlantic University, remained healthy through the preseason, outperformed all other candidates and opened the season as the starting running back. After toting the rock 28 times for 96 yards and two touchdowns in the opener against the Saints, the job was his.

Morris, as it turned out, was the most consistent performer on offense in 2012. He played all 16 games, toted the rock an astounding 335 times — third most in the NFL behind Arian Foster and Adrian Peterson — scored 13 touchdowns and rushed for a franchise-record 1,613 yards. Which begs the question: what’s next? What is a reasonable stat line to expect from Morris in 2013? Assuming RGIII makes it back for Week 1 and Morris stays reasonably healthy all year, I’d say No. 46 in burgundy and gold is good for 250-275 carries, 1,100-1,300 yards and 10-12 touchdowns. Adjust your fantasy football cheat sheets accordingly.

Alfred Morris to Regress?

Those numbers may create the appearance of a predicted regression, but don’t be misled by the statistics. I expect Morris to be just as effective when he has the rock; he’s just going to get less opportunities to cuddle the pigskin in 2013. I can feel the blood pressure of fantasy football heads reaching a rolling boil, so hear me out.

In 2012, the ‘Skins ran the ball 519 times and threw the ball 442 times, ranked third and 30th in the NFL, respectively. Of those 519 rushing attempts, Morris, as I mentioned, logged 335, while RGIII recorded 120. Evan Royster, the running back with the second most attempts, had only 23 carries. Think about that: Alfred Morris 335, Evan Royster 23. That simply can’t happen again, and several signs point to a more diverse allocation of carries to the running back corps this season.

Morris has many traits coaches love: he possesses excellent ball security, great balance, patience and always seems to fall forward. If I was given a few words to describe Morris, it would be that he has a knack for getting a yard or two more than what’s available from every play. But he’s not Adrian Peterson or Arian Foster. He’s not going to take it 80 yards to the house, doesn’t have a lot of wiggle and he offers little out of the backfield as a receiver — and that’s only an issue because no one else on the Redskins’ 2012 running back depth chart did either.

We Need Backup!

As good as Morris and the Redskins were last year, the offense lacked a dynamic element at the running back position. Instead, RGIII was used as the backfield X-factor; the lightning to Morris’ thunder, if you will. RGIII’s 120 rushing attempts last year will be (or at least should be) literally or practically halved to somewhere in the 60 to 70 range in 2013. “Deploy only in case of emergency” should be the warning label above the RGIII running plays on offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s play chart. Instead, the coaching staff has to be quietly hoping Roy Helu kicks the nagging injury bugs or that 2013 fifth-round pick Chris Thompson makes it back from an ACL injury to contribute significantly this year (and don’t sleep on 2013 seventh-round RB Jawan Jamison). Helu or Thompson would inject needed speed into the running back rotation and provide a reliable receiver out of the backfield. If either player or the duo can absorb 100 to 150 carries, Morris’ and RGIII’s legs, should they acquire the ability to speak, will express tremendous appreciation.

Here’s another problematic stat from 2012: Royster led the running backs with 15 receptions. Morris contributed only 14 catches, but that number might actually decline this year. With Helu and Thompson presumably being options, Morris will almost always exit the field on third-and-long — another, albeit slight hit to his 2013 production. The ‘Skins absolutely must provide RGIII a consistent dump-off option. Last season, when it was third-and-7 and the play broke down, it was all on RGIII and his legs to move the sticks. This contributed to his inflated carries and, ultimately, his injuries. The athletic abilities of Helu and Thompson might provide a much needed elixir for RGIII’s hero-complex. At the very least, it can’t hurt.

Final Accounting

So I’m predicting a 60- to 70-carry reduction for Morris, a 50- to 60-carry reduction for RGIII and roughly a 100-carry increase for the backup running back(s) to be named later. Add it all up and it leaves a few extra carries to be credited back to Morris, right? Well, only if you assume the ‘Skins are going to run the ball 519 times and throw it 442 times again — and I don’t.

What I do expect is for RGIII to grow as a passer this season and for the ‘Skins to use his right arm more and his legs less. I anticipate at least an even split of runs to passes, if not a slightly higher reliance on the passing game. The ‘Skins have but one difference-maker on offense (RGIII), but they have excellence depth at wide receiver, tight end and running back. It’s a formula that appears to offer RGIII the opportunity to be more offensive conductor and less crash test dummy, and for Kyle Shanahan to spread the opportunities more evenly among the skill players. Alfred Morris will remain the bell cow in the backfield and will still get the lion’s share of goal line carries, but his workload will be lightened in 2013 — to his and the team’s benefit.