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Comparing Alfred Morris' Start to NFL's All-Time Greats

Joe VersageCorrespondent IIOctober 8, 2012

Comparing Alfred Morris' Start to NFL's All-Time Greats

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    Before bursting onto the NFL scene five weeks ago, Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris was used to being compared to the game's all-time greats. 

    The compliments seemed endless, but he never took them too seriously.

    Now, after another splendid performance (18 carries, 115 yards) in Washington's 24-17 loss to Atlanta, comparisons are floating around again and for good reason. 

    “First of all, I’m not surprised,” said Morris' legendary college coach Howard Schnellenberger, via Tom D'Angelo of The Palm Beach Post. “He was born, bread, raised and trained to be an NFL running back. Not only because he runs the ball [and] not only because he’s durable. He has ability to keep his feet and doesn’t fumble. He can also block, protect the quarterback and catch the ball out of the backfield."

    Schnellenberger also likes how Washington's coaching staff has used its young buck.

    They handed Alfred the ball 28 times [in Washington's season-opening win in New Orleans] and he thrives on that. The reason he is going to be successful is he’s a hit-for-average guy. [Out] of 20 carries, 10 are going to be over four yards, [and] one or two he's going to break.

    With 491 yards rushing and four touchdowns, Morris is tearing up the NFL and making Mike Shanahan look like a genius, after the Redskins coach selected him in the sixth-round of April's draft. 

    In an interview with Mike Florio of NBC's ProFootballTalk, Shanahan said that "Alfred has a lot of the same attributes" that Terrell Davis had. Shanahan coached Davis to back-to-back Super Bowl wins with Denver.  

    Then there are the comparisons that were made in college.

    From the moment Morris stepped foot on the campus of Florida Atlantic, Schnellenberger compared the 5'10' dynamo to bulldozing Hall of Famer Larry Czonka, whom Howard coached in the early 1970s as offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins.

    It may be hard to believe, but Czonka's first five starts were inferior to Morris'. In fact, Larry ran for just 221 yards and two scores on 72 carries. 

    Nevertheless, it must be nice to be compared to a two-time Super Bowl champion, who was five inches taller.

    So, how does Morris' start compare to the best running backs in NFL history? We referred to our friends at Ranker.com, which asked football fans worldwide to cast their votes for the top runners of all-time.

    The top five selections were dynamic players in their own ways, but they were all similar to Morris in strength, balance, body control and forward lean. And like Alfred, whatever they lacked in size and speed, they made up for in heart and determination. 

    Please continue onto the next few slides to see how these stars fared (as rushers) in their first five NFL games.

1. Walter Payton (Chicago Bears)

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    When I was a kid growing up, I was a fan of the Buffalo Bills because of the electrifying O.J. Simpson.

    I never got to see Jim Brown play, so, for me, nobody compared to "the Juice." That was, of course, until a flashy tailback from Jackson State joined the Chicago Bears in 1975.

    I became immediately consumed with Walter Payton from the moment I saw him run. He wasn't just fast like O.J., but graceful and relentless, too.

    When I took to the sandlots to play football with friends, I pretended to be "Sweetness," like basketball enthusiasts mimic Michael Jordan

    Payton's repertoire included numerous "shake-and-bake" moves, a patented stiff arm, a glorious goal-line leap and high steps that would make Deion Sanders blush. 

    But the thing I liked the most about Walter was the way he carried the ball in one hand. He only tucked it in when he had to and rarely fumbled. Payton had large hands, and they seemed to be slathered with Super Glue.

    Sweet No. 34 passed away from a rare liver disease on November 1, 1999, but the memory of his greatness will last forever.

    Payton's First Five Games

    In his very first contest against Baltimore, Payton carried the ball eight times for zero yards. He rebounded for 95 against Philadelphia and 61 against Minnesota, but was stifled again for zero yards on 10 carries against Detroit. In his fifth game, Walter tried to exact revenge on the Vikings, but managed just 44 yards on 10 carries in Chicago's rematch.

    200 yards on 67 carries (through five games) were far from Hall of Fame numbers for Payton. They're also strikingly short of Alfred Morris' start with the Skins (491 yards on 100 carries).   

2. Barry Sanders (Detroit Lions)

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    As a football fan, I used to refer to Barry Sanders as the "little engine that could".

    At just 5'8", 200 pounds, he was often the smallest man on the field, but played with a non-stop motor.

    I wish I could find a better word for "elusive" because if you watch highlights of Barry in his prime, you'll be as awe-inspired as I was.

    From jump hops to spin moves, Sanders had it all. But it was his intuitiveness that stood out. Barry seemed to have supernatural instincts and avoided would-be tacklers as if he had eyes in the back of his head.

    Redskins fans have enjoyed some "ah-ha" moments by Alfred Morris and Robert Griffin III this season. But Barry Sanders averaged half a dozen every game. He was simply that good at making every defensive players look bad.       

    Sanders first five games were solid, as indicated by the numbers below. After capturing the 1988 Heisman Trophy, Barry decided to forgo his senior year at Oklahoma State to enter the NFL.

    He then got started with a bang.

    Sanders' First Five Games

    In his very first game, Sanders scored a touchdown and averaged almost eight yards per carry (9 carries for 71 yards). He had a 57-yard performance in game two and then rambled to the first 100-yard game of his career (126) against NFC Central rival Chicago.

    Barry's five-game start culminated with 100 more yards, for a grand total of 354 on 67 carries.  

3. Jim Brown (Cleveland Browns)

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    Cleveland superstar Jim Brown was passed over by five teams before the Browns selected him with the sixth choice in the 1957 draft.

    Green Bay used the first pick to choose Heisman Trophy winner and future Hall of Famer Paul Hornung. The Rams, 49ers, Packers and Steelers then followed with Jon Arnett, two-time All Pro John Brodie and somebody named Ron Kramer from Michigan, who made the College Hall of Fame. Pittsburgh selected quarterback Len Dawson, who later starred with Kansas City and made the Hall in 1987.

    At the time, the Packers and Steelers made strong choices. But owners from the three other teams lived to regret their decisions.

    The video in this slide begins with a quote from former Washington Redskins linebacker and Hall of Famer Sam Huff. When asked to describe Brown, who Huff faced on various occasions, Sam sighed and said, "Jim Brown was in another league." That about says it all.

    To this day, Brown is the only player in NFL history to average over 100 yards per game in a career. The eight-time All-Pro from Syracuse went on to rush for an astronomical 12,312 yards in his nine-year career, with 106 rushing scores, 20 more receiving and a 104-yard per game rushing average. 

    Brown's Rookie Campaign

    Here's a look at Brown's first season in the NFL. Unfortunately, his individual game statistics from 1957 are not available on the web, so we'll compare his overall totals to Alfred Morris' current ones.

    Jim Brown (1957): 202 attempts for 942 yards (4.7 yard per carry) and nine rushing touchdowns. 

    In the late 1950s, the NFL had a 12-game schedule. Therefore, if we go by the law of averages, Brown carried the ball at least 17 times for 78.5 yards per game. 

    In contrast, Morris is averaging 20 attempts and 98.2 yards per game. 

4. Earl Campbell (Houston Oilers)

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    Before the NFL saw the likes of Christian Okoye, Natrone Means and Jerome Bettis, the most famous super-sized back was Earl Campbell, the Houston Oilers star with thighs the size of tree trunks.

    In the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s, Campbell made defenders look like fools as he ran over, through or past them on his way to pay dirt.

    According to Wikipedia, "He, Paul Hornung, and O.J Simpson are the only Heisman Trophy winners to have also been first overall NFL draft picks and members of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame."

    It's hard to compare Alfred Morris to Campbell because the latter was deceptively fast. But when it comes to leg strength and the determination to break tackles, the two are vastly similar.   

    Campbell's First Five Games

    In 1978, Campbell earned NFL Rookie of the Year honors by rushing for 1,450 yards on 302 carries (4.8 YPC) and 13 touchdowns. His first five games were startlingly impressive, with three 100-yard games and two contests of 77 and 78 yards. 

    Campbell was even more outstanding his second year, when he had three 100-yard games in the first four weeks. He then rumbled to one of the finest seasons in NFL history, with 1,697 total yards (on 368 carries) and 19 scores.

5. Gale Sayers (Chicago Bears)

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    Before there was "Sweetness" in Chicago, there was the "Kansas Comet".

    Any football player that chooses to play halfback should watch game films of Gale Sayers, who flashed across the NFL landscape (from 1965 to 1971) and then was gone, like his nickname suggests.

    Sayers played in parts of seven seasons with the Bears and left behind some of the most magical highlights the game as ever seen.

    But Gale's most memorable contribution may have been the special bond he had with Bears fullback Brian Piccolo, during a time when black athletes were still trying to integrate themselves into American sports culture.  

    When Sayers suffered a devastating knee injury in 1968, Piccolo assisted him through a grueling rehabilitation program. Then, just two years later, Piccolo was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that spread throughout his body. Sayers suffered a second knee injury in 1970, but until the day Brian died, Gale never left his side.

    Sayers retired in 1972, after two rushing titles and five All-Pro seasons. He then earned a well-deserved Hall of Fame induction in 1977.

    First Five Games

    In his first five games Gale's rushing numbers (215 yards on 55 carries) pale in comparison to what Alfred Morris has accomplished so far with the Redskins. But unlike Morris, Sayers was a prolific pass catcher and kick returner who was impossible to cover in open space.

    In his third career game against Green Bay, Sayers caught five passes for 104 yards and a touchdown, while tallying 80 yards on the ground and another score.

    He then closed the five-game stretch with three more touchdowns against Minnesota. In all, he found the end zone seven times in his first five pro contests.

    In contrast, Morris has scored four times for the Burgundy and Gold.

Alfred Relishes His Next Opportunity

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    Back in early August, and long before the press knew that Alfred Morris would be the Redskins opening day starter, I wrote a piece entitled 6 Redskins Sleepers Who Aren't Snoozing at Training Camp.

    Alfred was one of the six that caught my attention because of whom he was compared to. In addition to Larry Czonka, college coaches suggested that some of Morris' traits were similar to O.J. Simpson, Walter Payton and former Redskins great John Riggins.

    Now, just two months later, the football world is seeing what all the fuss was about. 

    According to CSNWashington.com's Rich Tandler, Morris joined Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson (Rams, 1983) as the only rookies to gain 75 yards or more in each of his team’s first five games of the season. 

    Nevertheless, Alfred remains low-key about his success. The comparisons are flattering, but he seems determined to show that he's no fluke.

    “I’m just so, so thankful for the opportunities my coaches gave me to prove myself," said Morris, via Bob Heist of the Pensacola News Journal.

    I always knew what I was capable of. I just needed an opportunity. I’m not surprised I’m here right now, but I am surprised that the opportunities came so early.

    Next week, the NFL's third-ranked rusher will get another chance to show off his skills at home against Minnesota.  

    It will mark the first time the Vikings face Morris, but if he has anything to say about it, he'll leave them with a lasting impression. Perhaps, he'll even show up Adrian Peterson, in a subtle sort of way. 

     

    Joe Versage is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He previously covered the Buffalo BillsWashington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens as a television beat reporter. Follow him on Twitter at: @JoeVersage 

    Unless otherwise noted, all material references, video and statistical information for this column are courtesy of Wikipedia, NFL Films and Pro-Football-Reference.com.

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