Is Alfred Morris a True Stud or a Product of the Shanahan System?
Shanahan appears to be able to find late-round running backs at will and plug them into his system for a 1,000-yard season. Morris is his latest discovery. He has 1,413 yards going into Week 17, becoming the seventh back to reach 1,000 yards under Shanahan.
The problem with being so successful at drafting running backs into such a specialized offense is that the automatic assumption is that the system is responsible for the success, not the player.
There's absolutely no reason to dislike Morris. He's kept his battered old car from his college days, sleeps on the couch when he goes home to see his family and asked Santa Claus what he wanted for Christmas. He's humble, hard-working and grateful for the opportunity to play in the NFL.
At Florida Atlantic, Morris was consistently productive and rushed for 3,506 yards over his final three seasons. But the Sun Belt isn't known for producing NFL players. And Florida Atlantic went 1-11 in his senior year, a season in which he carried the workload on the ground with 235 carries for 1,186 yards and nine touchdowns.
So he was succeeding in spite of his team, not because of it.
What did stand out, however, was the way Morris ran between the tackles. He was a patient back who sensed when to run and when to wait, which always gave him the chance to gain yards.
Morris wasn't an imposing athlete in the sense that he wouldn't power through defenders or leave people behind in the open field. He made one cut, found a seam and hit it hard.
He was fairly unspectacular, but he was effective. That he could shrug off tackles, stay low and fall forward also gave him an edge. Watching his highlight reels, you can see why he ended up in Washington.
As a blocker in college, Morris showed promise more than anything else. He played hard and delivered hits with power and also used his hands well as a standing blocker. Sometimes he would get a little eager and compromise his angles for the sake of a big hit, but his ability and determination were never in doubt.
If you were building a typical Shanahan running back, you'd probably end up with something like Morris.
He got his chance when Tim Hightower was jettisoned and Roy Helu and Evan Royster were injured. But he hasn't looked back since. Shanahan named Morris the starter for Week 1, and he has repaid his coaches' faith with every cut he makes.
While it's true that the Shanahan system is ideal for Morris, he hasn't changed the way he plays. It just so happens that the system suits him.
Watching the game against the Philadelphia Eagles, it was interesting to see Morris work for his yards. The injury to Robert Griffin III negated his threat as a runner, and the Eagles were able to focus on Morris as the main rushing threat.
The previous game had seen Kirk Cousins make his first Redskins start, which promised a different situation for Morris. Cleveland set up to stop the run, and Morris made his yards the hard way, with 27 carries for 87 yards and two touchdowns.
As a percentage, how much of Morris' success is down to Shanahan?
Morris then rushed for 91 yards in Philadelphia, but the most interesting part of that statistic is that 56 of those yards came after contact. This isn't something that can be credited to anyone except Morris.
Looking back across the season tells a similar story. Of his 1,413 yards, 576 came after contact, according to ESPN.com. The only players in the league with more YAC are Doug Martin and Adrian Peterson.
Morris is ahead of Marshawn Lynch and Steven Jackson in this regard, and only Jamaal Charles, Lynch and Peterson sit ahead of him in rushing yards. While it's certain that Morris wouldn't thrive in every offense, it's also certain that he isn't just a product of Shanahan's system.
He earned his start during camp and preseason. He has improved at choosing lanes, generating yards after contact and blocking for his quarterback.
Shanahan deserves some credit, sure. He and running backs coach Bobby Turner drafted a player whose strengths tied in with the system they were looking to run, and they got that player in the sixth round of the draft.
Maybe that's why he hasn't been elected to the Pro Bowl. Maybe the nation feels the Redskins system is what gains Morris his yards. Maybe Griffin allows him to run unnoticed through the line. There is merit to this argument, sure, but it doesn't end the discussion.
Morris was the most glaring omission on the the Pro Bowl roster, with Frank Gore's inclusion equally as mystifying. Morris deserves every plaudit sent his way, and he deserved to go to Hawaii, regardless of how empty the contest is becoming.
The coaches' shrewd observation of Morris' talent is what brought him to Washington. It's that talent, however, that has seen him succeed.
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