The Washington Redskins were the best team in the NFL in 2012 when it comes to running the ball. Mike Shanahan oversaw a squad that racked up 2,709 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground, a huge improvement over the dismal performance of the 2011 running game.
There were several reasons for this sudden success. At the forefront was an unknown sixth-round draft pick, Alfred Morris, a rookie who burst onto the scene and enjoyed arguably the finest season for a running back in Redskins history, setting a franchise record for rushing yards with his 200-yard performance in Week 17.
Then, there was exciting rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III, who ran for 815 yards while expertly leading an option-based offensive attack. Let's not forget the offensive line, which transformed from a beat-up group with little chemistry to a mostly healthy unit that worked cohesively.
But no game plan is Utopian and the Redskins did have one overlooked issue in 2012 that must be fixed before it's too late.
Morris and RGIII were excellent, but they were the only players to have any kind of measurable impact on the ground. In fact, if you take away the production of those two, you find that the entire team provided just 64 carries for 281 yards, a compilation of rushes and reverses spread out among 14 qualified players. The so-called change-of-pace back became Evan Royster, and his impact was negligible, with just 23 carries all season.
How important is it for the Redskins to find a dependable second-string running back?
The problem that arises isn't one of game planning. Obviously, the lack of balance wasn't detrimental to the overall production on the ground. At issue is the long term viability of a runner the caliber of Morris, who is young at 24, but is coming off of a 335-carry campaign where he took big hits on seemingly every play. Morris wasn't exactly running free in 2012; much of his yardage came after contact and he often took hits while feigning a carry while RGIII took off in the other direction.
The other problem is RGIII's tendencies as a running quarterback. Bad luck or otherwise, 2012 proved that the athletic young quarterback simply cannot continue down the path he is on. He took too many hits, as he suffered several injuries and didn't protect his body like he should have. Unless he rips off a couple of 80-yard runs in 2013, he shouldn't attempt to approach 800 yards on the ground again.
So without RGIII providing consistently on the ground (no matter what you think, there's no way the Redskins will place him in harm's way like that again), who will help Morris? Most fans jump to the conclusion that Roy Helu, the starter for most of 2011, will be the second man in the backfield.
But Helu is still hampered by his turf toe and will need a lot of time to get back into game shape. What about Royster? He's a possibility, but his low production wasn't just because of limited playing time—it was because he was nothing special when he got the chance.
Finding a second dependable running back isn't at the forefront of the Redskins' issues as a team, but it's probably the easiest to address. All they need is a guy who can take 10-15 carries away from Morris, preferably a player who can complement with a very different skill cat set in the form of a scat back that can make devastating cuts and use his speed to throw the defense off-balance. A player with the skill set of a Darren Sproles would fit the bill.
This can also potentially be solved with a low-end signing in free agency or a late-round draft pick.
There are multiple options. But it's something that has to be solved soon. The worst thing that could happen is a devastating injury to Morris, or worse, running him so much that his legs simply give out before he's 30.
This isn't a complicated problem. Almost any competent running back will do. But the Redskins have to do something because they'll regret their lack of action if long-term injury befalls either Morris or RGIII.