So much has changed in the year since Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris joined the NFL fraternity of rookies. As the 173rd player selected in the 2012 NFL draft and 13th running back selected overall, Morris begins his second season with lofty goals, high pressure and higher expectations.
You have to go back 30 years to find the last instance of a rookie NFL running back having as successful a year as Morris running the ball. Only two rookies have covered more ground in their debut seasons than Morris, according to ESPN. Dickerson did it (1,808 yards) in 1983 with the Los Angeles Rams; George Rogers (1,674) did it with the New Orleans Saints in 1981.
Most rushing yds by rookie in season Eric Dickerson (1983 Rams) 1,808, George Rogers (1981 Saints) 1,674, Alfred Morris (2012) 1,613— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 31, 2012
His nonchalance and carefree attitude border on simplicity. He’s humble, plays hard and works hard. This past April, Robert Griffin III told Larry Michael of Redskins.com that Morris was a mix of talent, determination and strength from early in his NFL debut.
"I knew it after the second preseason game when we played Chicago," Griffin recalled. "The Bears have some formidable linebackers...they’ve got Lance Briggs.
“So we hand the ball off to Alfred [Morris] and he goes out there and runs over Lance Briggs. He runs him over, fixes his helmet, and keeps running. I knew for sure that 'OK, if this guy gets a shot, he’s going to be something special.'"
And special he was. Morris finished his rookie NFL season second in rushing yards (1,613), second in rushing touchdowns (13) and third in rushing attempts (335).
In order for Morris to top the achievements of his rookie season, there are several running backs who came before him that may have the template for success. By following some of their examples, Morris could emerge with a strong chance to follow his breakthrough rookie year with a more impressive second season.
The following are four areas that could effect or have some influence over Morris' chances of topping his record-setting rookie rushing season.
Coach Mike Shanahan’s experience
It has happened on two occasions under the leadership of head coach Mike Shanahan when he was with the Denver Broncos from 1995-2008. Shanahan had the opportunity to usher in the Terrell Davis years of domination as an NFL running back as both player and coach began their time in Denver.
Also a sixth-round NFL draft pick, Davis rushed for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns in his first NFL season. The following year, Davis posted 1,538 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, earning him the AP Offensive Player of the Year honor, All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors in his second season in the league.
Six years later, the Broncos and Shanahan selected University of Miami standout running back Clinton Portis. In each of his first two seasons with the Broncos, Portis rushed for over 1,500 yards, averaging 5.5 yards per carry, an NFL record for a running back's first two seasons. He was also named the AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2002.
Shanahan has the coaching ability and experience to see a player such as Morris through the stages of a successful second season as a running back in the NFL, as he did with Davis and Portis.
Uncertainty of Robert Griffin III’s return
The Redskins have said on numerous instances the offense will not change due to the knee injury sustained by RG3 and subsequent recovery period. While that may be true, it would be hard to imagine RG3 running as much (120 plays) for as many yards (815) as he did in 2012.
That extends an opportunity to Morris to pick up more carries, although he did have the third-highest rush attempts last season with 335—one of five NFL running backs to crack the 300-plus rushing attempts mark.
Overall talent and abilities
Morris displayed good instinct, balance, quick feet and vision, elusiveness and solid ground strength as a rookie running back. He should easily be able to surpass the 1,000-plus-yard mark based on the team’s dependence on his number of carries and his yards-per-carry average in 2012.
He led the team last season in rushing in all but two games (out-rushed by RG3), and his lowest rushing game, 47 yards, happened in a Week 6 win over the Minnesota Vikings. Morris’ best rushing game was Week 17 against The Dallas Cowboys (200 yards), and he accounted for seven 100-plus rushing yards games as a rookie.
Although only targeted on 17 passing situations, making 11 catches for 77 yards, once Morris has the ball in his hands, it turns into a running game.
Utilized not only as a runner but as a blocker or decoy for RG3 in 2012, if the Redskins were to reduce the number of times RG3 runs the ball for his own safety, the likelihood Morris sees the ball more in 2013 seems certain given his successes.
Additional contact does not bode well if a team is trying to protect a vulnerable player. Increasing Morris' average touches per game could present greater risk of injury.
The Redskins lacked depth at running back last season. Their second-leading running back, Evan Royster, contributed just 88 yards on 23 attempts. Should the Redskins remain the NFL’s top rushing team, as they were in 2012, more help will be needed to make up for the reduction in Griffin’s running plays.
With all that surrounds RG3 and Morris’ return for their sophomore season, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan expressed his pleasure and disbelief in the initial success of Morris during a press conference back in June, via a transcript by Redskins.com.
"Alfred’s a beast. I think one guy or about three guys all year tackled him on the first tackle. That guy runs as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen. ... Alfred is as good of a back as I’ve ever had. He’s the real deal."
With very limited play through this year’s preseason, expect Alfred Morris to resume his role in the Redskins backfield and hopefully pick up where he left off in 2012—contributing significantly to the team’s successful running game and setting the tone for his second season as an NFL top five running back in key rushing categories.
Given a multitude of factors, including just a few that were mentioned here, Morris certainly has a chance to exceed his offensive output from last year.
All statistics provided by ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.