How Did Everybody Fail to Recognize Alfred Morris?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 5, 2013

December 30, 2012; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris (46) celebrates in the end zone after scoring a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in the fourth quarter at FedEx Field. The Redskins won 28-18. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Nice guys finish 173rd. That's what those who know Alfred Morris must have been thinking when the humble Florida Atlantic running back was passed on 172 times in the 2012 NFL draft. 

Of course, that all changed when the nice guy finished first during his rookie season with the Washington Redskinsfirst by way of becoming the leading single-season rusher in franchise history. Or at least second, because that's where he finished in the NFL rushing race after becoming only the fourth rookie back in NFL history to post 1,600 yards on the ground. Only future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson ran for more.

Amazingly, despite the fact that the rest of the Washington offense has slowed down, it seems the 24-year-old has gotten better in his sophomore season.

Defenses are now giving him more attention than ever, but Morris has maintained a top-notch average of 4.8 yards per carry and is only four yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark on the season with four games remaining. His carries are down because the 'Skins have trailed a lot and because he's been spelled by Roy Helu Jr., but he has undoubtedly been the MVP of this Washington team.

If Morris can gain 391 yards over the final four weeks, he'll become only the seventh back in NFL history to rush for 3,000 yards in the first two seasons of his career. 

Most productive rushers since the start of 2012
TeamDraft pos.YardsYPA
1. Adrian PetersonVikings7th33055.4
2. Alfred MorrisRedskins173rd26094.8
3. Marshawn LynchSeahawks12th25604.8
4. Jamaal CharlesChiefs73rd25205.0
5. Matt ForteBears44th20654.5
Pro Football Reference

As a sixth-round pick, few had heard of him before he beat out several veterans to earn the Redskins' starting job. It seemed that Morris came out of freakin' nowhere. 

It feels that way, but he does indeed have roots. Go to his hometown of Pensacola, Fla., where he's only known as "Fred," and will you start to understand why and how he defied the odds. He and his six brothers didn't get a lot handed to them, which Morris thinks helped build character. But it also helped that parents Ronald and Yvonne were a strong, steady presence in his life. 

"I always knew he was going to be great," Ronald Morris tells the Bleacher Report NFC East blog. "He just needed a shot."

OK, but that's what dads are supposed to say. How come nobody else knew he was going to be great? 

"He was as humble as anybody on campus," says Lyle Messer, who was Morris' position coach as well as his world history teacher at Pine Forest High School in Pensacola. "You would never know that he was a star on the field, destined for the NFL."

Messer and everybody else we talked to this week about Morris couldn't stop raving about who he was and still is as a person. Mr. Modest never took anything for granted. 

Many of us have heard the stories by now. We've seen the 1991 Mazda 626 (Kelley Blue Book value: about $1,000) that he drove from the Panhandle to D.C. to start his NFL career, which he calls his "Bentley" and still drives now, despite his $556,000 annual salary.

He's a guy who hasn't forgotten where he came from, which is why he hangs onto the Mazda. It's probably why he was the only human on the planet to ask Santa what he wanted for Christmas last year. And it's probably why he played paintball with a bunch of random fans this summer, for no obvious benefit.

"He's got the personality of a saint," says the legendary Howard Schnellenberger, who coached Morris at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "He had outstanding parents who have schooled him on how a young man should turn out."

Earlier this year, Morris admitted to Doug Farrar of Yahoo! Sports that a coach once told him he was "too nice." If he was harder, he would he have been recruited by bigger schools than Florida Atlantic, which was the only Division I program to offer him a scholarship.

"He was good," says Messer, "but he wasn't flashy." 

Messer says that plenty of coaches and scouts had a good look at Morris when Pine Forest took on Glade Central in the Class 3A state championship game in Miami in 2006. The senior had 99 yards on only 11 carries and added a 63-yard kick return in a losing effort that day, but nobody would bite.

"He was never the fastest guy," adds Messer, "he was never the strongest guy. He just wasn't flashy enough I guess for major college football."

He'd go on to have an incredible under Schnellenberger at FAU, breaking rushing yardage and touchdown records. But that wasn't enough to get him noticed by NFL teams. 

In fact, the scouting reports leading up to the draft painted Morris as a less-than-enticing prospect.

Exhibit A from "Morris is a thick running back and a bit of a tweener, not big enough to be imposing at the next level. He is a serviceable runner who at best could carry a load like BenJarvus Green-Ellis of New England, but he will have to prove he has the speed and athleticism to deserve a shot. He carries late-round or free-agent value."

Exhibit B from Sideline Scouting: "Will struggle on the outside at the next level, simply doesn't have the speed to consistently get to the edge. Appears to be nothing more than a solid situational back up running back in the NFL. Rather undersized to convert to fullback which may be his best position."

Exhibit C from Draft Insider: "Morris is a tough and smart football player who lacks the size and speed for the next level. He does the little things well and could catch on as a fourth back for an NFL team."

Schnellenberger blames the NFL Combine and a scouting system that he clearly believes is fractured.

"He didn't pass the beauty contest," says Schnellenberger. "They take them up there to the combine and all that is is a beauty contest. See how fast they run, see how high they jump, see how far they can jump. But they don't have any gauges for heart, strength and determination and courage and coachability, and all those kinds of things. If you come see a player in practice in college and watch him on film, you get all of those unmeasurables."

That goes back to the flash factor. Morris is an old-school back, who at the 2012 NFL Combine in Indianapolis settled for a mediocre 4.67 40-yard dash time. He wasn't a sexy pick in any respect.

Running backs, 2012 NFL draft (first 6 rounds)
PlayerPick40 timeConf.NFL rushing total
Trent Richardson34.45*SEC1361
Doug Martin314.55MWC1910
David Wilson324.49ACC504
Isaiah Pead504.47AAC75
LaMichael James614.45Pac-12162
Ronnie Hillman674.45MWC509
Bernard Pierce844.49AAC876
Lamar Miller974.40ACC797
Robert Turbin1064.50MWC559
Chris Rainey1594.45SEC102
Vick Ballard1704.65SEC877
Alfred Morris1734.67Sun Belt2609
Cyrus Gray1824.47SEC55
Dan Herron914.66Big Ten38
Terrance Ganaway2024.67Big 120
* Not at Combine (Pro Football Reference/

"Coming where I came from, being at the combine was a win in itself," Morris tells the NFC East blog, finding the positive. "I was happy and excited and shocked. I do feel like they put too much weight on the combine. It's good to be fast, but can you translate it to the field? Just because you're fast doesn't mean you're a good player."

The Redskins saw him on the field—and consequently fell in lovewhen Mike Shanahan and Redskins running backs coach Bobby Turner worked with him at the 2012 Senior Bowl. However, that opportunity only arose after Morris was added to the South Team's roster as a midweek replacement. 

Still, Morris himself doesn't believe the Combine and the standard scouting process necessarily hurt his stock. He thinks it had a lot more to do with where he went to school. 

"I went to a small school," Morris says. "You don't get as much exposure as some of the other schools. If you ask me, some of these bigger programs, even if the guy isn't as good as you they're still going to lean towards that guy just because of the school that they're at, which kind of hurts some guys. I just happened to find myself in the perfect situation and it worked out."

That last part is undeniable. Not only was Morris a Redskins fan already, but Shanahan's system appears to be a perfect fit. 

We spoke with Bleacher Report NFL draft lead analyst Matt Miller, who elaborated on that fit while explaining why it was easier than you'd think for teams to overlook the guy:

Before the 2012 draft Morris looked like a solid rotation back. He didn't have great size or great speed, but showed good vision on film and was one of those 'jack of all trades, master of none' type backs. It also hurt that he was being compared to physical marvels like Trent Richardson and big-school producers Doug Martin, Lamar Miller and athletes like David Wilson. It was a very good year for running back prospects, and Morris' lack of ideal physical traits and smaller-school production definitely hurt him.

Why has Morris succeeded? He fell into a perfect situation for his abilities, and you have to credit Washington's scouting department for knowing his strengths. He's not fast enough to be an outside runner, but his vision, thicker build and good initial quickness make him ideal for a one-cut, zone scheme. The rest is a credit to his drive to prove us all wrong. And he has.

Still, a miss is a miss. A lot of teams would love to have a guy like Morris now, and they could have grabbed him at the expense of a mere fifth-round pick back in April 2012. 

"I'm surprised he was a sixth-round pick," says Schnellenberger. "That was a terrible oversight by 32 teams. That was an oversight by a whole lot of professionals who should have known a lot better. Because he was not only an outstanding player for us, but he was an outstanding high school player in Pensacola."

By the time all was said and done, 13 backs went off the board before Morris had his name called at Radio City Music Hall that Saturday afternoon. Ironically, the first back selected was Pensacola native Trent Richardson, whom Morris competed against as a kid. 

Ronald Morris says the two played each other in middle school but that Richardson was hurt when they would have faced off in high school. And although Morris was a star, Richardson stood out in a different way. Their paths toward the 2012 draft diverged after high school, with Richardson joining Nick Saban and the powerhouse program he had built at Alabama. 

Coming out of the SEC and with the exposure gained from two BCS national championship victories fueling the hype, Richardson was picked third overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2012. Morris hailed from a program that had gone 1-11 the previous season, finishing dead-last in the significantly less celebrated Sun Belt Conference. About 40 hours and exactly 170 picks after Richardson was selected, Morris went to Washington. 

"The thing that surprises me most is my opportunity came sooner," says Morris. "I've always been overlooked. No one's thought much of me for the most part, but I always hold myself to a higher standard. I know what I'm capable of doing, all I needed was the opportunity."

He's done a helluva lot more with the opportunity than Richardson has with his. In fact, ever since they were drafted, their paths have crossed and diverged in a way that dramatically favors Morris. 

While Morris works to earn what could be another second-team All-Pro nod, Richardson is toiling away on the Indianapolis Colts' bench. He hasn't been able to cut it in Indy and was already cast aside by the Browns, who traded the bust-in-the-making earlier this season. 

Morris is having the last laugh, although he'd never admit it. 

"I don't play with a chip on my shoulder," he tells us. "I really don't. I've been an underdog my whole life, so I always play this way."

Alfred Morris vs. Trent Richardson, career stats
Draft pos.YardsYPATD
Pro Football Reference

Pops has another theory regarding why his son was almost completely disregarded, which makes a lot of sense when you consider that Richardson was a full-time back. See, Morris was not. He played both ways in high school, working as a back on offense and a linebacker on defense. In fact, he was recruited just as heavily as a defender, but FAU was the only D-I school to target him as an offensive player. 

"He said he was a better linebacker than a running back," Ronald says, "but I always thought he was a better back. In high school, if he would have been just a straight running back, he would have broke the Florida rushing record. But they needed him on defense. I do believe that if he was just playing straight running back in high school, he would have went to a bigger college."

Bigger college means more exposure, which means more love from scouts, coaches and general managers. 

"Did it hurt me?" asks Morris. "I couldn't tell you. But I ended up exactly where I'm supposed to be."

I guess that's all that matters in Morris' particular case. He prevailed, which surprised almost everybody in the football world who didn't have a personal relationship with Mr. Sunshine himself. 

"It doesn't surprise me," says Schnellenberger, who half a century ago recruited Joe Namath at Alabama, "because that's been his mantra, that's been his reputation since he started playing football when he was 12 years old. He's got the best inner-workings of a player you'll ever see."

Schnellenberger and Messer and the rest of them believe that the perseverance we've witnessed with Morris has to stem from those aforementioned roots. Ronald and Yvonne wouldn't let Alfred, or any of their seven boys, lose sight.

Ronald still works as a cook at a local Olive Garden, where he's been for 16 years. Why? "Because that's what a man does. I'm supposed to work. Just because my son's in the NFL doesn't mean I'm going to quit my job. That's just not us." 

Yvonne is still teaching special education at Pine Forest, where Alfred was an honors student. They live in the same modest home in the same modest neighborhood, and Alfred still posts up on the couch when he comes back to the Sunshine State for the family time he seems to really cherish. 

"I always knew he was going to be stable and grounded," says Ronald. "Just because that's what we are. You tend to lose focus, you see a lot of the athletes (spending money) and they end up broke. We talked about that and he said, 'Dad, you don't have to worry about that because I'm always going to stay humble and grounded.'"

"I don't think he's going to make any big purchases, because he's comfortable with what he's got," says Ronald, adding that "the Mazda's in great form."

But I wonder how crucial that direction and those values have been to his on-field success. Maybe that's what the scouts were really missing while they focused on Morris' mediocre 40 time or his lack of NCAA street cred. 

"He was under the radar," says Ronald. "Everybody was saying he was going to be a practice squad type back at most. But we knew best."

All quotes were obtained first-hand, unless otherwise noted.


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