The 2011 Washington Redskins: Breaking Down the Future for Running Backs
In an odd way, Mike Shanahan is a perfect fit for the Redskins. Not only does he bring championship pedigree and leadership to the team, he also brings the one thing the team needs a commitment to: the running game.
The three Super Bowl wins for the Washington Redskins have all flowed through the running game. Likewise, Mike Shanahan is renowned for the zone blocking scheme and his ability to plug in any running back into it and get them 1,000 rushing yard. Terrell Davis is the most famous of these running backs, but the Redskins' own Clinton Portis is also a product of this system.
Seeing the running game work as well as it has this season is a pleasing site for a team that fielded great running backs like John Riggins and Larry Brown, and you have to believe that if the Redskins win a Super Bowl again, it'll be because of the running mentality.
The running back situation looks a lot clearer than the quarterback situation at this point in the season, but it's never too early to take a look at the future and what the Redskins may do next year.
Ryan Torain Is Our Feature Back
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Count me among those who were surprised Ryan Torain didn't make the team at the start of the season.
Despite having a great preseason and displaying enormous potential, at the start of the 2010 season,, Ryan Torain was sent to the practice squad. Our starting running back lineup consisted of Redskins fixture Clinton Portis, over the hill Larry Johnson and Keiland Williams, who seemed to be used exclusively in passing situations.
The running game looked bleak.
A number of things lead to Ryan Torain become a starting running back--Larry Johnson was nothing short of a disappointment (he ran BACKWARDS in NFL game for frak's sake). Keiland Williams couldn't seem to find the holes. When Larry Johnson was released by the Redskins, they elevated Ryan Torain to the 52-man roster, and he immediately overtook Williams on the depth chart as the second running back.
He impressed against the Rams, and then really impressed during the game with Eagles, and then continued to impress against the Packers and Colts. Clinton Portis' hamstring injury made Ryan Torain THE running back for the Redskins, and he has done nothing to dissuade people from assuming he'll keep that job in the future.
Provided he stays healthy, Ryan Torain is our back of the future. Mike Shanahan drafted him in 2008 for that purpose and at one point compared him to Terrell Davis. Not saying that Torain will continue that, but I know more than a few teams who are probably kicking themselves that they did pick up the young back when he was on our practice squad.
But of course, you can never forget who bought you to the dance to begin with...
Clinton Portis Is Our Third Down Back
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We all know that Clinton Portis has lost a step. But for all the wackiness Portis has bought over the years, I have no doubt that things would've been much worse without Clinton Portis on our team.
He seemed to start to find his rhythm in the two games versus the Rams and the Eagles, meaning he's still valuable as the second running back. But, should the Redskins plug someone else in that role (and should Clinton Portis stay with the team next season), there's one thing that Portis is absolutely invaluable on--third down plays.
Portis is, without a doubt, the best blocking back in the league. Whether it's him making a play down field to block someone, or him picking up a blitz, he's invaluable to the football team in passing situations, and every once in a while he'll break off a big run to get a first down.
The days of Portis being the feature back may be done, but you won't find a better guy in those situations; you can't train that kind of thing most of the time. There's a reason why the passing game has struggled for the last few weeks, and Portis' blocking ability is a big part of that.
It'd be nice to see Portis retire in the burgundy and gold. Until he can't block the way he can, I'm keeping him where he is.
James Davis Completes The Backfield?
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The Redskins have seen a lot of running backs come on and off their practice squad this season.
News broke on Monday that undrafted rookie running back from Oregon, Jeremiah Johnson ,had been picked up and signed on to the practice squad after running back Chad Simpson (who hasn't seen a snap as anything but a kick returner for the Redskins) injured his hamstring, and Quinn Porter (who had never seen a snap period) was released. Not too long after that, Brooding Burgundy reported that Jeremiah Johnson (who had a great preseason for the Houston Texans) wouldn't even make it to be signed to the practice squad, because former Cleveland Browns running back James Davis would be brought in instead.
Sure enough, Jeremiah Johnson ended up having a shorter stay at the Redskins than did running back Javaris James, who was signed to the practice squad for about a day before getting signed to the Indianapolis Colts.
James Davis made up the "Thunder" portion of Clemson's "Thunder and Lightning" backfield, with rookie first round pick for the Buffalo Bills C.J. Spiller comprising the "Lightning" portion. He displayed good vision and burst and is the kind of "one-cut" back that Shanahan looks for in the ZBS.
He's also somewhat controversial. After starting the first three games of the 2009 season for the Cleveland Browns (and being a preseason sensation of a short), he was put on injured reserved after tearing his labrum during practice. While the story is somewhat foggy, and a league investigation turned up no evidence, it was said that Davis was made to face a linebacker in full pads while not wearing any pads of his own.
From then on, he could never seem to work his way back into the starting lineup for the Browns, for whatever reason, and was ultimately replaced by Peyton Hillis. (Who, ironically enough, was also drafted by Mike Shanahan. Our coach has a good eye for running backs, apparently).
It seems that James Davis still has all the upside in the world and doesn't have many miles on him. With Keiland Williams not providing significant production to relieve Ryan Torain when he gets gassed, Davis could easily make it to the roster this year after some practice.
But a back field consisting of two young backs in Ryan Torain and James Davis and veteran back Clinton Portis would be one hell of a monster for teams to contend with, if James turns out to be as good as he was when Spiller was stealing the spotlight...
Perhaps They Draft John Clay
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For some reason, it seems unlikey that the Redskins will draft a running back next season; perhaps a fullback to replace the aging Mike Sellers, but not a true running back. Like I said, Mike Shanahan seems to have a knack for plucking running backs out of thin air, plugging them into his system and getting to 1,000+ yard years like clockworks. Drafting a running back might not be a priority, especially not with a deep free agency class at running back full of both youth and experience, and being able to pull undrafted guys out nowhere.
Then again, if the situation becomes desperate enough, or if they want a running back who can play in the future, it might not be a bad idea to draft a running back.
John Clay is exactly the kind of running back Mike Shanahan loves; one cut, find the hole, and burst through it. He's displayed great vision and quickness, which, while different than speed, is arguably more important. John Clay has been viewed as a viable contender for the Heisman trophy, and with the way he's been playing it's not hard to imagine why.
The second I sought out more clips for him, I said "yup, he fits". He's not the fastest guy in the world, but neither was Terrell Davis, and we all know how that story ended.
There's Always Evan Royster
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This one's for you, Cari.
At first glance, it'd be easy to dismiss Evan Royster with the season he's having. With a true freshman quarterback and an O-line that's riddled with injuries, Royster wouldn't be in a position to succeed even if opposing defenses weren't stacking the box against him to shut down one of Penn State's most potent offensive weapons. (If not currently their only weapon.)
Still, Royster is still a great running back, despite his up-and-(mostly)down season. He is still close to closing in on Penn State's all-time rushing record held by Curt "Don't Confuse Me With Kurt" Warner. He's also splitting carries with the slightly more successful Silas Reed, which also dilutes his record breaking attempts a bit.
Still, Royster displays the same characteristics that Shanahan seems to love in his running backs--one cut, great vision, find the hole and burst through it. He also has great speed to go along with them.
With such an odd season ahead of him, it's not hard to imagine that Evan Royster could fall late in the draft or even into the second round. Again, the Redskins have bigger fish to fry at the moment--it's more likely they shore up the o-line and defense, or take a quarterback if their desperate. However, if Evan Royster manages to hang around the draft for a while, it wouldn't be surprising to see Shanahan take a chance on him.
Free Agency Is Deep at Running Back Next Year; Tim Hightower
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If the market for free agent quarterbacks looks bleak next year, the market for free agent running backs is completely different, and it isn't likely many of those running backs will be getting an extension.
One potential person to look at is Tim Hightower. Hightower helped the Arizona Cardinals make their way to the Super Bowl in 2008, scoring the winning touchdown in the NFC Championship game that sent them to the win.
He had an up and down season in 2009, mainly due to a nagging thumb injury. He also began to split more carries with Christopher "Beanie" Wells, and some issues with fumbling (again, due to the thumb injury) helped Beanie into the more tradition "starting" back role.
2010 has been a nightmare for the Cardinals, as they've lost surefire Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt "Don't Call Me Curt" Warner. Hightower has been seeing a lot of eight man fronts, and the situation looks even more bleak with Derek Anderson and undrafted rookie quarterback Max Hall. His production has been iffy at best and miserable at worse, as Beanie Wells still seems to get the slight edge in carries over him.
Tim Hightower doesn't completely fit the Shanahan mold, but he is still a damn good running back. He can also block and catch passes out of the back field.
The one thing Donovan McNabb needs is that Brian Westrbrook/LeSean McCoy type of checkdown receiver. With Keiland Williams not finding much production as a runner or a pass catcher, and if Portis were to leave town, Tim Hightower would be a great guy to plug in that role that we know can produce.
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Another good guy trapped on a bad team in a bad situation. And more importantly, it doesn't seem DeAngelo Williams situation will get any better in Carolina.
He is in a situation somewhat similiar to Tim Hightower; inconsistent play at quarterback has teams stacking the box against him. He splits carries with a younger running back in Jonathan Stewart. And Carolina hasn't exactly been the best about retaining talent, deciding to go with youth over experience a number of times, and may again decide to draft a younger running back to replace him.
Still, he just made the Pro Bowl in 2009. He's still got legs. And he brings some power and agility no matter what. Like Hightower, he can catch the ball out of the backfield and block for his quarterback. He displays good vision and cuts well.
I don't know if Carolina will let him go, but there are worse running backs than Williams available. He'd be a pretty good guy for us to pick up if we needed help.
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Like I said before; Mike Shanahan and the Redskins seem like a match made in heaven when it comes to the running game. Shanahan's Super Bowl wins were built on the backs of a solid running game; people who claim Shanahan would've never won a Super Bowl without John Elway are out of the friggin' minds.
Likewise, the Redskins Super Bowl wins were built on the backs of the Hogs and the running game. If the Redskins won another Super Bowl, it would just feel right if it came because we had the best running game in the lead and continued that tradition in the DMV.
With Mike Shanahan at the helm of this team, I have no doubt that will be a focus of the offense. Mike Shanahan could draft me as a running back and I'd probably rush for over 1000 yards. He's just that good. Even if he doesn't pick up anyone on this list, he will always find someone that can give him the kind of production he wants.
The future looks bright for the running game, and I think old and young fans alike couldn't be happier about that.
Also check out my article on 2011's Quarterback Situation for the Washington Redskins.