While every incremental update on Robert Griffin III's comeback from off-season ACL and LCL surgery has mesmerized greater Washington (and the planet, really), the Redskins' other irreplaceable offensive cog, running back Alfred Morris, went quietly back to work this summer, honing a game that has already exceeded all expectations.
Washington understandably fell under the thrall of RG3 mania last season, but Morris was a bigger revelation than the eventual NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Having traded a boatload to the Rams for the right to draft Griffin No. 2, the weight of a franchise was placed on the former Heisman winner's shoulders. Morris, by contrast, was a third-day pick (No. 173) from a no-name school, Florida Atlantic. Who knew?
All he did then was gain more rushing yards (1,613) than anyone not named Adrian Peterson, break Clinton Portis's 2005 single-season Redskins rushing record and finish with 13 rushing TDs, trailing only the Texans' Arian Foster. In between, he had seven 100-yard games—the signature performance being a 33-carry, 200-yard, three-touchdown effort in a Week 17 showdown win over the Cowboys with the NFC East up for grabs.
Despite having the third-best rookie rushing season in NFL history, Morris remains singularly unimpressed with himself: He refuses to acknowledge that he's the team's lead back (he is); he dismisses all talk of having arrived as an NFL rusher (he has); and he still tools around in the trusty 1991 Mazda 626 that he's owned since his college days (he does, really).
"No position is secure," says Morris. "Any day, you can come in and be replaced. My mind-set is, Once you start thinking like you're the starter then you're in a comfort zone. And once you're in a comfort zone, you can't get better. And if you're not getting better, you're getting worse. There's no in-between."
There is, in fact, room for improvement. Morris caught just 11 passes for 77 yards in 2012, and he made it a goal to give the Redskins a reason to keep him on the field on third downs, a task that fell to Roy Helu and then Evan Royster last year. The sight of Morris catching extra passes after practices in August became routine.
There, however, remain plenty of touches to be had on first and second down. If the Redskins choose—as expected—to throttle back RG3's offensive load early in the season as he shakes off the rust, a guy who carried 351 times last year, including the playoffs, is a good bet to pick up the slack.
"If they want to ride these shoulders, ride them—I'm fine with that," says Morris, who spearheaded a rushing attack that led the NFL with 169.3 yards per game last season. "I can take the workload. Carries are nothing to me. Five or 40.... The first carry is the same as the last carry."
Coach Mike Shanahan has likely heard that before. He has a well-known track record of unearthing 1,000-yard backs, only to cycle through them faster than Tom Brady does hairstyles: Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Portis, Reuben Droughns and Tatum Bell, all of them 1,000-yard rushers under Shanahan. Of those guys, only Davis did it more than twice.
Morris's gift, the skill that prompts Shanahan's insistence that he will go down as one of the game's great runners? He gives nearly every play a chance of succeeding. His 5' 10", 218-pound frame is powerful, but he's also elusive enough to avoid contact and leave defenders grasping at air. According to a Redskins film study, Morris was brought down by the first tackler only three times last season.
"He's one of the few runners where the first guy never tackles him," says Shanahan. "When people do hit him, he bounces off. That's a very unusual trait."
And if anything, he's even more important to Washington's playoff hopes this season than last. Griffin isn't the only Redskin with a big second act in store.
"He came out of nowhere, but he's just going to get better this year," says fullback Darrel Young. "He doesn't have to say it, but I know it. And the Redskins know it. I think Shanahan has found his back."
THE CASE FOR...
Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo
It's a given that the Redskins' season will hinge largely on whether RG3 remains in dual-threat form after off-season surgery on his right knee—but his isn't the only crucial comeback in Washington. Orakpo, who missed all but two games last season due to a torn left pectoral muscle, must resume terrorizing QBs and restore the pass rush. After Orakpo went down in Week 2 last season, most of Washington's pass pressure disappeared with him. The Skins had just 32 sacks, 23rd in the league, after bagging 41 in '11. In turn, too much of a burden was put on the secondary, which wound up ranked No. 30 in passing yards allowed (281.9 per game). Coach Mike Shanahan says Orakpo attacked the team's off-season program like a man possessed, and coordinator Jim Haslett cited improved finishing technique in predicting a sack total in the teens. Orakpo is eyeballing Comeback Player of the Year honors—but he'd happily share that with Griffin. If Washington's twin comebacks go that smoothly, the Redskins' season should be a four-month joy ride.
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
DAVID BERGMAN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
RB ALFRED MORRIS