A guy has 2,888 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns at a clip of 4.7 yards per carry in two seasons as a pro and we have a collective reaction of: Meh.
Alfred Morris was as much a mildly disappointing fantasy commodity in 2013 as he was a fake football revelation in his 2012 rookie season.
The best part about evaluating Morris as Jay Gruden takes the reigns in Washington is that we don’t have to decide which guy he is. We should instead look to the circumstances that dictated both his stunningly efficient 2012 campaign, and his sophomore season that didn’t come all that close to justifying his early-second round average draft position.
Morris thrived in 2012 as Robert Griffin III posed a nightmarish running threat on read-option plays. He quite naturally struggled as defenses had a much easier time defending a less mobile RGIII in 2013, and the Swiss cheese Washington defense put the team in frequent holes.
Morris wasn’t going to see his regular 20-25 touches with Washington down three scores at the half.
We’ve taken a close look at what Gruden’s time in Washington might mean for the team’s pass catchers, and for Griffin. Now let’s look at Gruden’s history with running backs, and what it all might mean for a back to eclipsed 1,600 yards two short seasons ago.
Morris in Passhappyland?
So much criticism of Gruden over the past three seasons has centered around the coordinator’s apparent refusal to keep the ball out of Andy Dalton’s hands, especially with a lead.
Ample digital ink was spilled in 2013 over Gruden’s insistence on throwing with a lead instead of grinding away on the ground and allowing a stout defense — despite a cavalcade of injuries — do its work.
Gruden, from what I understood, was on a kamikaze mission to throw, throw, and throw some more with Dalton, fantasy’s sixth highest scoring signal caller last year.
Suffice it to say I was surprised to find the following numbers.
|Season||CIN passes per game||CIN runs per game|
|2011||33.9 (19th)||27.9 (12th)|
|2012||33.5 (21st)||26.2 (17th)|
|2013||37.5 (10th)||29.8 (8th)|
What this told me, more than anything, is that Gruden’s offense was never hellbent on an all-out aerial approach. The Bengals, in fact, ran a fairly balanced attack during his three years at the offensive helm.
I’m sure there are specific in-game examples of when Gruden would’ve been better off taking the air out of the pigskin and grinding away with Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard, but the above chart hardly paints a picture of a pass-happy play caller.
Joe Goodberry, an NFL draft analyst for Cincy Jungle, best summarized the most common critique of Gruden when he said the coach ran his offense “as if Dalton had no physical flaws” and the Bengals lacked viable runners.
The above numbers also tell me the Bengals ran a hell of a lot of plays in 2013, as they finished in the top-10 in both rushes and passes per contest. Gruden’s offense ran 65.4 plays per game, almost on par with the Broncos’ per-game offensive snap count.
I don’t think there’s anything here to suggest Morris’ fantasy production will suffer in the grip of an offensive scheme that refuses to run the rock. Quite the opposite, actually.
Apples, oranges, and offensive lines
I’ve read more than a few columns over the past month charging with undiluted certainty that since Gruden comes from a West Coast offensive background — like predecessor Mike Shanahan — Washington’s key offenses pieces will fit nicely in their new coach’s scheme.
This is, of course, incorrect on a few levels, first and foremost being that Gruden’s running schemes have hinged on a power-based approach while Shanahan built Washington’s offensive line to execute the zone blocking scheme that has produced so many dominant fantasy runners over the past couple decades.
I don’t think this means Gruden will throw out any and all zone blocking elements from the Washington playbook — that is, unless he’s willing and able to overhaul the line in a single offseason. Morris — and Roy Helu, to a lesser extent — will certainly have to adjust to Gruden’s tendency toward a pulling power scheme that created a rock solid, if underused, ground attack in Cincinnati.
Morris, over the past two seasons, became adept at using Shanahan’s stretch zone plays to gash opposing defenses. Morris was as good as any Shanahan back in understanding when to cut, and how to use his relatively light, agile blockers.
Morris thrived in a system that hinged on the offensive line moving as one. Gruden’s running game relied on pulling guards.
Mark Bullock, a game film analyst who broke down Gruden’s ground attack for The Washington Post, found staple running plays in the Bengals’ attack that “were never seen in Shanahan’s offense.”
Helu as Gio?
Therein lies a main concern about Morris’ role in Washington’s new offense: will Helu, a more-than-capable pass catcher out of the backfield, eat away at the edges of Morris’ fantasy value?
“[Shanahan] had a bounce play that allowed the right tackle to bounce outside of the tight end, but never did you see three blockers pulled from their original position and used on the edge as lead blockers,” Bullock wrote.
Bullock rightly wondered if Gruden would even use Morris in these pulling bounce plays that became a (successful) trademark of the Bengals’ 2013 ground game. It’s a worthwhile question, and one that might determine Morris’ fantasy value in 2014.
“Gruden reserved these types of runs for his speed back in Cincinnati, Giovani Bernard. I wonder if he’ll allow Morris to run these kinds of plays, or save them for the quicker Roy Helu Jr.,” he wrote.
Here’s a quick look at Gruden’s running back usage in 2013 — the only season in which he had a legit pass-catching runner in Bernard.
|Player||Rush attempts||Rush yards||Receptions||Receiving yards|
This sort of market share doesn’t reflect exactly what’s likely to happen as Gruden brings his scheme to Washington, though it could give us a hint: Gruden is fine with deploying a runner more suited to passing situations if need be. He never tried to shoehorn Green-Ellis into that role.
Goodberry said pre-Bernard pass game option Brian Leonard didn’t allow for the desired versatility of a pass-run option. Helu, Jr., Goodberry said, could fit that mold very nicely.
Helu has a 4.3 career yards per carry (YPC). The highlight of his three-year career was a three-game run in December 2011 that saw him eclipse 100 yards on the ground. Helu, in a November 2011 game against the 49ers, caught an astounding 14 balls for 105 yards.
“Gio allowed Gruden to get more creative because he could actually run the football,” he said. “It wasn’t until Bernard became a good pass protector that he started getting more passes in space. If Helu offers the same dual versatility, he could see a similar role.”
It’ll be important to monitor what Washington coaches say about Morris and Helu in the coming months. Everything from adjusting to a brand new power-based running game to splitting rushing and receiving duties will certainly be the subject of frequent offseason scuttlebutt.
Morris’ re-draft value took enough of a ding in 2013 that he could be worth the investment as fantasy owners reach for elite receivers in the first two rounds. Persistent talk of involving Helu will further suppress Morris’ stock — something you should hope for if you believe Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay.
“I don’t think it will change a lot,” McVay said in an interview with ESPN. “The foundation and base principles will remain the same. He’ll be the same guy.”