Not so long ago, the second most visible athlete in Washington, right behind the Redskins’ starting quarterback, usually was Redskins’ lead running back. You know the names — Larry Brown, John Riggins, Terry Allen, Earnest Byner, Stephen Davis, Clinton Portis. They’d fearlessly throw themselves at the defense 20 times a week, risking life and knees in the process, and be worshiped for it.
But that’s changed in recent years, as you’ve no doubt noticed. Since Portis and his multiple personalities left the stage, the Redskins have gone to a running-back-by-committee approach. In the past three seasons, no Washington running back has rushed for even 750 yards. The last time that happened was 1966-68, the days of A.D. Whitfield and Gerry Allen, and those guys had a (partial) excuse: They played two fewer games.
There are a number of explanations for this. One is that the Redskins haven’t had an all-around back the past few years with the ability — and that includes durability — to play every down, regardless of the situation. Another is that pro football has become such a passing game that the running back position isn’t as prominent (or as glamorous) as it used to be. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the … empty backfield.
Let me throw some facts and figures at you:
* It’s been 17 years since a running back was taken first in the NFL draft (Ki-Jana Carter, Cincinnati, 1995). Eleven quarterbacks have gone No. 1 in that stretch.
* No running back has rushed for more than 77 yards in the past five Super Bowls (Joseph Addai, Indianapolis, SB XLIV).
* Last season, eight NFL running backs had 300 touches (rushing attempts plus receptions). A decade earlier, 13 did. What’s more, nine of the 13 had 350 touches. Only two backs reached that level last year.
What does it all mean? Well, it means that teams are throwing it more and running it less. That’s pretty obvious. But it also means they’re dividing the touches among multiple backs rather than leaning so heavily on one. And it’s easier to do this now, of course, because rosters have been increased to 53 players and clubs are able to carry more specialists (e.g. backs who might be able to do one thing well but aren’t the complete package).
As Tim Hightower put it Monday, teams might rotate backs “because of formations. Some running backs may be better at certain things. They may be better at blitz pick-up. They may be better in between the tackles. They may fit certain schemes better. So that could be a part of it. All I know is, this coaching staff is going to put the best guy on the field [on any given down], whether that’s three guys, whether that’s one guy, whether that’s four guys. They’re gonna play the best guy, and they’re not going to be partial to one guy.”
Hightower, coming off knee surgery, is one-third of the Redskins’ running back triumvirate. The others are second-year men Roy Helu and Evan Royster. Each has his strengths, but none has shown that, game in and game out, he can be The Guy. Collectively, though, they’re perfectly acceptable, provided they can stay healthy. Indeed, you’d have a swell back if you could combine Hightower’s blocking talent with Helu’s pass-catching skill and Royster’s elusiveness.
Besides, there are advantages to doing it this way. For starters, it’s salary-cap friendly. A franchise-type back such as Baltimore’s Ray Rice would be much more expensive than the Redskins’ three part-timers. Rotating backs also keeps them fresher and might make them less susceptible to injury. A heavy workload isn’t necessarily conducive to a long career. Just ask James Wilder (a record 492 touches in 1984), Terrell Davis (who Mike Shanahan probably overused in Denver) and Jamal Anderson.
Another thing to consider is that the Redskins figure to get some rushing yards out of their quarterback this season. Robert Griffin III may not put up Michael Vick-type numbers, but he’s certainly capable of gaining 500 or 600 yards, which would almost double the club record for a QB (Joe Theismann, 314, 1984).
So when you’re talking about the Redskins’ running back-by-committee, you actually might be talking about a quartet of backs rather than a trio. Hightower, Helu, Royster and Griffin: the new Four Horsemen.
This could make it crowded at times. Every running back, after all, wants to play every snap. “You want to be on the field [on] first and 10,” Hightower said. “You want to be on the field [for the] first play of the game. You want to be on the field [for the] last play of the fourth quarter. That’s why you train in the offseason. But you’ve also gotta be smart and know there are certain times where you don’t give your team the best opportunity to win in that situation. Somebody else might be a better route runner or whatever it is. I’m learning, I guess, that fine line and that balance.”