In 2008, the Redskins finished as the NFL's eighth-ranked rushing attack. Clinton Portis ended the season with 1,487 rushing yards, good for fourth in the league. Things haven't been the same since.
Last season, the team brought in running back Tim Hightower, who backed up Edgerrin James in Arizona all the way to Super Bowl XLIII. It looked as though Washington finally had moved on from injury-prone Portis, who was limited to 13 games between 2009-10. But just five games into the 2011 campaign, Hightower went down with a torn ACL and missed the rest of the year.
It seems history may be repeating itself.
Going into the 2012 season, Hightower should be healthy by opening day, and the young duo of Roy Helu and Evan Royster will look to pick up where they left off down the stretch last season.
"We're going try to build on what we did last year. We've got the same guys, and we're just going to compete and push each other," Hightower said. "I don't think there needs to be much talk right now. We've got a lot to prove between all three of us, and that's what we're going to do."
Hightower still was limited in his participation with the team's mandatory minicamp practices this week. He participated in most of the position drills but sat out the 11-on-11 segment. Coach Mike Shanahan does not want to take a chance on Hightower so early in the offseason.
"I think he's doing good," said Shanahan. "He's really wanting to practice right now. But he does have 5-6 weeks [of rehab left]. I'm afraid if we push him too hard he might have a setback."
It is important for the Redskins' running game to be effective this season. Over the past three seasons, they haven't ranked higher than 25th. In that same span, the team hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher.
With Robert Griffin III in his rookie campaign, it is vital that the running game helps ease the pressure on him.
Helu and Royster should complement Hightower. Each registered multiple 100-yard games last season, with Helu having three straight in weeks 12-14 and Royster in each of the final two games. In addition, the two finished as the top rushers for the team. Helu led the team with 640 rushing yards, while Royster (328 yards) had a stellar 5.9 yards-per-carry average.
Still, the pattern of injuries with running backs continues. Helu has been limited in practice as well with a groin injury. The timetable for his full return is unknown.
"[I'll be back] anywhere from tomorrow, weeks, days, anything in between," Helu said.
Despite the trend, Shanahan is optimistic that his running game will be at full strength when Washington lines up against the New Orleans Saints in the Louisiana Superdome on Sept. 9 for its season opener.
"Obviously, you're concerned about every position on your team," Shanahan said. "You keep your fingers crossed that players aren't injury-prone, so you hope for the best."
When asked about how effective and competitive his running backs will be, the coach even showed signs of excitement.
"We'll just see what they can do in practice and during the games," he said. "It's a competitive position like all our positions. I'm kinda looking forward to seeing what the guys do in the preseason."
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