Alfred Morris set a high bar as a Redskins rookie, hopes to clear it in his second season

Alfred Morris finished Thursday’s practice with a harsh evaluation. The Washington Redskins don’t wear pads at organized team activities and tackling is not permitted, but that didn’t diminish the opportunity he and his teammates had in the scorching heat.

“Made some mistakes,” the second-year running back said. “But if you don’t make mistakes, how can you learn?”

Morris is out there perfecting the nuances that escaped him during his historic rookie year, and that means he’s getting better.

“My tracks weren’t always good,” he said of last season. “I sometimes missed cuts, not being as patient. In that sense, I left a lot of yards on the field.”

Left yards on the field? Heck, he gained 1,613, the third-most ever for a rookie. How many more could he have expected?

That’s Morris‘ mindset, though, and it’s particularly important given quarterback Robert Griffin III’s recovery from right knee ligament surgery.

Morris benefited last season from how opposing defenses slowed to defend against the threat Griffin posed as a runner. If the Redskins, in an attempt to preserve Griffin’s health, reduce their use of the zone-read option to the extent defenses stop respecting it, Morris would face more eight-man fronts keyed on stopping him.

Coach Mike Shanahan has continued to preach the value of the zone read as it relates to slowing defenses, so it seems unlikely the Redskins would take it out of their arsenal. If it came to such a drastic measure, though, Shanahan is convinced Morris is capable of replicating his rookie production.

“He’s got a unique talent,” Shanahan said. “He can make people miss. Very few people can make people miss consistently, at least the first person, before he gets tackled. He’s got the type of power and leg drive that you look for in a running back, and, knock on wood, he’s been able to stay healthy with those types of shots. I think it’s the low center of gravity, it’s how he runs, and hopefully he can keep on doing that.”

Washington’s 17-point win at Cleveland in December is the truest measure of Morris‘ ability to excel without Griffin in the backfield. An injured Griffin watched from the sideline as Morris gained 87 rugged yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. His 3.2-yard average was his second-lowest of the season.

He had only 18 yards on nine carries in the first half, as Redskins coaches repeatedly fed him the ball against a wall of Cleveland defenders. Eventually, though, that commitment to the run set up the play-action pass for quarterback Kirk Cousins. That formula served as the foundation of the offense Shanahan ran before Griffin arrived.

“When you put an offense together, if it’s for Alfred or whoever your tailback is, there’s a lot of things you could do that complement your running game — quarterback keeps, play-action passes; could be the zone read,” Shanahan said. “Alfred is going to gain yards no matter what type of offense we run.”

Griffin shares that expectation because of how hard Morris runs and how he gains yards after contact. Griffin bristled at the suggestion his ability to run contributed to Morris‘ production.

“I think that’s real selfish of anyone to say,” Griffin said. “You can say the offensive line, you can say me, you can say the receivers blocking, but that doesn’t take away from the player that he is because it doesn’t matter how big the hole is, there are still guys out there trying to hit him, and he’s bouncing off them.”

Morris was much more willing to give Griffin some credit, saying, “It was a perfect marriage, man.”

Regardless of Griffin’s health, though, or how the Redskins deploy their franchise quarterback, Morris understands he won’t surprise opponents this season.

He’s not the 173rd pick anymore. He’s the powerful back who finished second in the NFL in rushing yards.

“I love a challenge,” he said. “I’m looking forward to raise that bar even higher this year.”

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