Three seasons ago, Shaun Alexander had it all. He was the best player on a team that went to the Super Bowl. He tied an NFL record for rushing touchdowns in a season. He was voted league MVP.
Today, he’s just happy to have a spot on an NFL roster again. The Seattle Seahawks cut Alexander in April after eight seasons of service, and the Washington Redskins signed the running back Tuesday.
“It’s not going to be hard,” Alexander said of the transition he’ll make from franchise star to sidekick of Clinton Portis, who leads the NFL in rushing. “I told Clinton I want him to rush for 2,000 yards. And I want our team to go to the Super Bowl and win it. I’ve been there and not won it. It’s really simple for me. You get stats, fame and fortune, but if you don’t end up with the ring you’re never satisfied.”
Alexander, 31, tried out with the Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints, but Wednesday was the first time he has worn full pads since last year. Redskins coach Jim Zorn is satisfied with Alexander’s conditioning and expects Alexander to be available Sunday against the Cleveland Browns and until Ladell Betts returns from a knee injury.
“He already knows our passing game, our protection scheme, even our audible system,” said Zorn, who served as a Seahawks assistant for the past seven seasons alongside Redskins running backs coach Stump Mitchell. “He’s going to be able to step right in and play. It’s taken a setback like getting cut, not getting signed by a team to maybe shake his life up a little bit so that he’s ready when the next opportunity comes - and here it is.”
Alexander got his first real chance back in 2001 when the Seahawks’ starter, Ricky Watters, got hurt. Alexander took advantage of the opportunity, rushing for an average of 1,543 yards and 17 touchdowns a season and 4.8 yards a carry over the next five years. He capped that superb run in 2005 with career highs of 27 touchdowns, 1,880 yards and 5.1 yards a carry, a performance that propelled the Seahawks to the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
The Seahawks rewarded Alexander with an eight-year, $62 million contract in March 2006, but he never seemed to recover from a broken foot he suffered that year in the season opener. Alexander averaged just 806 yards, 3.5 a carry and 5.5 touchdowns over the next two seasons and missed nine games behind a reworked line.
“No one keeps up those numbers at that pace,” Alexander said of his MVP stats. “I sat out two months in ‘06 and still got somewhere around 800 yards. That’s not a bad year.
“I finally got to heal all the way up … and get in great shape. I’m definitely stronger than I’ve ever been. This is the best I’ve felt in two years. I always knew I was going to play. I just had to wait my time.”
Portis says he can’t believe that Alexander has nothing left.
“They gave him [$62] million,” Portis said. “Two years later, you’re telling me this man can’t play football anymore?”
Offensive tackle Chris Samuels, who played with Alexander at Alabama, said his buddy can still take it the distance anytime he gets in the open field. There was disagreement, however, among the defenders who held him to 46 yards on 15 carries in January’s playoff game as to whether he is still dangerous or an injury-hampered shell of his old self.
As for Zorn, the coach liked what he saw of Alexander on Wednesday, though as a Seahawks assistant he always wanted the star to be more aggressive.
“He’s a tremendous back,” Zorn said. “He has uncanny acceleration. He can glance off of guys. He’s a bigger load than a lot of people think. His cuts are immediate, and they have the same kind of speed. You could see that out there [Wednesday]. … [But] if it wasn’t there [in Seattle], he wasn’t going to push it. That’s a little bit different style than Ladell and Clinton. If it’s not there, we need him to slam it up in there and get what he can.”
Knowing Zorn, Mitchell and their scheme, as well as running behind Samuels and a solid line, Alexander is more likely to get what he can in Washington than anywhere else.