Among the sea of Porsches and jacked-up trucks and Land Rovers in the player’s lot at Redskins Park is a humble, oh-so-ordinary 1991 Mazda 626.
That’s Alfred Morris’ ride. No chrome wheels. No bumping bass. No deeply tinted windows. No custom work. Walk past and the car is difficult to miss among its highbrow neighbors because of its jaw-dropping normalcy.
If nothing else, the car is dependable.
That’s much like Morris. There’s little flashy about the former sixth-round pick, on or off the field. Results are what matters, yard after record-breaking yard.
Morris, of course, rolled up a franchise-best 1,613 yards on the ground in his rookie season. The temptation is to imagine what Mike Shanahan’s most recent late-round discovery can do for an encore.
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But the limited shelf life of top-flight running backs, even unexpected ones such as Morris, was worth remembering as minicamp wrapped up Wednesday afternoon. This job wears out bodies. At 24 years old, Morris is rapidly approaching middle age for an NFL running back. Yes, middle age at a position where players are discarded from the league by 28 or 29.
“The average life of a running back is, what, two or three years?” Morris said. “There’s no longevity in that. We have a pretty physical position. Every down you’re running, pass-blocking — even faking, sometimes you’re taking hits.”
Take the six other running backs to top 1,000 yards under Shanahan. Terrell Davis was out of the league at 29. Olandis Gary done at 28. Reuben Droughns at 30. Clinton Portis at 29. Mike Anderson, who didn’t enter the league until 27 because he served in the Marines, survived until 34.
Even those numbers can be misleading. A running back’s decline after a carry-heavy season, like the 392 runs by Davis in 1998, can be as gentle as stepping off a cliff.
Last season, Morris took 335 handoffs. That’s fourth-most among Mike Shanahan-coached running backs. The only player with more? Davis, who carried the football 1,106 times in three seasons with the Broncos before his right knee — and career — disintegrated.
That level of use and the ensuing consequences is instructive when examining Morris’ role, one that’s been lost amid understandable consternation over Robert Griffin III’s return to health and what that means for the offense. Sure, Morris is durable. No one’s suggesting otherwise. But the pounding, 300-plus carry seasons extract a toll. That’s why the additions of rookie running backs Chris Thompson and Jawan Jamison and the return to health of Roy Helu Jr. to compete with Evan Royster are critical when training camp starts next month in Richmond.
There wasn’t a dependable non-Morris option to hand the ball off to 15 or 20 times in a game last season. So, he carried the load. That’s a familiar position after running 725 times during his final three seasons at Florida Atlantic. He’s always been the workhorse, always been the Mazda. But the bargain of a running back’s life, in which most valuable players can turn become unemployable in the space of two seasons, is one he understands.
“Less wear and tear will help you last,” he said. “I won’t worry about getting hurt. Who knows how long your experience in the NFL is going to last. When it’s over, it’s over. I’m not going to sit there with that in the back of my head. Each play could be my last. You never know.”
The ability to survive hit after hit comes from more than his powerful legs or gift to make would-be tacklers miss.
“This game is probably 90 percent mental. The physical part is easy,” Morris said. “Everyone is fast and smart on this level, so you’ve got to find ways to beat your opponent. I have 11 guys trying to take my head off, but, in a sense, it’s still one on one. You find ways to beat him and outsmart him.”
Morris hopes that intelligence helps his body avoid the mortality that has dragged down other running backs with all the subtlety of a horse-collar tackle.
After minicamp ended Wednesday, Morris stayed late to run in the hot, gusting wind. The extra work left him gasping for breath. That didn’t stop his smile that’s as relentless as his churning legs as he posed for pictures with fan after fan. He laughed. Shook hands. Signed a football held by a white-haired woman. All that’s ordinary for him.
“At the end of the day, I’m still Alfred,” he said, “and nothing can change that.”
• Nathan Fenno can be reached at email@example.com.
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