An In-Depth Look at a Running Game: Have the Redskins done enough to Fix the Ground Attack?

ASHBURN, VA - JULY 29: Running back Larry Johnson  of the Washington Redskins carries the ball during drills on the first day of training camp July 29, 2010 in Ashburn, Virginia. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Piggybacking off the research done in our previous Mike Shanahan post, the success or failure of the 2010 Redskins offense will have a lot to do with the quality of it’s running game.

Clearly, the NFL has become a pass first league, and the teams that win are the ones that can throw the football, but the Mike Shanahan scheme more or less requires that running is a highly productive use of 40% of his offense, and not just something to do when he’s thinking of ways to attack the secondary.  This is a critical distinction.  One of the primary tennants of modern spread offense, both in college and professional football, is that running to set up the pass is an antiquiated idea.  The Shanahan/Kubiak/Shanahan branch of the west coast tree isn’t spread averse, but it’s clearly on the opposite end of the tree from where those concepts are flourishing.  Traditional west coast schemes use a fullback, but neither spread-leaning offenses, nor zone-leaning offenses emphasize the fullback position anymore.  While both of these offensive variations promote shotgun and singleback usage, they have different uses for their running game.

This year, the Redskins will be a run-first team, after spending most of last year as a pass-first team.  This does not mean they will run more than they pass — no team should be doing that.  What it does mean is that their success in the passing game will be very dependant on their sucess in the running game.  When you look at the receivers on this roster: Santana Moss, Malcolm Kelly, Devin Thomas, Joey Galloway, etc., this is not a team that’s designed to convert on third and long the way the Green Bay Packers or last years Philadephia Eagles were.  The number one goal on first and second down will be to stay out of third and long.  Mike Shanahan (and Kyle) like to have the flexibility to throw the football on first down, and that requires a very efficient running game, one that can turn 2nd & 10 into 3rd & 5, making Donovan McNabb’s existance tolerable.

We’ve expressed concern about the ability of the running backs on this roster to be part of a running game that’s this good, and as of right now, the interior offensive line is going to be Derrick Dockery, Casey Rabach, and Artis Hicks.  That’s not very good, and far from a group that should be expected to help Clinton Portis and Larry Johnson to 5 yard per carry averages while running between the tackles.  Superficially, this is a poorly planned offense that will thwart the Redskins plan to compete this year.

But you don’t go to Hog Heaven for superficial analysis, I’m aware.  We can start by compiling the DVOA ratings and ranks of the Redskins rushing attack since Steve Spurrier was canned resigned after the 2003 season, and Joe Gibbs traded for Clinton Portis to be his franchise running back.

  • 2004: -12.0%, 29th in NFL, 14th in NFC, 4th in East
  • 2005: 5.1%, 9th in NFL, 4th in NFC, 2nd in East
  • 2006: 7.1% (thank you, Ladell), 9th in NFL, 5th in NFC, 4th (!!) in East
  • 2007: -6.0%, 22nd in NFL, 9th in NFC, 4th in East
  • 2008: 12.3%, 6th in NFL, 3rd in NFC, 2nd in East
  • 2009: -7.3%, 28th in NFL, 14th in NFC, 4th in East

Over the same time period, Shanahan’s rushing attacks have ranked as follows:

  • 2004: 5.5%, 13th in NFL
  • 2005: 26.3%, 1st in NFL
  • 2006: -2.1%, 19th in NFL
  • 2007: 1.8%, 15th in NFL
  • 2008: 23.9%, 1st in NFL

Ed. note: Kyle Shanahan’s Houston teams have ranked 16th in the NFL in 2008 (4.7%), and 31st in 2009 (-11.2%).

For a team that had the reputation of being able to plug in anybody at running back and run all over opponents, the Broncos haven’t often struck a great offensive running balance since dealing Clinton Portis to the Broncos. Portis has had more success with the Redskins than pretty much any back — with the exception of Mike Anderson in 2005 — has had with the Broncos.  The 2008 Broncos best typified the Mike Shanahan era: that line was so good that even though the Broncos. didn’t have any back who carried the ball 100 times that season, everyone who carried at least 40 times did excellent in their limited time.  Even Tatum Bell had significant value running behind those five guys, perhaps the rarest of feats.

The 2008 team, however, was the culmination of many years of rebuilding and talent development, and isn’t in any way indicitive of where the Redskins are compared to the Broncos.  The 2005 rushing attack that powered the trip that the Broncos made to the AFC Championship game, and assisted Jake Plummer in heading to the pro-bowl for the only time in his career is of far more use to me.  The lead back in that stable was Anderson, who was 32 years old, hadn’t rushed for 1,000 yards since 2000, and spent the prior 3 seasons as a fullback and then out for the year with an injury.  In other words, Anderson’s career should have, by all means, met it’s conclusion, but he was one of the 7 or 8 most valuable RBs in football that year.  The number two back on that team was just as valuable on a per run basis (albeit with 1/5th the carries).  That’s Ron Dayne, people.  That teams’ offensive line included Matt Lepsis, Ben Hamilton, Tom Nalen, Cooper Carlisle, and George Foster.  That’s not a bad group, but the 2008 OL was much better.

Was there a hidden secret to the Shanahan rushing attack in 2005 and 2008 that evaded his genius in those other seasons?  Best I can tell, the difference in the running games had little to do with Mike Shanahan at all.  The zone rushing attack appears to be simple: find the best running backs, and play them behind the healthiest offensive line you can find.  In 2005 and 2008, the Broncos featured absolutely zero injuries on the offensive line.  In 2006, they were decimated at the offensive tackles, losing Matt Lepsis for most of the season and George Foster for three games.  In 2007, they lost Center Tom Nalen (who didn’t return the next year), which shook up most of the offensive line.  Prior to 2005, guard Dan Neil was injured and missed parts of the 2003 and 2004 seasons before the team moved on with Cooper Carlisle in 2005.

Clinton Portis was fantastic in the 2003 season running behind a line very much in flux.  When you look at what Portis did in the Shanahan system for two years, you realize that not only was he a great player for the system, but he put up elite numbers in far less than ideal conditions.  That was not a good offensive line for the Broncos: Portis was just better than it.  Portis is responsible for bridging a gap between the post-Super Bowl Broncos zone blocking scheme, and the mid-decade line that once again made stars out of everyday joes at the running back position.  It should come as little surprise that Portis’ success with the Redskins wasn’t out of line with those replacing him with the Broncos, as he was the best back either team had in the timeframe.

What needs to be said is that Clinton Portis is not the same runner he was in 2003.  He’s not even the same runner he is in 2006.  But I do believe that he, not Larry Johnson, is the ideal runner to help bridge the gap between the decimated offensive line of the past, and the healthier, younger offensive line of the future.  It’s hard to say that about a guy who lacks any meaningful explosion in his legs, and lost the desire to run through an arm tackle or finish a run four years ago, but Portis’ vision will be an asset.  Regardless of what happens on Portis’ 200-280 carries this year, whether or not the Redskins have a merely passable running game, or a dominant ground force that sets up the pass depends on Larry Johnson, and to a lesser exent, Willie Parker/Ryan Torain/Keiland Williams.  We’ve seen the Broncos have, at times, lacked any sort of contribution from their second back.  At the same time, we’ve seen them get great 60 carry seasons from Ron ‘freakin Dayne (that one was probably line-assisted).  Here are the best DYAR seasons by a non-feature back from 2002-2008 (but excluding the ‘perfect health’ OL seasons of 05, 08):

  1. Selvin Young, 2007 (92) [ROOKIE]
  2. Mike Bell, 2006 (77) [ROOKIE]
  3. Mike Anderson, 2002 (63)
  4. Travis Henry, 2007 (40)
  5. Garrison Hearst, 2004 (33)
  6. Mike Anderson, 2003 (-40)
  7. Quentin Griffin, 2004 (-50)
  8. Quentin Griffin, 2003 (-54) [ROOKIE]

Interestingly, if you include Kyle Shanahan’s non-feature backs, Ahman Green’s 2008 comes in a close third to Bell’s 2006.  Ryan Moats could be 4th on this list in either year under Kyle Shanahan.  Adrian Foster’s 2009 tied for second.  If anything, Kyle’s RB depth has been better than Mike’s in similar conditions.

The prospectus then is this: Portis will probably play the role of a feature back, meaning 200+ carries.  He should establish the running game as a bit above average.  If young players such as Torain and Williams seize the moment and end up playing the role of back number two, the Redskins have a high probability chance of producing a rushing attack in the top seven or eight, and supporting a passing game in the top ten that could reach levels of yardage not seen in recent Redskins history.  If Johnson and Parker share the number two role instead, we’ll probably see a running game a lot like those ranked between 12th and 17th in the NFL — an upgrade from last year, but not at the level of 2008 or 2006.

Unless, of course, the Skins are blessed with rare perfect health on the offensive line.  In that case, as the Shanahan decree has shown, it may not matter who runs the ball — such forture would lead us to offensive riches.

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