Will the Redskins be shifting for their 2015 running back by committee approach to more of a one-back attack this year?
In 2014, Jay Gruden’s first season as the Redskins’ head coach, he operated what was essentially a one-man show at running back. Alfred Morris had 265 rushing attempts. The other tailbacks, Roy Helu, Chris Thompson and Silas Redd, combined for 59 carries. That comes to a split of 82 percent of the tailback carries for Morris, 18 percent for all of the others.
Last year a committee emerged. Morris still led the team in carries but his attempts dropped to 202. Rookie Matt Jones had 144 rushing attempts, Chris Thompson had 35, and late-season addition Pierre Thomas had 11. That is a split of 52 percent for Morris, 37 percent for Jones, and 12 percent for the other two combined.
Looking back at Gruden’s coaching tenure in Cincinnati, 2014 in Washington resembles 2012 in Cincy in terms of the rushing attack splits. BenJarvus Green-Ellis took 80 percent of the tailback rushing attempts. But the next season the Bengals drafted Giovani Bernard. In 2013, Green-Ellis had 56 percent of the tailback rushing attempts and Bernard had the other 44 percent. That more closely resembles the 2015 Redskins.
To close to loop here, in 2011, Gruden’s first year with the Bengals, Cedric Benson had 70 percent of the tailback carries.
So here is the percentage of tailback carries the leading rusher had in each of the five seasons that Gruden has been in charge of an NFL offense:
If you’re looking for a consistent philosophy here you’re not going to find it. Gruden has adjusted to the talent he had. When he had a strong lead back and limited second and third options, the lead back got most of the work. When viable alternatives were present a committee emerged.
So what will the distribution look like this year with Jones, Thompson, and possibly seventh-round pick Keith Marshall? It could turn out that Jones breaks out as the lead back, getting between 70 and 80 percent of the carries. Thompson is not built to carry any more than a light load and even if Murray makes the roster it’s hard to see a seventh-round pick who had an injury-plagued college career getting more than a few dozen carries as a rookie.
There has been a lot of chatter about the possibility of the team bringing back the veteran Thomas, who joined the team with four games to play last year. How much could he eat in to Jones’ share of the carries? Thomas had just 15 attempts last year; He also played one game for the 49ers before signing with the Redskins. In 2014 he missed five games with injuries and had just 45 rushing attempts. You have to go back to 2013, when he tied a career high with 147 attempts, to find the last time Thomas had a substantial number of carries.
If he does return it seems unlikely that he will have a heavy workload.
So what would that look like for Jones? Let’s say Jones gets 70 percent of the tailback rushing attempts. If they rush the same number of times that they did last year (they’d probably like to run more but we’ll lowball it here) the tailbacks will have 392 carries. With the same 3.4 yards average per carry (this should improve but we’re being conservative) and touchdown rate, that would mean Jones would have 274 attempts for 930 yards and six touchdowns.
That’s not a very impressive rushing total but it would be the best season for any Redskins rusher not named Morris since Clinton Portis ran for nearly 1,500 years in 2008.
It’s also important to note that if he doesn’t improve his ball security he would have nine or 10 fumbles with 274 rushing attempts. That would be unacceptable and leave the Redskins scrambling for alternatives.