The Redskins Running Game: A Perfect Storm of Incompetence

By | September 16, 2016
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You’ll have to forgive me if, after the first full weekend of football (with College and the NFL back in full effect), I come off a little testy in this column.

Why the anger? Here’s a quick recap of my weekend of football, in chronological order:

1) my Virginia Tech Hokies showed up for the first quarter of the Battle at Bristol… and then went MIA for the next three, losing 45-24 to the University of Tennessee.

2) my fantasy football team got smoked like a Texas brisket, after playing an opponent who had Aaron Rodgers, AJ Green, Brandin Cooks, Doug Baldwin, and Ameer Abdullah on his team.

3) the Redskins totally no-showed, YET AGAIN, against Pittsburgh this past Monday evening, getting embarrassed by the Steelers in front of the whole country.

4) I started off the season going sub-.500 in my first week of NFL Lines and Picks.

Welcome back, football. How i’ve missed you.

We’ll save further discussions for #1, #2, and #4 for another day. For now, let me spend the next thousand words or so, getting some things off my chest about #3.

I’ve been actively rooting for the Redskins since January of 1988. The second game I ever watched, after my parents officially indoctrinated me into being a Redskins fan, was Super Bowl XXII. That was the game in which Timmy Smith ran the football 22 times for 204 yards and two touchdowns. To this day, that 204-yard rushing effort in a Super Bowl is still an NFL record.

For almost three decades, I’ve watched this team trot out a multitude of quarterbacks who had the luxury of handing the football to some of the best running backs in the NFL. Just look at this team’s history at running back. I was barely a toddler when Joe Gibbs called his trademark play — I-Right, 70 Chip — and John Riggins shrugged off Don McNeal, en route to a 43 yard touchdown run that helped the Redskins win Super Bowl XVII. But, I vividly remember guys like Earnest Byner, Terry Allen, Stephen Davis, Clinton Portis, and Alfred Morris. Like clockwork, you could count on thousand yard rushing seasons and at least seven or eight rushing touchdowns per year from each of those guys.

Between January of 1988 and the beginning of the 2015 season, I — and my fellow Redskins fans — had only seen this team roll out only three truly miserable rushing attacks:

  • 1994: Norv Turner’s first season, when Reggie Brooks suffered the mother of all sophomore slumps, and Ricky Ervins led the team with 650 rushing yards.
  • 2003: Steve Spurrier’s lame duck season, when he jettisoned the Stephen Davis, and tried to feature the immortal Trung Canidate (who led the team with 600 rushing yards).
  • 2011: Mike Shanahan’s second year on the job, when he believed, in his infinite hubris, that he could win football games with a rushing attack featuring Ryan Torain, Tim Hightower, Evan Royster, and Roy Helu (the latter led the team with 640 rushing yards).

With all of that in mind, consider the following fact: in 2015, not only did the Redskins have the worst rushing attack in the entire NFL, but they also had the worst rushing attack of ANY Redskins team we’ve ever witnessed over those three-ish decades.

At the conclusion of the 2015 season, the Redskins were ranked 32nd — dead last — in rushing Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) rankings. It was the worst-ever DVOA ever recorded for a Redskins team (since they started keeping the stat in 1989). Since the year 2000, it’s the 6th worst rushing DVOA ever recorded by Football Outsiders.

Just over four seasons ago, the Redskins had a running back (Morris) who finished second in the NFL in rushing, with over 1,600 rushing yards, trailing only behind some guy named Adrian Peterson. In just a handful of seasons, how did things come to this?

The thing is: the Redskins current inability to run the football isn’t the result of one or two things that went wrong, and can be fixed with a couple of tweaks. It’s a byproduct of a total organizational failure in putting (or keeping) together the pieces needed to execute the most basic of football concepts.

You’d think an offensive-minded head coach like Jay Gruden would have some measure of success in devising some way to improve the running game, but that’s clearly not the case. You’d think that Sean McVay, the wunderkind offensive coordinator who “grew up” coaching under Gruden and the Shanahan’s, would have some measure of success in setting up a successful rushing attack; but, that’s clearly not the case. Hell, they even brought in offensive line shaman Bill Callahan and installed him as the run game coordinator, and they still stink repugnantly at running the football.

Callahan’s offensive line is well-regarded around the league, but you could debate as to whether they’re deserved of such regards. After their loss on Monday night, Redskins beat reporters commented how the offensive line seemed out of sync on a number of plays, playing tentatively, missing assignments, and making the same mistakes that plagued this team during the preseason. The running game hasn’t been the same since Shaun Lauvao went down with a season-ending injury against the Giants in week three of last year. His replacement, Spencer Long, hasn’t been nearly half as effective as a run blocker. Morgan Moses and Brandon Scherff are both incredibly gifted prospects, but they’re both still raw and haven’t yet put it together. Center Kory Lichtensteiger is the worst of all the 22 starting players on this team’s roster; he gets pushed around more than a shopping cart at Costco.

On top of all of that, the Redskins might have the least fearsome group of running backs in the entire NFL. No team has a less noteworthy group of runners than the Redskins in the NFL. I wouldn’t take the duo of Matt Jones and Chris Thompson over LeGarrette Blount and James White in New England, Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson in Cleveland, or even Frank Gore and Robert Turbin in Indianapolis.

Think i’m being overly critical? Since Jones tantalized us with his 123 yards and two touchdowns rushing in Week Two against the Rams last year, he’s run the ball 126 times for 363 yards — averaging less 2.9 yards per carry — and one touchdown. Football Outsiders ranked Jones 44th among running backs in DVOA and Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR), behind ultra-forgettable backups like Alfred Blue, Ronnie Hillman, and Antonio Andrews; in other words: he was easily ranked as the worst starting running back in the NFL. More than one publication has referred to Jones the second coming of BenJarvus Green-Ellis: an undrafted free agent who finished his six-year NFL career averaging less than four yards per carry (who, coincidentally, Gruden coached in Cincinnati for two years).

Of the six players that Scot McCloughan has drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft in 2015 and 2016, Jones looks to be the biggest miss among that group. At this point, i’m not 100% sure that Jones is the best ‘bread and butter’-type running back we have on this roster. I mean, is it really out of the question to think Robert Kelley — who didn’t receive a single carry in the loss against Pittsburgh — might actually be the more reliable running back?

When you add it all up, you get what perhaps is the main reason the Redskins were blown out last Monday evening: the Steelers knew they had nothing to fear, as far as the Redskins running the football. Both Gruden and Kirk Cousins admitted that the Steelers played the most basic and “vanilla” of defensive schemes you could think of, and yet the Redskins seemed almost helpless against it. Pittsburgh rushed only three or four guys, dropped everyone else in coverage, showing zero respect for the idea that the Redskins would run the football (which makes sense, considering the Redskins ran the ball a grand total of 12 times all evening).

Until this team develops some semblance of a running game, every single opponent on the Redskins schedule is going to replicate what the Steelers did. As good as the weapons are around Cousins, it’s going to be very difficult for him to get them the football when four receivers are bracketed by the seven or eight guys who have dropped in coverage. Teams will undoubtedly see what happened against Pittsburgh: if they drop a bunch of people in coverage and force Cousins to beat them throwing the football, that’s just going to result in him throwing three yard check downs on third down and six, or making ill-advised passes into double-coverage.

The media and fans spent the week ranting about the low hanging fruit of hot takes, like Cousins reverting back to his early 2015 form and Josh Norman not covering Antonio Brown, but nobody is asking the question as to how and why we could or should expect anything from this offense that walks into every game with a 50% handicap. You might be able to get by with no semblance of a running game if Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Drew Brees is your quarterback. But, as we all know: Kirk Cousins isn’t even in the same galaxy as any of those guys.

Of all the issues facing this Redskins team in 2016 and beyond, it’s time we acknowledge that this historically bad rushing attack might be the biggest one of them all. And unfortunately, there’s no foreseeable solution to it.

Week 2 Lines and Picks:

Buffalo at NY Jets (-1) — pick made yesterday.
Dallas at Washington (-2.5)
Tennessee at Detroit (-6)
Kansas City at Houston (-2.5)
Miami at New England (-6.5)
Baltimore (-6.5) at Cleveland
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh (-3.5)
New Orleans at NY Giants (-5)
San Francisco at Carolina (-13.5)
Tampa Bay at Arizona (-7)
Seattle (-6.5) at Los Angeles
Indianapolis at Denver (-6)
Atlanta at Oakland (-4.5)
Jacksonville at San Diego (-3)
Green Bay (-2.5) at Minnesota
Philadelphia at Chicago (-3)

Last Week: 7-9

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