Now many Redskins fans were surprised this offseason when it came out that Tim Hightower was expected to regain his starting role. After all Helu averaged 0.4 more yards per carry last year, and had three 100 yard games, to Hightower's zero. Helu also proved to be an effective receiver out of the backfield, and a better pass protector than originally expected. So why is Helu more likely to come off the bench? Well only Mike Shanahan knows for sure, but a look at some numbers could give us an idea of what he's thinking.
Starter vs Back-up: One would think that Helu would have put up better numbers as a starter, opposed to being a back-up, but it's not as cut and dry as expected. Obviously Helu gained more total yards as a starter (428 to 212 rushing), but he also had more attempts. Helu actually averaged 4.7 yards per attempt as a substitute compared to 4.0 as a starter. His receiving numbers were also better as a back-up as he gained 8.2 yards compared to 7.4.
Running Ahead: An area where Helu struggled for the Skins was when the Skins had the lead. In his 40 carries with the Redskins ahead on the score board (or 26% of his attempts), Helu gained just 116 yards (or 17% of his total yards). That is an average of just 2.8 yards per carry, which pales in comparison to his 4.1 ypc when tied or 5.4 ypc when trailing. In fact Helu gained almost as many yards (98 to 116) on his 10 carries when the Redskins trailed by between 9-16 points.
Running Late: Another area where you begin to see a drop off with Helu is when he's asked to carry the ball more. In his rushing attempts 1-10 in games, Helu did the most damage. On 95 carries, Helu gained 414 yards (65% of his total rushing yardage), for a 4.4 ypc. In carries 11-20, Helu was able to maintain a 4.3 ypc, but when asked to carry the ball more than 21 times Helu's ypc went down to 3.3.
Conclusion: Now these three statistical areas don't fully "prove" anything, as in the grand scheme of things they constitute a very small sample size. But by breaking down Helu's rookie year into these smaller subsets, we begin to see why Mike Shanahan is looking at Helu as more of a part time player. The inability to run effectively with a lead or late in games (in terms of carries, he actually put up good 4th quarter numbers), shows why Helu might not be a featured back. Why we see better numbers by Helu as a substitute and when playing from behind, is a good indication of some favorable match-ups. Helu was able to rack-up some yards versus 6 and 7 man fronts, and may not have the same success if asked to carry the ball throughout the game. Though it would be nice for the Redskins to have a true feature back, getting the most out of your players and putting them in the best situation to succeed is the smart play for now.