USA TODAY Sports
Alfred Morris had an outstanding day against the Cowboys last Sunday. If Robert Griffin III is right, the best from him may be yet to come.
Morris's Historic Day
Midway through the third quarter of last Sunday's victory over the Dallas Cowboys, Alfred Morris surpassed Clinton Portis for the single season rushing record in franchise history - an achievement many observers have rightfully applauded. Lost in the achievement, however, is that the game itself - even if the context is ignored - stands apart in the history of the Redskins storied rushing attack.
Of the 10 Running Backs named to the 80 Greatest Redskins of All-time none in their careers ever rushed for more than 191 yards or for more than 3 touchdowns. Of the ten, only Earnest Byner ran for more than 150 yards in game in which he also ran in 3 touchdowns (1990).
As impressive as his numbers were on Sunday, I didn't fully appreciate the scope of Morris' performance until watching NBC’s NFL Turning Point. NFL Films' wide variety of fresh, incisive camera angles helped me appreciate even more the pure talent that Morris has for running past and through defenders. Time after time in the replays, you see Morris cutting into what seems like a wall of traffic, only for defenders to glide past and their limbs to bounce off the thighs and shoulders of the hard charging RB. Not the fifth fastest player on the field at any given time, the kid out of Florida Atlantic seems to find every possible yard there is to gain out on the field - and then goes ahead and slams forward for a few more.
Nothing I saw about Morris on Turning Point, however, struck me as much as what I heard.
After a long Morris' touchdown run put the Redskins up two scores with ten minutes to go, Griffin told Morris to take a bow for the roaring FedEx Field crowd who was still chanting his name (Whether either of the rookies were aware of it or not, the bow paid homage to the great John Riggins, who bowed in front of a raucous RFK crowd towards the end of his 185 yard performance against the Minnesota Vikings in the 1983 playoffs.) Then, extending his hand, Griffin told his fellow rookie the following:
"You're my Terrell Davis, baby,"
Morris, being Morris, shook-up with his captain and nodded a couple times in succession.
The comment speaks volumes to the amount of belief Griffin has in his backfield partner - and says even more about the type of aspirations he imagines for the two going forward.
"Me and you, baby" he said after Morris scored the game-clinching touchdown, his third of the night. "Can't nobody stop us."
Griffin's Apt Comparison
Give or take a month, Robert Griffin III and I are about the same age. We both grew up huge Broncos fans - me, because I'm a homer, RGIII, I don't know, maybe because he likes good football. If either of us were asked, we could rattled off for you somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty to forty Broncos players from those great late nineties teams. And i f you asked either of what made those Broncos teams great - what was the primary impetus for them winning 46 out of 56 games during John Elway's final three years in the NFL - we would both tell you it started and ended with the vision, agility and power of #30, T.D.
Many have made the comparison between Morris and Terrell Davis over the season, but Griffin is unique in that he has the ability and leadership to make the likeness a reality.
The surface similarities between Morris and Davis are straightforward enough. Both are about 5'10 - Morris a half an inch shorter, Davis a half inch taller. Both have a playing weight of about 220 pounds. Both men had mediocre combine numbers, were drafted in the sixth round by Mike Shanahan, and went on to beat out a handful of more established backs during their first training camp to claim the position of starting RB on opening day of their rookie seasons.
A less known similarity between the two is that they both grew up in big families. (Morris grew up with six brothers, while Davis grew up with eight siblings, five of which were older bros.)
One noticeable difference between them is that while both men have humble, laid back, personalities, Morris is quite soft-spoken while Davis was somewhat of a jokester.
In the end zone, the likeness between them is uncanny. After Morris runs in for a score, he imitates a home run swing - (a tribute to a group of little leaguers he met at the team hotel in Ashburn, VA during training camp.) - and then raises his flat palm to his forehead to watch the imaginary baseball fly out of the park - a motion which looks almost identical to the Mile High Salute Terrell Davis popularized during the Broncos playoff runs.
All those things are, if not superficial, at least somewhat coincidental. The heart of any real football comparison between Morris and Davis, is that Morris at his best looks like Terrell Davis at his best, driving his team to victories with outstanding production. Their running styles are actually pretty similar. They are both one cutbacks with great vision and agility - and both run with incredible power. Davis was definitely faster than Morris in the open field, but Morris might be even more powerful at the point of impact than Davis was.
In mind of some media type's I've heard, the biggest takeaway of the You're my T.D. quote was the fact that Griffin was implying that he thinks of himself as a John Elway figure. That's not news. We know Griffin aspires to be ‘the best ever' so its only natural he would compare himself with all-timers like Elway, particularly when he is playing under the same head coach.
In fact - as he watched Morris dominate - Griffin did a pretty good Elway impression Sunday night, leading the Redskins to victory.
On his Monday morning podcast, sports writer Bill Simmons said that Griffin did "a Ponder" against the Cowboys: meaning he played a poor, if relatively mistake free game, that allowed his running back to carry the team to a win. Looking at Griffin's stats, Simmons concluded that it must be the knee bothering him. This kind of analysis is exactly why Griffin says "Stats don't matter" often in his post-game interviews, particularly after wins. What Simmons neglected to mention is that Griffin did what the great's do. He moved the chains, he got his team into the end-zone and he won a big game, by whatever means necessary.
That's why Griffin's comment to Morris was as astute as was it was telling.
Take a look at these pairs of stat lines:
Quarterback A: 12/22, 123 passing yards, 1 interception, 17 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown
Quarterback B: 9/18, 100 passing yards, 0 interceptions, 63 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown
Running Back A: 30 carries, 157 passing yards, 3 rushing TDs, 2 catches, 8 receiving yards.
Running Back B: 33 carries, 200 passing yards, 3 rushing TDs, 2 catches, 12 receiving yards.
Quarterback B and Running Back B - many Redskins faithful could tell you - is Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris from Sunday night. Quarterback A and Running Back A - I bet Robert Griffin could tell you - is John Elway and Terrell Davis from Super Bowl XXXII.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. In the two games, some fifteen years apart, Griffin and Elway both averaged exactly 5.56 yards per pass on very few pass attempts. Had Kai Forbath knocked in a makeable field goal in the first quarter, the quarterbacks would have lead their teams to identical 31 point scores. And in both games, their dominant running back and carried the offensive load.
Griffin was right on the money. It's far from a coincidence that the biggest game in the career of John Elway and Terrell Davis together happens to be a statistical mirror image of the biggest game to date in the young career's of Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris. Like the rest of us, Griffin got a glimpse of Morris' potential Sunday night. Now more than ever, he sees whats possible for the duo to achieve.
"Look at that" Griffin told Morris, pointing to the FedEx big screen that read 2012 NFC East Champions. The pair were standing next to Michele Tafoya moments before doing their post game interview. "It hasn't been since ‘99. We did it in our first year. The sky's the limit for us." -- the face of the Washington Redskins franchise, speaking to (and from) the heart.
Davis's Place in History
If you're watching the NFL playoffs or preparing yourself mentally for tomorrows clash against the Seahawks, please stop reading now. Thank you and enjoy yourself some football! But if you have a minute - allow me to get something off my chest, because you're not likely to hear the following argument from anyone else out there. And I've been thinking over it more than a decade now.
Sunday night - in front of the largest TV audience for a regular season game in 15 years - Alfred Morris did not just play a great game that happened to be similar to a great game once played by a certain, former great running back. In a huge spot, Morris played the greatest game of his career, which happened to be strikingly reminiscent of - and statistical comparable to - the greatest performance in Super Bowl history, by the greatest football player in (at least) the past thirty years - (SB XXXII and Terrell Davis, respectfully.)
You read that right: for my money, T.D. was the best to ever lace them up. (Or at least that I have ever seen.) In recent months, thanks to a recently uploaded youtube video of the game in its entirety, a conversation with a good friend and a reliable source, and thanks to Alfred Morris's continued progression in a similar zone-stretch scheme - I've reflected more and more about the greatness of Terrell Davis, wondering more and more why he may never receive anything close to the recognition that should come with being an all-time great.
If you're skeptical - and I bet of good number of you are - I would implore you to watch Davis' dominance yourself. (Thank you, Jeromy Lucero for the upload).
In a match-up that famously pitted the lightest offensive line in the NFL that season against the heaviest defensive front in the NFL that season, Davis put an otherwise inferior Broncos team on his back and ripped the defending champion Packers defense apart.
At the time, Denver's victory was the biggest upset in in Super Bowl History. (It was surpassed by Giants in '07). Vegas had the Packers as 11.5 point favorites, the smart $ saying that the Broncos wouldn't be able to contain Brett Favre, Antonio Freeman and the Packers' explosive offense.
In the end, Vegas was right: Denver could not contain Brett Favre and the Packers explosive offense. They could, however, force a few turnovers, and keep the Packers offense off the field for long stretches thanks to the power, agility and vision of one T. D.
Ignore the fact that Davis missed the entire second quarter with temporarily blinding migraine headaches. Seriously forget it - don't count it for or against him. Unlike proponents of Peyton Manning's MVP campaign, I don't think you have to put a performance into the context of how rare and difficult the circumstances are for that individual. Who ever knows how difficult something is for somebody else? I say look at what happened on the field and judge it for that. The fact is Davis came back in the third quarter after his head injury and rushed for over 100 yards and 2 TDs in the second half.
No one man has ever had more influence over the outcome of a Super Bowl than Davis did in ‘98.
The Packers defense included Pro Bowlers at both safety positions, an up-and-coming stud in Darren Sharper, a 370 pound behemoth in Gilbert Brown and an all-time great in Reggie White. They had given up 7 touchdowns in their past 7 games.
None of that mattered.
In a game that John Elway completed barely half of his passes for 123 yards and had an end-zone interception that lead to a 14 point swing, Denver scored more than thirty points and won by seven.
With the game tied in the final minutes, Denver was called for a holding penalty that made it 1st and goal from the Packers 18. The next play Davis slipped by an arm tackle, beat two defenders to the outside and burst ahead for 17 yards before being pushed out of bounds at the 1. The play after that he scored the game-winning TD.
In truth, there were only a handful of Davis' runs that are likely to make a highlight reel. But every one of his thirty carries were the picture of grace in motion, taking maximum advantage of the blocking and the defense in front of him. After the Broncos first six offensive plays - all Davis touches or targets - it's not like the Packers didn't know what was coming. They just couldn't stop it.
In total, Davis had gains of 4, 4, 4(reception), 27, 2, 1(TD), 16, 3, 3, 5, 2, 3, 6, 2, 4, 4, 7, 8, 3, 1, 3, 1(TD), 3, 4(reception), 16, 4, 3, 3, 3, 2, 1, 17 and 1 (TD).
[[goal line run]] [[face mask]]
Those numbers might seem ho-hum to you, but what would jump out to any offensive coordinator in the NFL is that out of his 32 touches Davis didn't have single rush or catch out of the backfield that went for no gain or negative yardage - despite the fact that the Broncos ran numerous sweeps. Outside of goal line situations, Davis only had four carries that went for less than 3 yards, and on one of those carries he absorbed a 300 pound lineman yanking his head half way around four yards deep in his own backfield. He just kept going.
If you watch a few drives of the game, you'll see Packers lineman break into the Bronco backfield on several occasions. It hardly mattered: once they got there they were either grabbing at air or they had their arms flung aside as Davis burst forward. Time and time again, Davis' pure talent - agility, vision and power - turned no gains into 4 yards pick-ups; small cracks into first downs.
His final stat line reads 30 carries for 157 yards, a still-standing Super Bowl record of 3 rushing TDs, and 2 catches for 8 yards. In Super Bowls decided by less than ten points (so, here's not looking at you, Rigo) no running back ever put up anything close to that kind of production.
Consider this: The Denver Broncos had 21 total first downs in Super Bowl XXXII. In the 15 minutes Davis missed battling a migraine headache, they had none.
The fact that Davis probably won't make the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a testament to what's wrong with the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Contrary to popular recollection, Davis didn't help John Elway and Mike Shanahan win back-to-back Super Bowls. Shanahan and Elway helped Terrell Davis take over the NFL.
The man averaged 1.5 Tds and over 143 rushing yards per game - in the playoffs.
The year after his SB MVP performance, Davis won league MVP honors as he became the 4th player in league history to rush for over 2,000 yards. The thing about that season is the Broncos - who were often nursing large leads in their ‘98 run that saw them win 13 straight - rested Davis for a total of 8 full quarters that year, including a pair of entire second halfs. Regardless, Davis rushed for 184 yards (against the Seahawks) to just barely breach the 2,000 mark on the last day of the season.
If it had been a priority for the team or for the player himself, Davis could have easily rushed for 23 or 24 hundred yards in the regular season that year. Instead, Shanahan relied on backup RBs Vaughn Hebron and Derrick Lovelle to salt away game after game.
In the playoffs that year, Davis killed it, running for 199, 167, and a mere 102 in three games, which all ended-up being blow-outs. Although Adrian Peterson does have a chance this season, I would be honestly shocked if anyone ever eclipses the 2476 rushing yards Davis gained in the regular season and playoffs in 1998.
The fact that consistently good, if never spectacular, running backs like Curtis Martin have made the Hall no problem illustrates the bias through which we judge QBs versus position players.
Davis ended his career with an NFL playoff record of seven consecutive 100 yard games, which ties him with Emmitt Smith for most total such games of all-time. (Davis played in 8 playoff games while Smith played in 18.) He also holds the record for postseason yards per carry, 5.6 which is more than half a yard more per carry more than Marcus Allen's 5.0 which is second in playoff history. If I had to bet, I'd say these records will not be broken in the next 50 years. (I'd say in my lifetime - but then how would I collect?)
Eli Manning no doubt will garner serious HOF consideration because he made a few Pro Bowls, and more importantly, he will end his career having played at least 2 great playoffs, helping the Giants secure at least 2 world championships. Manning played great in ‘07 and ‘11: don't get me wrong. But, unlike Davis, Manning did not have unprecedentedly dominating, record-setting , never been seen before - yes I realize I just said three things that all mean the same thing - probably won't ever be seen again playoff runs like T.D had in '97 and '98.
It's easy for me to claim that no one again will rush for over 100 yards in 7-straight postseason games for one simple reason: only the great, Emmitt Smith, playing behind one of the great offensive line's of all-time, ever had as many as three 100-yard post-season games in a row. Who in the past 15 years has ever done it even in back to back games? Or even twice?
On the big stage, no one in league history showed up bigger than T.D. Yes, Jerry Rice had a nice day against the Bengals once upon a time, and John Riggins put on a few shows - but no one had the consistent game after game production of Davis in his (albeit short) prime. Even if you do think Rice or Riggins had better playoffs than Davis had - the fact that it's debatable shows that Davis should be in the HOF alongside those two legends.
How come no one ever asked the question: Does Ladanian Tomlinson have the heart to get the Chargers over the hump? They sure had plenty of talent around him to make some noise. L.T. ended his career with one 100-yard rushing game in 10 playoff outings. (He had a record of 5 and 5). But look at his regular season numbers! (which were no doubt inflated having to go against the Broncos mid-2000's defenses twice a year). All those touchdowns! He's great! The best!
L.T. was at the top of the league for a half a decade and longevity matters - but even at his peak, he couldn't hold a candle to Terrell Davis
Peterson - who I think could potentially surpass Davis one day - so far has one 100-yard rushing game out of 3 playoff games (with a record of 1 and 2). Tonight, if Peterson runs 25 times for 75 yards and the Vikings lose, no one will hold it against him. Instead, we'll say - wow the Packers defense must have stuffed the box and made it impossible for him to do more than he did.
Ask Terrell Davis: impossible is nothing. You can always run through them.
Questions of clutchness and a knack or lack for winning currently haunt ever big-time QB that has never won the big one (or hasn't won it recently enough). Winning and winning at the end of the season is paramount to the ways we judge great pitchers, great hitters, great shooters, great big men, and especially potentially great NFL quarterbacks. So why do we throw those questions out the window when evaluating great ball carriers or great pass-catchers?
When's the last time you heard anyone refer to Ray Rice's career playoff averages when considering his place among the great backs of today. Why not?
Even if position players don't have the final say on the outcome of a game - (and nobody does!) - winning still matters. Calvin Johnson did not have a better season than A.J. Green. Let's get out of fantasyland! That's why Green is still playing and Johnson is not. No, its not necessarily Megatron's fault that his team is terrible - but its definitely not to his credit. Wake me up when your team's good and I'll pay attention.
Because I never played in the NFL I often like to bring it back to a world I better understand: Madden Football. Now, I haven't played the last few additions, so if I wanted to make the playoffs on the hardest difficulty I would have to practice and it might take me a few seasons to do it. But if you asked me to break the all-time rushing or all-time receiving record? I could damn near double them while watching TV.
You might be asking, how could Davis be the greatest player off all-time when he wasn't even the best back of his generation, which was obviously Barry Sanders?
Well, I'll start by saying I love me some Barry Sanders. Of the ten best highlights in the history of the league - five of them are him dancing behind the line of scrimmage, before bursting a big one.
Maybe if Sanders played for Denver in the late nineties he would have played just as well as Davis. Maybe he would have lead the Broncos to wins in all those close playoffs games in ‘97, and all helped them sustain all those blowouts in ‘98. Maybe. Maybe not. I'm not a guy that's going to look at a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper and assume that Barry Sanders - as great as I believe he was- would had the drive, determination and talent to beat three stout, favorites in a row - all on the road - on the way to the biggest upset victory in Super Bowl history. You can't convince of me something that never happened. I don't live in that world.
Sanders played nine great seasons and helped a bad Lions team reach the playoffs several times. He should be commended for that. Terrell Davis, though, defeated all comers for two years in a row. No one in his position has ever been better than that.
It's true that position players are almost always limited by the circumstances of game plans and defensive strategies. Regardless, we too often undervalue their agency in the biggest of games. More men than just the quarterback can put the team on their backs, play out of their minds, and win big NFL games - which we see time after time, come down to one moment of inspiration either way.
Notice I said almost in the first sentence of paragraph above. Davis was not limited by anything when the stage got to be its biggest. It didn't matter what defenses brought his way. He beat them. Davis's will to win those 7 playoff games for the Broncos (only 2 of which were at home) deserves to be placed alongside the Montana's and the Warner's and all the great championship runs we remember.
If you want to compare apples to apples, there is simply no comparison with T.D. amongst running backs in recent history. Since Davis's dominance - I'll ask again - do you know of any running back who has run for even two 100-yard rushing games in their careers, let alone back-to-back?
Like I said, Tomlinson had 1 in his career out of 10 games. Out of 12 career playoff games, Marshall Faulk, who was more of a pass-catcher had one playoff game where he rushed for over 100 yards and six games where we had over 100-total yards from scrimmage. (Davis had eight for eight). Marshawn Lynch had one spectacular playoff run, but so far has only 1 playoff game of over 100 yards out of 2; Frank Gore is 0 of 2; Alfred Morris???
(The way Alfred Morris performed in last week's de facto elimination game, I can't wait to see what he can do in his first playoff game against a Seahawks defense that gave up 4.5 yards per carry to opponents during the regular season. Let's see if he really can be Griffin's Terrell Davis.)
Although his career was curtailed after he suffered a torn ACL trying to make a tackle after a bad interception, Terrell Davis was one of - (I admit, I haven't seem all) - if not the greatest football player of all time. Because he was running back - and he had a typical running back's shelf life - he may never get the credit he deserves and that's a shame. Unfortunately, when the 90's have been all but forgotten, Davis will likely go down as a very good back that helped the great John Elway win 2 Super Bowls. Not a bad legacy - but don't believe it for a second: T.D.was an all-timer in his own right.
But Don't Just Take My Word for It:
On a chilly October day before we played the Vikings this season, I sat down with Mike Shanahan on the porch of his apartment in Reston, Virginia. Among many things, I asked him if he had heard the comparisons people had been making between Terrell Davis and Alfred Morris.
He had, and he did see the likeness: Davis was faster, Morris was stronger and more compact - but in terms of running styles and also in terms of their paths into the NFL, they had a lot of similarities.
Then he said something that took me by surprise, even as it supported my long-held conviction. He said, "[Davis] was the best I've ever been around. He had over 100 yards in every playoff game he played in, except for his first one where I think he had like ninety yards on 15 carries. Without Davis we don't win those Super Bowls. Every playoff game, he just - dominated. "
A man that coached two of the best of quarterbacks of all-time (Elway and Yong) as well as the consensus best receiver ever (Jerry Rice) said in no uncertain terms - Terrell Davis stood alone.
Later, he reminded me that Alfred was young, and getting better. We talked some about Robert Griffin III as well that day. Boy, he is terrific. I don't remember if the name John Elway came up in the conversation. The name Alfred Morris, however, has come up time and time again in every conversation we've had since.