Much of the debate surrounding the anemic offense these last two years has surrounded their quarterback play. While there is no debate that the Redskins quarterback situation represents a major issue going forward, one area that hasn't gotten too much attention is the lack of the Redskins ground attack.
Historically Mike Shanahan has highly valued the running game. During his tenure with the Denver Broncos, his team routinely finished the top 10 in both rushing attempts and yardage (which has some correlation). The Redskins themselves, have also had strong rushing attacks for most of the last 15 years. These last two years though their ground game has been non-existent. This is uncharacteristic of both the Shanahan offense and the Redskins tradition.
The Redskins currently rank 30th in both rushing attempts per game and yards per carry. Last year the Redskins finished the year 31st in rushing attempts and tied for 15th in yards per carry. Now the issue comes down to two main reasons; a weak offensive line, and lack of overall talent and depth at the running back position. Other issues with the play calling and playing from behind are factors, but they are greatly influenced by the primary issues.
The offensive line is no doubt the biggest issue, and I doubt that would come as a surprise to most people. While it is always hard to quantify how much of an impact the line is having (though if you just watch how much penetration the defense gets it is pretty clear), two sources using advanced stats (Pro Football Focus, and Football Outsiders) have given the Skins Line low marks. PFF has the Redskins run blocking (including TE's and FB's) ranked 30th among the 32 teams, for the season. Football Outsiders has the Redskins with an overall ranking of 20th, but is far less favorable in short yardage (27th worst) situations, and rushes for no gain or a loss (29th worst). That is a pretty clear indicator of what needs fixed the most.
The Redskins this past Sunday against Seattle showed how important the running game could be, as rookie running back Roy Helu rushed for over 100 yards on 23 carries (and had a 4.7 ypc). While the ground game only accounted for 4 of the Redskins first downs, it set up a number of 2nd or 3rd and short situations, which helped keep the ball moving. It also made the play action passing element (a staple of the Shanahan offense) far more effective than it had been. Unfortunately most games the Redskins running attack gets stopped cold, which is why upgrading this part of the offense is key. Now this isn't a knock on Roy Helu, who definitely looks to be a significant contributor (if not downright starter). The problem is Helu can't do it alone.
In addition to Helu the Redskins have rookie Evan Royster and Ryan Torain under contract for next year. With this year's starting running back Tim Hightower a free agent, who is likely to resign with the team. Now for some people they'd say that all the Skins have to do is resign Hightower and they are set, but I wouldn't count on that plan working out too well.
If you look around the league, most teams have two or three viable running backs, whom they'd have no problem carrying the load. While the Redskins have Helu, I wouldn't be quick to put Royster, Torain, or Hightower, in that 'viable' category just yet. It's possible that they could be, as Torain and Hightower have shown flashes, but they've also shown some major inconsistencies as well. If the Redskins go into next season with the same four running backs, their rushing attack probably won't improve too much. And if a major injury were to strike Roy Helu, the last thing we'd want the Redskins to do is make a T.J. Duckett type trade or sign someone off the scrap heap like Shaun Alexander.
Don't believe that a strong line of succession is important at running back, especially in today's NFL? Well take a look at the draft strategy of teams the past two years:
Bills: Drafted C.J. Spiller in the top 10 despite having Fred Jackson coming off a 1,000 yard year (and Marshawn Lynch still on the team)
Chiefs: Kansas City used a high 2nd round pick on Dexter McCluster despite already having Jammal Charles in the backfield. Yes they've tried to turn McCluster into a hybrid receiver/runner/returner (hasn't worked), but this still shows the value placed on running backs.
Vikings: Minnesota traded up in the 2nd round to land Toby Gerhart, despite having Adrian Peterson.
Jets: NY traded up in the 4th round to draft Joe McKnight despite having Shonn Greene, LT and Leon Washington (whom they later traded away)
Saints: Despite Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory (who albeit was injured) being productive the previous two years running, the Saints made a big commitment in trading up for Mark Ingram.
Cardinals: The Cards had just used their 2009 first rounder on Beanie Wells, and while he was coming off a bad year, they also had Tim Hightower in place. Yet they still grabbed Ryan Williams with their high 2nd rounder
Patriots: Despite BenJarvis Green-Ellis coming off a 1,000 yard year, they used 2nd and 3rd round picks on backs.
Lions: The year prior the Lions traded into the first round for Javid Best, now they traded into the 2nd round for M. Leshoure.
Cowboys: Despite having former 1st rounder Felix Jones and one time promising back Tashard Choice on the roster the Cowboys drafted D. Murray.
And the 4th round saw a number of teams grab backs despite seemingly good situations: 49ers: drafted Hunter, despite having Gore; Jets draft Powell, despite Greene, LT, and McKnight, Colts drafted D. Carter despite 2 former 1st round picks on the roster, Raiders drafted T.Jones despite Michael Bush and D. McFadden, and the Titans drafted J. Harper despite Chris Johnson.
While the Redskins will likely use their main free agent and draft focus on fixing the quarterback and offensive line needs, they can't ignore their needs in the backfield. Adding a mid-tier free agent and a 4th or 5th round pick to the mix could go a long way to improving the Redskins outlook. Whether the Redskins start a rookie quarterback or have a place holder for next year, one of the best ways they can help ensure success is by having a strong running game.