Digging Deeper: Mike Shanahan's One-Cut-and-Go Running Backs

By now, we all know Mike Shanahan's running philosophy - one cut, and get upfield. No dancing, no Marcus Allen runs, of 10 yards in one direction, stop on a dime, then reverse field, and take it to the house(yeah, I know this is a painful memory for Redskins fans). Shanny likes his backs to be patient, wait for a hole(or as it is now referred to in the NFL, a seam), plant that lateral foot, and explode up field. He also values the cut-back, as the zone stretch is designed to get defenders moving in the same direction, and linemen, as backside blockers, can often force the backside defenders past the point of attack, thus creating the vertical cut-back alley on the back side. This style of running back has been a staple of the Shanahan offense for years. Terrell Davis, Orlandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis, Tatum Bell, Reuben Droughns, Mike Bell, Selvin Young, and Peyton Hillis, were all running backs who thrived in the Shanahan system, and aside from Portis(who had breakaway speed), none of these guys were very special. In fact, most of the running backs on this list were later round draft picks.

The genius of Mike Shanahan took these running backs, inserted them into his zone blocking system, watched them thrive, then traded away many of them for players or draft picks. Shanahan traded Clinton Portis to the Redskins, after coming off back-to-back 1500 yards seasons, for the best cover corner in the NFl, Champ Bailey, and a draft pick(let me repeat that - Bailey, AND A DRAFT PICK!). That pick was used to aquire Tatum Bell. Bell had a 1000 yard season with Denver before being part of a trade that brought the Broncos Dre Bly. Shanahan also got some value in trades for Droughns and Hillis.

Now, the one-cut running back that is able to thrive in Mike Shanahan's system is usually not a household name; not because Mike does like household names, but rather because he feels he can find value in this style of running back later in the draft. 2011 fourth round selection Roy Helu out of Nebraska is a perfect example of this.

Helu is a 6' 220 pound back with excellent speed, good power and vision, solid hands, and a willing blocker. Helu excelled in Nebraska's inside and outside zone scheme, that utilized the stretch, toss, dart and read. The system employed athletic linemen, and the duel-threat ability of quarterback Taylor Martinez to make life easier on running backs. Patience, vision, misdirection, and speed were all vital aspects of the Nebraska rushing attack that saw Roy Helu amass 1245 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior. He had a whopping 6.8 yards per carry average, and only lost 47 rushing yards on the season - in other words, Helu was always getting positive gains. So why did a running back as productive as Helu slip to the fourth round?

Evan Royster, a sixth round draft choice in 2011 is another Shanahan type of back. Although he does not have Helu's speed, Royster is very similar in that he has great vision and patience, good hands, and always seems to be going forward. Royster has great balance, and seems to turn his body just enough on contact to deflect the hits, and always fall ahead. Royster was Penn States all-time leading rusher surpassing blue and white greats such as Curt Warner, Franco Harris, Ki-Jana Carter, Larry Johnson, Blair Thomas and D.J. Dozier to name a few.

Now, there are some great running backs in the NFL today. Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, Frank Gore, Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, Steven Jackson, Michael Turner, Matt Forte, Rashard Mendenhall, DeAngelo Williams, Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew to name a few. Aside from Foster and Turner all of the other backs are higher round picks. Now, in the Mike Shanahan system, we as Redskins fans have the luxury of not having to spend as high a draft pick on running back, yet hopefully, if history holds true, gain as equal, or greater reward from these later round gems Shanahan is able to find.

Is the zone, one-cut running back truely skillful, or is this type of back simply a product of a productive system? In Denver, I would say it was the latter, but in Washington, that chapter has yet to be written. Hopefull, we'll all soon find out.